DNC protesters sought Congress’s attention. Police saw a threat.

Trisha D.
11 Min Read

The protesters wore black shirts that read “cease fire now” and linked arms, their backs to the Democratic National Committee headquarters entrance, video and photos of the scene show.

They knew it was risky; that people could be arrested for blocking the entryways. Yet after weeks of calling lawmakers and demonstrating inside the Capitol and congressional office buildings, organizers said they thought speaking to elected leaders directly on their way in and out of a private event was the next step to make their voices heard.

By the end of the night, the Capitol Police said, six officers were injured in clashes, while protesters tallied 90 among their ranks who suffered minor injuries. D.C. fire department spokesman Noah Gray said no one was taken to the hospital. Each side says the other was at fault. Capitol police arrested one man on charges of assaulting an officer.

Demonstrators calling for a cease-fire in Gaza clashed with police Nov. 15 outside the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

The one agreement among police and demonstrators was that after encountering each other at many Israel-Gaza war protests in Washington for more than a month, what unfolded Wednesday night was completely different.

“It is a very serious situation when members [of Congress] are in a private building and people are blocking all the entrances and exits and banging on the building,” said Tim Barber, a Capitol Police spokesman.

Several lawmakers and police described decisive and professional action from the Capitol Police to keep the members inside safe; protesters on the ground saw it as an unprompted and overly aggressive response. At no point, protest organizers said, was the group trying to break into the building.

“This was a nonviolent protest using similar tactics I’ve seen used all month,” said Eva Borgwardt of the Jewish group IfNotNow, who was among the protesters Wednesday night.

This clash between police and protesters may also point to a change in Capitol Police posture following the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, said Charles H. Ramsey, who served as chief of the D.C. police department from 1998 through 2006. Since then, he noted, violent rhetoric and threats against lawmakers have increased.

Ramsey said he was not comparing the protesters outside the DNC headquarters to Jan. 6 rioters, but he said that now, police “certainly will not take for granted any longer that things like that can’t happen.”

“You’ve got members of Congress inside the building,” said Ramsey, who is now a commentator on police issues on CNN. “Jan. 6. Lessons learned.”

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), Minority Whip Katherine M. Clark (Mass.), Democratic Caucus Chairman Pete Aguilar (Calif.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairwoman Rep. Suzan DelBene (Wash.) said in a joint statement that “some protesters escalated their activity in a manner that exceeded a peaceful demonstration.”

“We are thankful for the service and professionalism of the U.S. Capitol Police officers who worked to ensure that Members, staff and visitors were able to safely exit,” the members said in the statement. “We strongly support the First Amendment right to freedom of expression and encourage anyone exercising that right to do so peacefully.”

Over the past month, protesters have used a wide range of strategies to demand a cease-fire or a halt to Israeli bombing of Gaza.

Cease-fire advocates have shut down a bridge in San Francisco, protested the departure of a ship in Tacoma, Wash., brought their demands to the base of the Statue of Liberty, held sit-ins in train stations and marched in the nation’s capital.

From Oct. 7 to Nov. 15, the Crowd Counting Consortium, an academic project tracking protests across the United States, has tallied 1,831 vigils and protests in response to the war. Of those, 415 were pro-Israel, while 1,416 were in support of Palestinians.

On Wednesday night, an interfaith group of about 150 people, including Jewish Americans, brought those calls for a cease-fire to the DNC headquarters.

A group of officers arrived on the scene at 7:20 p.m. to respond “to a large pro-Palestinian protest that was blocking entrances and trying to gain entry into the building,” according to a police account filed in D.C. Superior Court. A D.C. police spokesman said officers from the D.C. agency assisted Capitol police at the demonstration.

In court records, police wrote that protesters were locking arms while blocking the garage exit of the building, which was designated as an emergency exit for congressional members and staff.

The Capitol Police said in a statement that protesters defied instructions to move back from the building, where inside, Democratic leaders including House Minority Leader Jeffries gathered for a private event and were now unable to leave safely.

A protester identified as Ruben Arthur Camacho, 24, of Woodridge, N.Y., was able to free himself from an officer’s grasp and slam an officer against the garage, police wrote in court records. Then, police alleged, Camacho hit the Capitol Police officer’s face.

As he was handcuffed, he said: “I was only defending myself,” according to police.

Camacho pleaded not guilty during an arraignment Thursday in D.C. Superior Court and was released on the pretrial condition to stay away from the 400 block of South Capitol Street SE, where the DNC headquarters is located, records show. Mark Goldstone, an attorney representing Camacho, declined to comment.

Capitol police said they didn’t try to clear the area until protesters moved dumpsters in front of doors, pepper-sprayed officers and tried to move bike racks.

Overall, the Capitol Police said in a statement, officers have handled “hundreds of peaceful protests,” but this group was not one of them.

The protesters denied those claims and said no one was trying to enter the building or using force against police officers.

Protest organizers said they were outside the DNC to catch the ears of Democratic leaders and lawmakers and demand that they support a cease-fire in the war. The protesters, including many Jewish Americans, said they brought electronic candles representing the thousands killed in the conflict and planned to encourage elected leaders to take a candle on their way home.

Protesters shared video snippets of the clashes on social media showing moments where police were pulling and shoving demonstrators whose arms were locked and feet remained planted in front of a DNC entrance. In one clip, an officer appears to shove someone who in turn falls down the stairs. In another photo, a Capitol Police officer is seen deploying a chemical irritant at another person. The ACLU of D.C. pointed to videos of the protest in a statement calling for an investigation into the police response.

“Our intent in blocking various entrances was to make one path for Congress, people and elected officials coming and going so that we could speak to them,” said Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg, a rabbinical council member with Jewish Voice for Peace who was at the protest. “The police have tools to deal with nonviolent civil disobedience, and last night they chose not to use them. And I want to know why.”

Devan Spear, 28, of Philadelphia was among the protesters outside the DNC garage doors, locking arms with those beside her. She acknowledged that police instructed the group to move but said they did not warn protesters of the consequences of noncompliance, such as mass arrests or physical removal from the area.

Instead, Spear thought defying these initial police orders would lead to something she had experienced at other protests in Philadelphia: Police officers zip-tying demonstrators, putting them in a van and processing citations. This kind of peaceful arrest happens often during protests, including in the nation’s capital, where people are routinely arrested for demonstrating inside congressional buildings.

Amid the chaos, she said, it was hard to understand where police wanted her and others to go. Then, she said, officers grabbed her.

“I was thrown onto the concrete. And then when I got up, they were still throwing us. They were throwing us into each other,” she said. “At one point I was still on the ground when they were throwing more folks on top of me and past me. … It was incredibly confusing and contradictory and there wasn’t a way for us to totally understand where they wanted us to be.”

On Thursday morning, Spear awoke with a pounding headache and felt nauseated. She went to urgent care and was diagnosed with a concussion.

Marianna Sotomayor contributed to this report.

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