A prison worker barreled his truck through a crowd of protesters outside a Rhode Island facility on Wednesday night, putting a 67-year-old man in the hospital overnight.
Captain Thomas Woodworth struck Jerry Belair and another local who were part of a protest against Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) use of the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls.
Locals said Woodworth had resigned late Friday afternoon. When asked if he had, a human resources official at Wyatt said “no comment” and hung up the phone.
Though emergency room staff initially diagnosed Belair with a broken leg, he told ThinkProgress on Friday that an orthopedist later determined he had at worst a hairline fracture that would not require a cast. He was in the hospital for a little over 13 hours in total before being sent home with instructions to follow up with his primary doctor in a week.
“The short of it is, I’m fine,” Belair said in an interview. “Everybody wants to focus on the injuries and stuff. They should be focused on the First Amendment.”
Belair said he thought he had left his civil disobedience days behind him, describing his role in mass actions at nuclear weapon plants in the 1980s. The current treatment of immigrants changed his mind, he said.
“The last time I was arrested was 38 years ago,” Belair said. “And I finally decided this was a good enough cause to do that again: This present government of ours, not providing people with opportunities to seek asylum, separating families, arresting people, taking away their ability to make a living and support their families… You know, in 1940 they came for the foreign-born Jews first.”
The demonstration was organized by Never Again Action, an activist coalition rooted in the Jewish community. Never Again has taken a prominent role in local protests against ICE activity in several places around the country since President Donald Trump began imposing harsher policies on immigrants nationwide.
The protesters in Central Falls had sought to blockade the entrances and exits around Wyatt in the evening hours Wednesday. After Woodworth careened his truck through the crowd, protesters who had initially scattered for safety coalesced in an angry knot near the entrance he’d just reached.
Woodworth’s colleagues from the Wyatt staff then rushed out and pepper sprayed the crowd.
Officers from the city police force had been on hand monitoring the protest during the hours before Belair and others physically blocked the employee parking lot entrance in anticipation of a shift change, he said. But those officers left the protest site shortly before the truck rammed through the group, Belair said, and did not return until after the guards had come out and sprayed the crowd.
“I’m still looking for the police, like where are the police?” Belair said. “Some kids got it full in the face. Everybody was freaked out, there were people down. And then the police showed up.”
Police had been there earlier at the protest, but disbanded just minutes before the truck rammed the crowd, according to eyewitnesses.
State police, city police, and officials from the state Attorney General’s office are now reportedly investigating the incident. Wyatt’s own staff are conducting a separate internal review, prison officials said in a statement. The prison also “supports the First Amendment right of citizens to peacefully protest on public property surrounding the facility,” the statement said.
Wyatt was the nation’s first publicly owned, privately run prison when it opened in 1993. It provides a key revenue stream to the tiny 19,000-person town, which is just a few years removed from a brutal municipal bankruptcy process that forced retirees to take huge cuts so that the towns lenders could get paid.
The prison’s primary long-term customers are the U.S. Marshall’s Service and the U.S. Navy, and it had not done business with ICE for roughly a decade prior to this spring.
Warden Daniel Martin agreed a contract with the agency over the winter, and an initial 133 immigration detainees were shipped in to Central Falls in March.
The move sparked immediate and broad objection across the region. Coastal New England has long benefited from waves of immigration and many towns there continue to be home to large, deeply rooted, multigenerational communities with ties to European, southeast Asian, and Latin American countries.
Opponents of Trump’s policies have used similar protest tactics at ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facilities around the country in recent years, and have been lobbying local leaders to sever ties with federal immigration agencies.
Even when those local officials are sympathetic to those calls, they typically have insisted they had no practical authority to kick ICE or CBP out of town.
But in April, Central Falls Mayor James Diossa (D) – himself the son of Colombian immigrants – announced he would ask the prison’s governing board to rescind the ICE deal. The board approved the request.
Less than a week later, Central Falls got sued in federal court by the bankers that loaned money to Wyatt. They argued that the city had no right to force the prison that owes them money to rip up a lucrative federal contract. The case is ongoing, but a federal judge issued an injunction to keep the ICE prisoners at Wyatt until the matter is fully resolved in court.
Protesters have sought to keep pressure on the facility ever since. Wednesday’s action was only the latest in a series of protests around the Wyatt perimeter. Some of those demonstrations have included civil disobedience leading to arrests.
Never Again Action estimated the total crowd Wednesday at 600 people, out of which 30 used their bodies to physically block Wyatt’s entrances. The human blockade had been in place for hours when Woodworth plowed through the crowd and put Belair in the hospital.
One attendee immediately made the obvious connection to the murder of Heather Heyer by a white supremacist who intentionally drove into an un-escorted crowd of anti-racism demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. There have been numerous close calls since, including one at an immigration march in Los Angeles in 2017 and another at a vigil following the police killing of Stephon Clark last year.
Blocking roadways as a long history as a protest technique, but it came to particular prominence as the Movement for Black Lives earned national attention and made effective use of the tactic. Although protesters targeting structural racism have a particularly strong reason to target highways – many of which were intentionally used to destroy thriving black communities and reinforce residential segregation in Charlotte, Sacramento, and scores of other cities back when the federal highway system was first built – the political right has decried and vilified this mode of dissent.
Some lawmakers and talking heads have even explicitly encouraged drivers to mow down protesters who block their paths.
These incitements come in a range of flavors. The Daily Caller compiled “a reel of cars plowing through protesters trying to block the road” which was picked up by Fox News’s website. A police union leader in New Mexico posted a Facebook meme captioned “All lives splatter,” featuring “an image of a jeep plowing through a crowd,” as Slate put it in a round-up of long-standing conservative fantasies of running down protesters.
State lawmakers in North Dakota, Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida, Texas, and Rhode Island itself have all introduced or flirted with legislation indemnifying drivers who hurt protesters with their cars.