The protesters were sitting on the pavement to block staff from parking at a Rhode Island prison that works with Immigration and Customs Enforcement when a black pickup truck swerved toward them. The protesters shouted as the driver laid on the horn, and the truck briefly stopped.
And then, the driver hit the gas.
In a viral video captured by bystanders, the protesters screamed and jumped out of the way. Several were struck, according to organizers of the Wednesday night demonstration at the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls. Some were treated at a hospital, though none were severely injured.
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“It was terrifying because we didn’t know what exactly his intention was,” Amy Anthony, a spokesman for Never Again Action, a Jewish activist group that planned the protest, told The Washington Post. “It certainly appeared he was trying to hit us.”
The driver, protesters say, was a correctional officer employed by the privately run facility who was wearing a badge and a uniform – an assertion backed up by video of the incident. Local police officers working at the protest did not intervene, Anthony said, and the driver eventually walked into the prison after other guards pepper-sprayed the protesters.
“It’s obvious that there was an assault that took place,” Anthony said. “We’re not sure what we can do now.”
An employee reached by phone at the Wyatt Detention Facility declined to comment early on Thursday. Messages left for the Central Falls Police Department and ICE weren’t immediately returned.
The confrontation took place during a wave of protests around the country by Jewish groups against ICE, including a demonstration that shut down part of Manhattan’s West Side Highway on Saturday, leading police to arrest nearly 100 protesters.
Anthony’s group, which ties its activism to preventing future atrocities like the Holocaust, arrived at the prison around 7 p.m. on Wednesday. The Wyatt Detention Facility, which describes itself as a “quasi-public corporation,” the Providence Journal reported, has contracts with ICE to house immigration detainees. The facility is operated by the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation and is overseen by a board appointed by the mayor of Central Falls, located about seven miles north of Providence.
About 30 protesters first shut down the main entrance to the prison by linking arms and sitting on the ground, Anthony said. Around 9 p.m., they moved to block the driveways into the staff parking lot. About 45 minutes later, the black pickup showed up.
“The truck kind of swerved to sort of pick up speed,” Anthony said. “It felt unreal to see this happening and to see that someone was actively driving into a group of people who, as I say, were peacefully sitting.”
The group included children and one protester in a wheelchair, Anthony said.
Before the truck could get through to the parking lot, though, protesters gathered on the other side of the gate, shouting “Shame!” Moments later, other guards from the prison rushed across the street to surround the protesters and then fired pepper spray.
After the demonstrators fled the pepper spray, the driver parked in the lot and then walked into the prison, Anthony said.
Although Central Falls police were on the scene, they did not get involved, Anthony said, and officers later refused to take statements from protesters. Organizers are discussing what legal recourse they might have now.
Anthony said the incident hardened her group’s resolve to continue protesting ICE and prisons that work with the federal agency.
“If this is the way this correctional officer is behaving in public when people are recording, it’s not hard to imagine the behavior is much worse behind the walls in the facility where no one can see what is happening,” she said.