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Friday, October 25, 2019

Grand Jury in Wyatt private prison assault case fulfill Justin Price’s dream

Editorial: Remember that time the General Assembly considered allowing motorists to run over protesters?

In March 2017 the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on Rep. Justin Price (Republican, District 39, Richmond, Exeter, Hopkinton)’s bill, H5690, that “would provide that a person driving an automobile who is exercising due care and injures another person who is participating in a protest or demonstration and is blocking traffic in a public right-of-way shall be immune from civil liability for such injury.”

Related image
Justin Price (left) with his pod-mate Rep. Blake (Flip) Filippi (R-Charlestown)
“This stems back to 2014, when we had some protesters blocking 95 in Providence,” said Price by way of explanation, 

“It’s really a safety issue… During this protest I was stuck in traffic, I witnessed cars traveling south in a northbound lane, exiting on on-ramps, just because people are confused, scared… protests can very quickly become a riot, so people want to not be involved in that so if someone is demonstrating due care, they should be able to pass through… peaceful protests… peaceful protests should let people pass through and there would be no injuries… so I feel that this bill… people should be able to protest and also proceed, travel freely without any civil liability.”

At that hearing, eight people testified against the bill. One of the more interesting parts of the hearing occurred just after Steve Brown of the Rhode Island ACLU finished his testimony

Price asked Brown if people blocking the highway are engaged in peaceful protest. He wanted to know if Brown believed that people blocking the highway have “more rights” than people traveling on the highway.

As Brown attempted to answer, Price cut him off. “But if you’re illegally, if you’re illegally, if you’re violating the law…”

“That’s making an excuse for someone to run you over,” said Brown.

“I’m not- Does it say ‘run you over?'” asked Price, angrily pointing at the bill on his screen, “Does it say ‘run you over?'” 


As Brown attempted to answer, Price merely repeated the question again, drowning him out. When Representative Edie Ajello, who was chairing the committee at that moment, attempted to intervene, (Committee Chair Cale Keable was temporarily out of the room) Price asked Ajello, “Does it say ‘run you over?'”

“It does not,” admitted Brown. 

“People blocking the street because of a protest or demonstration should not lose any rights they have or be chilled from engaging in [a protest or demonstration] as opposed to somebody who’s blocking the street along with many others because they’re celebrating the Patriots. I think that is a clear violation of the First Amendment, and an attempt to chill protests and demonstrations, the exercise of free speech rights.”

Price asked if not passing the legislation “chills people traveling in their daily lives when there are protesters blocking them and they’re going to be held liable for gradually moving through a protest?”
Chair Keable, who had returned to the room, interrupted. “Representative Price, stay on the bill.”

“This is the bill!” objected Price.

No one spoke in favor of Price’s legislation. The bill was “held for further study” meaning that no further action was taken, and the bill has not been reintroduced.

Not that Price’s bill turned out to be necessary. 

A grand jury in Rhode Island decided there would be no charges against Thomas Woodworth, a Wyatt Detention Center correctional officer who drove his truck into a group of peaceful protesters. 

The act was caught on video, and over 70 witness statements were taken, and many witnesses called to testify.

Those witnesses who testified before the grand jury describe prosecutors, who Attorney General Peter Neronha describes as the best he has and in whom he has complete faith, as leading the grand jury to believe that the protesters were somehow at fault.

Ultimately, we can’t know what motivated the grand jury in making their decision to not bring charges against Thomas Woodworth. But the “logic” may certainly be the same as that which motivated Representative Price when he introduced his legislation.

During the hearing for his bill, Price said he was upset about people blocking a highway in protest, even as he denied knowing what the protest was about or that he knew that it was mostly people of color blocking the highway. 

He suggested that George Soros, a figure at the center of many unhinged, antisemitic conspiracy theories, was funding protesters.

Back when Price submitted his bill in the General Assembly, the bill felt extreme, and almost humorous. The bill was so out there, so anti-first amendment, so unAmerican, it seemed more like satire than reality. But four months after Price introduced his ill-fated bill, Heather Hyer was run down and killed by a white supremacist in Charlottesville.

Suddenly it wasn’t funny anymore.

When the truck drove into the protesters outside the Wyatt, I was right there, filming it. My first thought was that people might be hurt like in Charlottesville, or under the truck. 

I wanted to make sure the driver of the vehicle stopped moving, so as to not further injure anyone else. That’s what motivated me to run to the window of the truck. My second thought was relief, as everyone seemed mostly okay, most injuries seemed minor.

Then the pepper spray attack commenced as angry correctional officers streamed out of the Wyatt with violent intent, and it occurred to me that if you can drive a multi-ton lethal weapon into a crowd of peaceful, singing protesters, why not engage in casual assault with chemical weaponry?

On a personal note, I cover virtually every protest and rally in the state as a reporter. Outside the Attorney General’s Providence office covering the Never Again Action protest in response to the Attorney General’s decision, I felt less safe, standing on the sidewalk by a busy street, wondering if the next passing driver had heard the news, and had a grudge against protesters to settle. 

I saw two Rhode Island State Troopers and three Providence police officers nearby, taking orders directly from Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré. Their presence did not make me feel safer.

At the press conference, Attorney General Neronha, the highest ranking law enforcement official in the state, said that the lesson he learned from the “unfortunate incident” at the Wyatt is that protests need more police presence to ensure the safety of protesters. Did he forget that the perpetrators of the violence was entirely on the part of correctional officers, people who are, at the very least, law enforcement adjacent?

When I saw the police officers at yesterday’s protest, it was impossible for me not to forget that.

Steve Ahlquist is a frontline reporter in Rhode Island. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for half a decade. Uprise RI is his new project, and he's doing all he can to make it essential reading. atomicsteve@gmail.com