Arrests and pepper spray accompany anti-Bush protest

by Amy Kingsley

A clash between police and protesters during President Bush’s Jan. 31 speech that resulted in seven arrests apparently triggered by police photographing protesters left questions about how the confrontation escalated and why officials documented activists.

Marchers playing drums and carrying signs started marching from the Scene, a performance venue at 604 S. Elm St., toward downtown at the beginning of Bush’s state of the union address. Police officers on bicycles and in unmarked cars shielded the protesters from traffic and other citizens during the trip downtown and back.

When the group arrived back at the Scene the president was still speaking, so they continued banging drums on Elm Street outside, where about 15 people watched the C-SPAN broadcast. Then some of the marchers saw a plain-clothes police officer, later identified as Det. Ernest Cuthbertson, photographing the license plates of cars lined up on Lewis Street, said Tim Hopkins, one of the protest organizers.

‘“We caught them spying,’” Hopkins said.

Kenneth Harris, who was arrested and charged with assault on a government official, carrying a concealed weapon and inciting a riot, described the affray. The 24-year-old claims he was carrying a pocketknife he has kept with him since college.

‘“I was the third in a row standing in front of a license plate,’” he said. ‘“When he came to the first guy, he said ‘Get out of my way before I knock you the f*ck out.””

After the officer had pulled the first two protesters out of the way he approached Harris, who caught the officer in the chest with his shoulder as he was turning to leave, he said. Then the officer grabbed his sweatshirt, pulled it over his head and started hitting him. He pulled a gun and stuck it in Harris’ face, the protester said. That is when the protesters ran back to the crowd, where they were tackled and arrested.

Police officials did not return calls requesting their version of events.

Hopkins contended that the Greensboro Police Department works closely with the US Department of Homeland Security and might have been gathering information for them about protest groups. Calls to police to find out why they were videotaping were not returned.

The police acknowledged photographing protesters in two press releases distributed after the incident. Hopkins said that protesters stood in front of the video camera, preventing Cuthbertson from documenting license plates, and asked whether he was a police officer. At that point, he said, a scuffle ensued when one protester elbowed the officer.

‘“The officer pulled a gun but he still didn’t say he was a cop,’” Hopkins said.

After the suspects had been loaded into the police van Cuthbertson showed them his badge, Harris said.

One of the protesters, a female who was trying to write down an officer’s badge number, was shot in the face with pepper spray and led away by a group of friends, protester Fred Akman said. Akman went with the woman and a group of her friends to Wesley Long Hospital, where they decided not to seek treatment because she did not have health insurance. Instead, they bought saline with which they washed out her eyes.

‘“She was feeling the effects until two or three in the morning,’” Akman said.

Michael Frierson attended the protest with his wife and two children. He said one police car almost hit several protesters when it drove down Elm Street right next to the marchers.

‘“He turned on his siren and came by,’” Frierson said. ‘“I think his car brushed one of the protesters. It was pretty hairy.’”

Akman said the car, driving very fast, almost hit him.

After the arrests, the protesters moved back inside the Scene and slowly disbanded. Hopkins worked on posting bond for the protesters taken to the downtown Greensboro jail until 5 a.m.

About 75 of the protesters came from Grimsley High School. Several college students also attended the rally, which was intended in part as a launching point for a Washington, DC protest scheduled for Feb. 4.

Hopkins said several witnesses videotaped the incident, and others gathered statements supporting the protesters’ version of events. The list of suspects provided by police includes Harris, Zach Jones, Andy O’Hara, George Saba, Kyle Whisenant, Erik Stephens and Marissa Csanvi. Hopkins said several of them were seeking lawyers to fight charges. All the suspects except Stephens and Csanvi received citations for assaulting a public official and Whisenant is also charged with carrying a concealed weapon for a collapsible baton found in his belongings.

The suspects and their supporters are planning a rally in front of the police station on Washington Street at 4:30 or 5 p.m. Thursday to protest police brutality.

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