San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott defended arresting 23 protesters on Mission Street at around 10:50 p.m. Wednesday, telling the Board of Supervisors at a Thursday meeting that officers believed “somebody in that crowd had the propensity to light fires at the end of the night.”
The arrests came at the conclusion of a day that saw more than 10,000 people march through the city on Wednesday in a peaceful protest that began in the Mission and was organized by youth on Instagram.
The late-night incident was captured by this reporter. It started as a phalanx of dozens of officers closed in on the small group of protesters who were walking north on Mission Street. With batons in hand, the officers surrounded the protesters for some 35 minutes, and eventually restrained them with zip-ties and arrested them. They were eventually cited for violating the curfew and then released, Scott told the supervisors today.
Although the chief said officers believed protesters possessed so-called “accelerants,” such as lighter fluid, no accelerants were “seized or booked as evidence,” according to police spokesman Sgt. Michael Andraychak. Indeed, no one was cited with crimes other than violating the curfew.
The scene Wednesday night was surreal. Dozens of officers swarmed the group of protesters, one line charging from 20th on Mission and the other charging from 21st on Mission, eventually surrounding them and telling them to, “Get on the ground!”
As a reporter for Mission Local, I prominently showed a press badge issued by the SFPD.
One officer said, “I know you’re press, but you’ve got to move back.”
As I attempted to do this, other officers instead forced me into the group being detained. Officers circled in and remained at the ready, with one officer pointing a less-lethal projectile weapon* at the group.
The circle of officers with batons tightened around the group of people lying prone on the ground for over 35 minutes. Protesters asked if they could go home peacefully. Instead, they were zip-tied and loaded into a wagon.
As the protesters were being transported to an undisclosed location, this reporter was allowed to leave, after being restricted from doing so for 35 minutes — but only after an editor of our paper reached out to Capt. Gaetano Caltagirone, who was on the scene and overseeing the mass arrest.
On Thursday via email, Andraychak declined to say where the 23 were transported. “For security reasons, we do not release the location,” he said. Among those arrested was a 14-year-old boy, whom Scott said on Thursday was transported to a police station and released to a “responsible party.”
“But I want to reiterate the reason that that decision was made,” Scott said. “It was because we believe that the destruction and danger of fires being lit was imminent.”
He offered no evidence that they had confiscated lighting fluid or any accelerant from the protesters.
Members of the board grilled the chief on what appeared to be a heavy-handed approach to the small band of protesters, who repeatedly begged police officers to let them go home. It’s unclear why they kept this reporter detained.
“When we start detaining journalists, that goes into the realm of an authoritarian police state,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, asking Scott about the specific policy — especially as it related to a curfew that ended at 5 a.m. Thursday morning.
In what he described as a “tactical situation,” Scott called dealing with journalists “complicated.” He said in a “dangerous situation” where police are trying to control a “dangerous individual,” it could “be dangerous for everybody to be distracted from that.”
“The last thing you want is somebody right behind you, journalist or not, as a distraction.”
Scott said he wanted to open dialogues and communicate better with journalists. “We’ve already had some understanding about how we can work together in these situations,” he said.
Yet, earlier in the day, Mission Local received no direct communication from the chief. An informal apology came only from Sgt. Andraychak, the spokesman, late on Wednesday. After the chief spoke of building better communication with news outlets during the meeting, Andraychak relayed an offer from the chief to review body-camera footage of the incident, which we accepted.
This reporter also testified at the meeting, offering the account written above.
Ronen, who invited Mission Local to speak, called the incident “concerning,” noting that she reached out to Scott and Capt. Caltagirone.
Underlying many of the supes’ concerns was the curfew Mayor London Breed imposed on Sunday morning following looting downtown. “It’s very concerning to think that the law could have allowed us to arrest people just for being out there at that time when obviously [peaceful protest] is something that we should be promoting,” Haney said.
Supervisor Dean Preston said that San Francisco should be proud of the participation of the thousands of people who marched.
“While we are all celebrating the extent of the participation,” he said. “I think we also need to recognize that the curfew does discourage people from going out and exercising their rights, particularly those who don’t want to risk arrest.”
Following board the meeting on Thursday, District Attorney Chesa Boudin highlighted the incident on Twitter. He pledged: “We will not prosecute peaceful protest.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that an officer pointed a tear gas gun at the Mission Local reporter and the group of protesters. It was not a tear gas gun. It was an extended range impact weapon “launcher used to deploy 40mm foam batons,” according to Andraychak.
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