By VINNY GROSSMAN
Five protesters and a passerby continue to face charges ranging from breach of peace to “inciting a riot” in Stamford, Conn. These charges stem from a peaceful demonstration that was attacked by the Stamford Police Department (SPD) on Aug. 8, 2020.
Activists with Justice for Steven Barrier have combed through footage of that day from police body cameras released by the city. (Steven Barrier died in Stamford police custody in 2019 under suspicious circumstances.) The videos paint a picture starkly different from that given by the SPD. Officers, apparently at the direction of Captain Diedrich Hohn, taunted, harassed, and, ultimately, violently escalated the policing of the otherwise peaceful march. Nevertheless, an Internal Affairs Office review by the SPD found the police violence, which included aggressively shoving and punching protesters, to be “reasonable force.”
Cops go back on their word
In the first piece of footage available on the Stamford government website dedicated to the Aug. 8 incidents, Captain Hohn explicitly tells demonstrators preparing for the march in a Home Depot parking lot that if less than 15 people are in attendance he “might keep” them on the sidewalk but if there were more than 15 he would “help them out with the roads.” There was no indication of when this privilege would end. Throughout the day, officers are seen discussing how to control traffic to allow demonstrators to march back to Home Depot.
According to the police report, at 2:38 p.m. “Captain Hohn determined that the march/protest was over and these new developments were the actions of an angry mob intent on causing disruption to the downtown restaurant area and to vehicular traffic.” The “actions” were conversations with diners at open-air restaurants on Bedford Street, most of whom were supportive of the march, as evidenced by cheering and cars honking as the demonstration passed through (~5 mins). One such “action” was marchers hugging their friends who were having lunch (5:30). Someone can be heard briefly yelling pro-police slogans, but the marchers did not escalate anything and the demonstration continued.
Footage from another officer shows a large number of people peacefully marching and turning the corner of Bedford and Broad Street. Officer Hohn estimated at the time that there were between 60 and 70 marchers at this point (9:10). This indicates that the character of the march had not changed and that it still had well above the critical mass of supporters than the minimum of 15 for which the police had offered to help with a street march. In another clip, officers can be heard preparing for the demonstration to pass Stillwater Ave., which indicates that they were planning on doing traffic control back to the starting point at Home Depot (4:30-8:00).
Police get violent
Around 4:50 p.m., an officer can be heard on the radio giving the instructions to “go grab one of those agitators” (25:35). Given the fact that the march was peaceful, remained in line with the previously agreed upon rules given by Capt Hohn, and the police were directing traffic, silencing “agitators” would appear to be the real reason that the police broke up the protest.
The meaning of “agitators” in this context is unclear. For example, Hohn is heard multiple times throughout the body-cam footage calling people he recognizes from Black Lives Matter demonstrations in other towns “agitators.” A few minutes before moving to end the demonstration, Hohn is on the radio describing one marcher as “inciting a riot” due to her emotional reaction to earlier threats by the police to arrest protesters. Given the derisive commentary from officers throughout all of the footage, as well as the focus of the Internal Affairs report on slogans including “ACAB” and “fuck the police,” the term “agitator” appears to simply indicate people exercising their democratic right to publicly air their political opinions.
According to the report, the first arrest occurred at 4:53 p.m. This can be seen from Hohn’s perspective in his body-cam footage. Hohn got out of his car around 4:51 p.m., telling people to “move on” and “stop blocking traffic,” despite the fact that traffic was being blocked by the police who were doing traffic control. Hohn tells the crowd that they are “being arrested” although it is not stated why. Similarly, he points at people and calls them out by name telling them that there will be warrants “at their next traffic stop.”
The Stamford Police Department is known for making empty and arbitrary threats against activists. One prominent example was an unsigned and unenforceable letter in July from an officer in a totally different part of town telling activists at a Latham Park abolitionist encampment to “pack up your tents and leave.”
The footage shows that everyone complies with the request to continue moving and not “block traffic.” A man in a blue hat asks the officers, “what do you think you’re doing?” as he walks with the crowd back to the starting point of the march. Hohn signals towards him and at least two officers tackle the man to the ground. In the Internal Affairs report, the protester is said to have “passively resisted and then started to run away” (page 3), but there was no chance for him to “passively resist.” The video clearly shows him walking along the expected march route, not being told he specifically is under arrest, and then is tackled from behind. He had previously been motioning other protesters to continue marching along the route per Hohn’s apparent instructions (17:12-17:30).
From here, the police start arbitrarily attacking people from the crowd. The Internal Affairs report says that Lieutenant Loto called a “signal that an officer[s] are in serious, possibly life-threatening trouble, and all available units should respond immediately to help” (page 4). How the situation seemed to warrant this response is left unexplained. In any case, the physical escalation was one-sided and totally instigated and sustained by the police. A quintessential example is footage showing an officer running out of his car to aggressively pull people to the ground, despite their posing no ascertainable risk to anyone (40 seconds). Similarly, an officer punched the woman Hohn had been singling out for retribution in the face as she came to the aid of another woman being attacked by the cops (3:12 and from another angle at 28:03).
No isolated incidents
The behavior of the SPD on Aug. 8, 2020, is just one local example of a nationwide epidemic of police repression against democratic rights. Over 14,000 protesters were arrested between March 27 and June 22 of last year. A recent New York Times review of investigations into protest policing around the country concludes that police regularly escalated situations and used unnecessary force. The article states: “The mistakes transcended geography, staffing levels and financial resources. From midsize departments like the one in Indianapolis to big-city forces like New York City’s, from top commanders to officers on the beat, police officers nationwide were unprepared to calm the summer’s unrest, and their approaches consistently did the opposite. In many ways, the problems highlighted in the reports are fundamental to modern American policing, a demonstration of the aggressive tactics that had infuriated many of the protesters to begin with.”
As Socialist Resurgence has reported, these attacks on protests should be seen as part of a general ruling-class offensive against democratic rights. As the economic, climate, and health crises deepen and the international status of U.S imperialism continues to decline, fights to protect basic democratic liberties will become increasingly necessary as the capitalists attempt to protect their interests by quelling the ecological, racial, and economic justice movements. The sharp increase of anti-protest laws following first Ferguson, then Standing Rock, and now the George Floyd upsurges are examples of this dynamic.
Community support for democratic rights
In response to the arrests, a number of local activists and community members have formed a grouping called the Stamford Mass Defense Coalition, which includes labor, environmental, civil rights, interfaith, and other community groups. The purpose of the SMDC is to mobilize community support in calling for all charges to be dropped against the people arrested on Aug. 8. As of this writing, 1041 people have signed an online petition in defense of democratic rights in Stamford and everywhere.
Activists with the SMDC have also begun to collect in-person petition signatures in the community. At least 150 people have already signed that petition, mostly from the West End, where Steven Barrier lived. Virtually everyone that spoke with members of the coalition supported the charges being dropped and the right to protest. Petitioning also created space to talk about the continuing fight for Justice for Steven Barrier.
Photo: Still from body-cam footage showing police officers “forming a line” and confronting a pedestrian 30:30