Law enforcement escorted about three-dozen protesters last month near Dover, Delaware as they blocked traffic on U.S. 13 for the 8 minutes and 46 seconds that a Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck as he lay dying.
Some drivers called 911 to complain, however, that they were being harassed by participants in the protest, which was organized by the group Disrupt to Focus. An officer whose official vehicle was blocked by a protester then got into a confrontation with two protesters while making an arrest, and police descended en masse. Officers arrested 22 protesters, mostly for disorderly conduct.
But after her office authorized the charges, Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings decided not to prosecute the demonstrators — a move that has triggered a backlash from law enforcement leaders.
Jennings said in a news release on June 24 that pursuing charges against the protesters or investigating the actions of police would not “serve a good purpose.”
“I may be demonized equally by those who push criminal convictions against protesters who were aggressive but non-violent, or against police who made arrests,” Jennings said. “Perhaps this is as good a sign as any that we must put June 9th behind us and find common ground.”
While Jennings said both parties had “committed to continued dialogue,” leaders of the state’s two largest police unions and the Delaware Police Chiefs’ Council, took exception to her decision.
In a rare joint public statement, the groups wrote, “We are now under attack not only by criminals or violent protesters, but by the Attorney General herself.”
Lt. Thomas Brackin, president of the Delaware State Troopers Association, said his agency was assisting Dover police during the June 9 protest in Camden and understood the demonstrators were being permitted to block traffic.
Jennings’ office had told police to intervene only when public safety “is endangered,’’ she said. Her statement described the blocking of traffic “as an act of civil disobedience.”
Brackin countered that protesters went beyond civil disobedience when some began “intermingling with people who were stopped in traffic and began banging on cars, yelling and screaming at drivers.”
A video taken by a protester and released by Jennings’ office shows some demonstrators shouting obscenities at drivers stopped in the traffic and at officers before and after police allowed the drivers to pass.
Two Disrupt to Focus protesters who spoke with WHYY News disputed Brackin’s account, saying that banging on cars is not a tactic they used that day or in previous or subsequent demonstrations.
“People are going to feel uncomfortable, but we have never intentionally made people feel unsafe,’’ said protester Adaria Bracy, of Dover. “We understand that some people may get those two confused, but we were not in any way causing harm to anyone else.”
Jennings and law enforcement agree that when one officer tried to move his police vehicle, a woman blocked his path. He asked her to move, but she refused. When another protester began cursing at him, both were asked to move, Jennings said.
Neither would step aside, and officers started to arrest the protester who was using profanity, leading several other demonstrators to rush the police and attempt to prevent the arrest, Jennings said, citing the police account.
Brackin said the officer who had been trying to move his car began “getting pushed and pulled by multiple protesters” and called on his police radio for help, Brackin said. More officers responded to what he called an “out-of-control situation,’’ and wrestled several protesters to the ground and put them in handcuffs.
The confrontation between the officer and the protesters who were asked to move was not captured on the videos released by Jennings’ office.
One person arrested was a Black Dover Post reporter who had attended several protests, “sometimes in his personal capacity, other times as a reporter,’’ Jennings later said. The reporter told police that day that he was working as a journalist.
Bracy said she did not see the initial arrests, but rushed to the scene, where she witnessed three officers “violently” wrestle one protester to the ground. She was knocked down by an officer, too, she said, but stood back up and approached the scene, keeping her distance, only to get arrested herself.
She said police were yelling at people who weren’t resisting to stop resisting. Some were crying and praying, she added.
“We are witnessing what we are protesting,’’ she said. “We are literally on the receiving end of what we talked about, what we thought we knew about, but now we are actually experiencing. Honestly, it was one of the most scariest days of my life.”
Brackin said officers wanted to lodge riot charges against some demonstrators, but in consultation with Kent County prosecutors from Jennings’ office, settled on disorderly conduct.
The police unions and chiefs group said Jennings’ “politically motivated” decision not to prosecute the protesters on the disorderly conduct charges “makes troopers and police officers less safe, incapable of doing our jobs effectively and our communities and citizens” less secure.
“We are left with an Attorney General’s Office that not only encourages and condones criminal behavior by protesters, but justifies and excuses it … She even ignored her own Deputy Attorney Generals’ recommendation who reviewed the probable cause and advised which charges should be placed.”
Brackin says that by not supporting law enforcement, Jennings has “become more of an activist and less of an Attorney General. And that’s a problem.”
Jennings declined to speak with WHYY News.
Instead, she responded directly to the police groups in writing.
“I respect voices of dissent, but there is work ahead of us and I have neither the time nor any use for cheap shots,’’ she wrote. “I remain focused on the urgent need for reform in Delaware and the opportunity to work with those who will partner with us in good faith to create change.”
Protester Iyana Casey said she’s glad Jennings won’t proceed with the prosecutions, but says the police should be relieved, too.
“I found it funny that they felt like they were under attack from her because she actually said that she didn’t want to investigate into them as well as declining to prosecute us.”