Last Tuesday, hundreds of protesters marched through Providence, demanding accountability in a police-involved moped crash that left 24-year-old Jhamal Gonsalves in a coma. Twenty-one people were arrested, following a standoff outside the city’s Public Safety Complex, and at least one, Jaylon Butler, was hospitalized following his arrest. 

Political leaders, including Governor Gina Raimondo, voiced support for how the Providence Police handled a volatile situation. But the following night, protester Carlos Romero shared a different view of what happened with Providence’s police oversight board.  

“There’s a protester in the hospital from what happened last night. I witnessed another person who wasn’t actually trying to do anything to the police, was trying to provide support to the one in the hospital – the police surrounded them and then started beating them with their sticks, and then tackled them to the ground,” Romero told the Providence External Review Authority over Zoom. “Witnessing that – it was terrible.”

Later that evening, a couple dozen people marched through the city in protest of the treatment Romero described. 

Will James, a reporter with the progressive news website Uprise RI was filming the protesters, as they moved south on Elmwood Avenue towards the Cranston line, where they met a blockade of Cranston police cars. 

“There were the marchers. There were bystanders, you know, people coming out of their houses. And then [there were] riders, people who are part of the riding community in Rhode Island,” James recalled.  “And at some point, people started throwing bottles, so I believe that's when things started escalating.”

“Someone just threw something,” James can be heard narrating in the video, following the sound of breaking glass. His camera pans towards a Providence police cruiser, and back to a group of officers jogging forward. “[Police officers] just ran up directly at everyone. There’s bystanders everywhere."

Video footage James took shows he moved down the street, away from the officers, sticking close to the parked cars. 

“Officers are still coming,” James narrated, as his camera caught a plume of yellow oleoresin capsicum spray, also known as pepper spray. "Oh my God, they’re spraying it right at me," he said. "I’ve been pepper sprayed. There’s pepper spray in my eyes.”

Thinking back on this moment the next day, the feeling James kept coming back to was surprise. 

“I couldn't imagine what I was doing to... I guess I was near where the window was smashed. But is that really what's considered hostile?” James said. “It was very unclear what was going on. It was very unclear who was being targeted.”

A legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild, Chloe Davis, was among those arrested Wednesday night.

The Providence Journal reported that, according to the Providence Police Department, Davis “repeatedly disregarded commands to leave.” But Anna Kastner, another legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild says, Davis was already moving to leave with the crowd. 

“We were near each other on Elmwood Avenue when the police formed a line and basically started running and pushing people north. People started running and dispersing and it was very chaotic,” Kastner remembered.

“Chloe was behind me," she continued, "and when I turned around, I saw her on the ground. And the only reason I could tell it was her was because I could see her hat sticking out from underneath a bunch of police officers.”

Members of the Nationals Lawyers Guild wear distinctive neon green hats when observing protests.

Davis pled not guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct, and her attorney maintains that she was wrongfully arrested, without warning. The National Lawyers Guild said this was the first time a NLG legal observer has been arrested in Rhode Island.

“It was definitely pretty shocking,” Kastner said. “And I've been a legal observer both in the Bay Area when I was in law school and then also in Boston. And I've never been in a situation where a legal observer has gotten arrested.”

Three police departments responded to the protest Wednesday night. When asked about concerns about officers’ actions, Cranston Police Chief Michael Winquist said in an email, “All of my officers performed admirably using great restraint while [being] attacked by rioters throwing projectiles.” 

Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements echoed Winquist, commending his officers for their restraint and noting that Providence police did not use pepper spray. 

Col. James Manni, superintendent of the State Police, said all use of force, including the use of pepper spray, is reviewed by the department’s Professional Standards Unit. And he said it would be inappropriate to comment before that review is complete. 

“Police officers in these situations have the right to clear areas and use force in some situations when there is a threat to public safety,” commented Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “But their response, whether it’s clearing the area, whether it’s using force, really has to be proportionate to the threat and directed specifically at those that are creating that threat.”

When that response is not proportional and targeted, Silverman said, it risks interfering with protesters’ right to peaceably assemble, and with the rights of a free press.

Silverman also noted, reports of journalists being threatened, assaulted, and arrested while covering protests for racial justice are rising nationwide

“We're living in a time where all aspects of reality are being questioned. Everyone seems to have a different perspective, not just politically, but what's going on in their communities,” Silverman said. “And we need journalists out there on the ground documenting things that happen so we have actual evidence and documentation of what's happening in our streets and how the police are acting or not acting in the public's interest.”

Will James began regularly live-streaming protests for Uprise RI in June. He was the only journalist present during one protest in September, when the State Police used pepper spray to disperse the crowd. James was told by a trooper to “get out of here,” even after identifying himself as press.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island has asked the State Police to investigate this incident, and to remind troopers of the public’s right to record in public spaces.