State Politics

NC woman and 10-year-old son pepper-sprayed at Trump’s inauguration are suing DC police

Protesters burn trash cans during the demonstration downtown Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, during the inauguration of President Donald Trump.
Protesters burn trash cans during the demonstration downtown Washington, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, during the inauguration of President Donald Trump. AP

A North Carolina woman and her elementary school-aged son, who were among the protesters pepper-sprayed or arrested on President Donald Trump’s inauguration day, have joined a lawsuit against the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department.

Gwen Frisbie-Fulton of Greensboro and her son, who was 10 at the time and identified in court documents only by his initials, contend that police arrested other protesters on Jan. 20 while trying to subdue a violent disturbance created by a few.

The lawsuit was initially filed in June by the American Civil Liberties Union and was amended on Wednesday. It claims Frisbie-Fulton and her son suffered abuse after officers indiscriminately fired pepper spray in 30-foot plumes, detained people for up to 16 hours without food, water or bathrooms and subjected some to body cavity searches after the unrest on the day Trump was sworn in to office.

Frisbie-Fulton, a single mother who has made her career working for nonprofit organizations against violence and poverty, described her experience and her reasons for joining the lawsuit in a blog post.

She let her son stay up late on election night in 2016 because he was interested in the presidential race. His concerns about Trump’s victory and his desire to protest the results the day before joining in the Women’s March were “rooted in his personal values for kindness and respect,” Frisbie-Fulton wrote in her blog post.

So mother and son decided to take a weekend adventure, first acquiring inauguration day passes that they hoped would go in a memory box, and then joining the crowds of women who turned out to march through the capital the next day.

“After we spent a few hours protesting, I learned that a friend was being detained,” Frisbie-Fulton wrote. “When we got to the location, people had gathered across from where a large group of protestors had been cornered by police. A. stood on the base of a lamp post so he could wave to the people he knew. He chanted ‘Let them go!’ gleefully with other protesters. We talked with friends. We shared some of the snacks I had packed in my backpack. We were there for more than half an hour without incident.”

Without warning, she said, things changed quickly.

“An officer pulled out pepper spray a little ways away from us,” Frisbie-Fulton wrote.

As they tried to leave, she said, a line of police rushed forward and knocked her son down.

“Instinctually, I jumped on top of him, rounding my back to create a pocket under my body so he wouldn’t be crushed. I felt people being knocked around above us,” she said. Her son, underneath her, was crying.

She stood up when she was able and turned to go, she said, but police officers blocked her.

“You shouldn’t have brought your kid,” was one officer’s answer.

“Clouds of pepper spray filled the street and the noise from flash-bangs ricocheted off the buildings,” Frisbie-Fulton recalled. “One officer tried to help us, yelling ‘she has a child, she has a child!’ and running beside us but we lost him. Many of the officers were masked; wearing all black and helmets so you couldn’t tell them apart.”

With her son cradled in her arms, Frisbie-Fulton said she ran toward where she thought she would be safe — toward the protesters.

Kettling, pepper spray and flash-band grenades

Eventually they escaped the crowd and got to a Metro station where they could leave the chaos behind. But what happened that day continues to mar their memories of the trip.

“Protest is not just a protected liberty; it is essential to community life,” Frisbie-Fulton wrote. “For me, protest is a logical continuation of the everyday community change work that I engage in; for nearly 20 years, I have made my career working for anti-violence and anti-poverty nonprofits. Likewise, for parents, protest is a logical continuation of the values we teach our children (stand up to bullies, speak out, befriend the kid who has been treated unfairly).”

The amended complaint filed this week identifies 27 police officers, including eight supervisors, who plaintiffs allege engaged in unconstitutional behavior.

The filing comes nearly two weeks after a D.C. Superior Court found six protesters arrested on that day not guilty on all charges.

“We hope the recent verdict begins the important work of teaching police and prosecutors to respect constitutionally protected protest,” Scott Michelman, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of the District of Columbia, said in a statement. “No one should have to fear arrest or prosecution for coming to the nation’s capital to express opinions peacefully, no matter what those opinions may be. Through our civil lawsuit against the police, the ACLU-DC will continue to fight for demonstrators’ constitutional rights.”

The lawsuit accuses the officers of violating District of Columbia laws by “kettling” protesters, or corralling them into an area where they are detained before being formally arrested. The police also are accused of failing to give a dispersal order before deploying pepper spray and flash-bang grenades against demonstrators. Both are violations of D.C.’s First Amendment Assemblies Act, according to the ACLU lawsuit.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1