COLUMBUS (WCMH) — After several hours of peaceful demonstrations in Columbus, things took a tense turn Sunday afternoon in downtown Columbus where protesters have been gathering for several weeks.
The protest started along High Street near the Ohio Statehouse where police seemed to be trying to keep the demonstrators out of the street.
The protesters then moved down to the middle of the intersection and formed lines on each side.
As a result, police started breaking up the crowd with officers using their bikes to push protesters back. An NBC4 reporter at the protest saw some kind of spray used by police around 4:15 p.m.
On June 16, Ginther issued an order prohibiting police use of tear gas and limited use of pepper spray to clear streets and disperse peaceful demonstrators.
The clash is something that hasn’t happened in Columbus since late May when protests first began following the death of George Floyd.
“This is crazy,” said protest organizer Joshua Williams. “This is Juneteenth weekend. It’s crazy this don’t even make sense. The police coming out this weekend. Why they wearing riot gear? That’s the way this started four weeks ago. This is not fair.”
Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther tweeted Sunday afternoon saying the use of mace and pepper spray Sunday was “appropriate.”
“I will reiterate again that we respect and encourage peaceful protest, but aggressive acts that put police and protesters in danger cannot be tolerated,” Ginther added in a subsequent Tweet.
Columbus Police Sgt. James Fuqua said the incident started after protesters started to illegally “take the street,” moving their demonstration from the sidewalk to the middle of the road.
“It became a danger not only to the demonstrators, but to the people in their cars and everyone around,” he said.
One protester said Sunday’s demonstration didn’t warrant the police response.
“I’ve been down here every night,” said protester Dejuan Sharp. “It’s been peaceful. Some people got their cars blocked in for maybe five, 10 minutes at top, but they got escorted through. It’s nothing where this problem with all these cop cars to be out here, nothing for that.”
Fuqua said a police commander with a megaphone made more than 30 attempts to keep the protesters out of the streets and on the sidewalks.
Due to incidents over the last week, including COTA buses being blocked and forced to turn around and fires set in the street, police wanted the crowds out of the streets.
“We’re not talking about peaceful protests,” Fuqua said. “We’re talking about demonstrators who are committing illegal acts.”
Fuqua said that while a good number of the protesters complied with the police request to stay on the sidewalks, there were a number who didn’t and went back into the streets grabbing officers’ bicycles. He also said a number of those protesters carried large shields with foil on them in an attempt to prevent the officers from doing their job.
“They came with a clear agenda to make sure we would not be able to keep the street clear for everyone’s safety,” he said.
The situation escalated when a protester allegedly threw a rental scooter at police. No officers and no demonstrators were injured by the scooter.
As officers attempted to take that protester into custody, other demonstrators physically tried to restrain the officers from arresting the suspect, Fuqua said.
Fuqua said pepper spray was deployed against the protesters, but only after officers showed “maximum restraint,” adding the pepper spray was used as a last resort.
“We did use pepper spray,” he said. “Again, we followed the guidelines set forth by Mayor Ginther and Chief Quinlan that we absolutely used maximum restraint in using pepper spray as our last resort.”
That demonstrator, identified in court records as Douglas Darren Herring III, 26, has been taken into custody and charged with assault on a police officer, which is a felony.
“I want to make it clear we were not out on the line in full riot gear,” Fuqua said. “We were just in traditional uniforms and we were peacefully trying to keep the crowd calm.”
Fuqua reiterated several times during his conversation with the media that the officers are there to protect and encourage peaceful protests.
“I know I sound like a broken record when I said we respect everyone’s right to peacefully protest and we understand tensions are high not only in the city of Columbus, but in the entire United States,” he said. “But I caution people that if they really want to make true change, we should be in the action phase.”
“As a US citizen, as someone who desperately wants change personally, use the resources you have,” Fuqua added. “Make sure you use your city leadership, make your voice heard. Use legislation, use all the government entities at your discretion the right way, and try to minimize the demonstrating at this point.”
U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty, who represents central Ohio in Congress, released the following statement Sunday night:
”It’s clear we have a disconnect among the Fraternal Order of Police, City officials, and the people. If this is all about protesters not being in the streets, give them the streets and adequate notice when they must disperse. I urge the Mayor, City Council, advocates, and all those who just a few days ago agreed with the decision to no longer use pepper spray on peaceful protestors to work together.
“Clearly, we see yet again another instance of unnecessary force. If an individual or individuals become disruptive, remove them—not the entire crowd. I am going to continue to demand answers for why such force was used in the first place, especially when it was peaceful until police arrived in riot gear.”Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH)
Beatty herself was hit with pepper spray three weeks ago while trying to deescalate a situation between police and protesters in downtown Columbus.
Protests continued late into the evening Sunday, with protesters along the sidewalk and police in the street near the Ohio Statehouse.