A correctional officer at an immigrant detention center in Rhode Island drove a pickup truck into a crowd of protesters late Wednesday night, injuring several people, the protesters said.
Videos of the confrontation show a truck turning toward a line of seated protesters who were blocking the entrance to a parking lot at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls. People immediately jumped up, shouting while the driver honked his horn.
The driver ― a Wyatt prison guard ― paused for a moment as the protesters gathered around. Then, he tried to drive straight through the crowd before stopping again.
Minutes later, additional officers arrived and used pepper spray on the protesters, clearing enough space for the truck to pass through.
Natalie Lerner, a 23-year-old Jewish activist from Providence, Rhode Island, told HuffPost that she was in the line of the vehicle when it first approached.
“I was kneeling down to talk to one of the other people who was sitting to get arrested and he got this look of fear,” Lerner recalled. “I turned around and this car was right behind me, coming right toward me.”
At least five people were treated at a hospital for injuries sustained during the confrontation, Lerner said, including one person who was still hospitalized Thursday afternoon with a broken leg. An older woman was pepper-sprayed at “incredibly close range,” she said.
Lerner said she and other protesters were frightened ― and angered ― by officers’ actions during the incident.
“If this is how you’re treating us, a group of mostly white, mostly citizens who aren’t in prison, who are out in the open, how are you treating people on the inside?” she asked.
A video of the confrontation can be viewed below.
The Wyatt Detention Facility said it is conducting a “top to bottom” review of the incident, its officers’ response and its protocols for protests occurring outside the center. The officer driving the truck, identified as Capt. Thomas Woodworth, has been placed on administrative leave pending the results of the internal inquiry and a separate investigation conducted by Rhode Island’s state police.
“The Wyatt supports the First Amendment right of citizens to peacefully protest on public property surrounding the facility, and the First Amendment right of journalists to report on the facility,” the center said in a statement.
The Wyatt Detention Facility is a “publicly owned and privately operated” correctional institution, according to its website. It began housing Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees in March, 10 years after a migrant’s death there put a temporary end to the practice.
Wednesday’s protest was part of Never Again Action, a movement by young, progressive Jews who believe saying “Never again” to the horrors of the Holocaust means speaking up about the U.S. government’s current treatment of migrants. Since early July, these activists have been organizing protests at ICE centers across the country, including in Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco.
The activists are calling on Congress to shut down ICE, close the detention centers, and offer “freedom and permanent protection for all undocumented immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.”
ICE personnel were not involved in the protest response at the Wyatt Detention Facility, the federal agency said in a statement.
Eighteen people were arrested during an earlier Never Again Action protest at the facility on July 2.
Lerner said that hundreds of protesters, some with Never Again Action and others from local immigration advocacy groups, gathered at the detention center on Wednesday. They tried to deliver a letter to the warden demanding more transparency at the facility. When no one came out to meet with them, Lerner said the group decided to “shut down Wyatt,” first by blocking the entrance to the facility and then by blocking the staff parking lot.
“We were sending the message that if folks in immigrant detention can’t get home to see their families, people who are aiding and abetting that can’t go home to see their families,” she said.
The individuals who sat on the ground at the parking lot entrance had willingly signed up to risk arrest during an act of civil disobedience, according to Lerner, who helped lead training for the demonstration. She said protesters were given guidance on what to do if police used force during an arrest and how to deescalate the situation if a bystander tried to start a fight. People who weren’t willing to risk arrest were told to stay back and not interact with police.
But Lerner said none of the activists expected they would be facing down a moving vehicle.
“Having something like a car barreling towards you and not stopping when you’re peacefully protesting is a totally terrifying experience,” Lerner said. “We were not anticipating really anybody, but especially an employee of the Wyatt, to drive a car through the protest.”
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) expressed “outrage” about the incident on Thursday.
“President Trump’s immigration policies are immoral, and these Rhode Islanders were exercising their constitutional right to protest,’’ the governor said.
The Rhode Island attorney general’s office has also said it is investigating the incident.
“Peaceful protest is a fundamental right of all Americans; it is unfortunate last night’s situation unfolded as it did. We urge all to exercise restraint as our investigation proceeds,” the office said in a statement on Thursday.
The confrontation has left Never Again Action even more determined to stand up against ICE, Lerner said.
“It was totally unacceptable what happened, and it’s pretty clear to me that we will continue protesting Wyatt and continue protesting what ICE is doing here in Rhode Island and beyond,” Lerner said.
This article has been updated with more information about the injury sustained by one protester and with comments from the Wyatt Detention Facility and ICE.