Sara Tabin

Controversy and criticism still surround last Saturday’s demonstration against President Donald Trump — an initially peaceful protest that ended with pepper spray, canine units and two arrests, one of which was made by the Connecticut State Police.

Last Saturday afternoon, around 200 protesters marched from City Hall to the inbound entrance of Route 34, a state highway that falls under the jurisdiction of Connecticut state troopers. The demonstrators joined hands, chanting anti-Trump slogans and forming a human shield that blocked the highway for approximately half an hour. But as the rally attendees made their back to City Hall for a final round of speakers, state troopers made their arrest at the corner of Church and Chapel St. According to eyewitnesses as well as the state police’s statement, pepper spray was used during the arrest of Norman Clement, a local activist with the group ANSWER Coalition. 

The New Haven Police Department also arrested Nate Blair, a New Haven native, on the charge of misdemeanor disorderly conduct and subsequently released Blair upon his promise to appear in court. Calling the protest a “civil disobedience,” the NHPD statement claimed that no local officer used pepper spray or any other chemical agent against anyone.

Yet as the events leading to the arrests and the manner of the arrests came under scrutiny, recounts from eyewitnesses and the arrestees’ lawyer contradict that of the state police.

The Ambulance

According to state police’s press release, when the march stood at the entrance of Route 34, the protesters obstructed the traffic flow, which caused an ambulance that was carrying a patient in critical condition to be delayed. As a result, the ambulance crew had to perform an emergency medical procedure in the vehicle instead of at the hospital, the statement alleged. Connecticut State Police spokesman Kelly Grant said the state troopers received information about the delayed ambulance from a Yale-New Haven Hospital charge nurse, a person at the emergency department who communicates with the ambulance crew before it arrives at the hospital.

YNHH Media Coordinator Mark D’Antonio said ambulances are not the hospital’s property, and thus YNHH does not keep track of their arrivals and departures. He added that he cannot confirm the content of the charge nurse’s exchange with state troopers.

But state police’s claim about the ambulance was rebuked by John Lugo, a rally attendee and Unidad Latina en Acción organizer, as well as Patricia Kane, Blair and Clement’s lawyer, who was also present at the rally.

Lugo said his videos and pictures showed no sign of an ambulance being blocked by a barricade of protesters, a message that he has been trying to convey to the public.

“When they use this argument to attack and to make us look bad in front of the public, that’s shameful,” he said.

Echoing Lugo’s words, Kane also denied that the protest had blocked an ambulance. Calling it “a lie,” Kane said she thinks the ambulance story was conjured out of thin air to create a sense of danger.

Kane, who was present throughout the demonstration, said there was an open line of traffic during the demonstration on Route 34, which allowed cars to pass through. She added that the state police failed to issue any proper warnings to the demonstrators on Route 34 until people started to disperse and march back to City Hall 30 minutes later.

“At least the way the city police does it, they issue two warnings and a final warning. If you did not move at the final warning, you are arrested,” Kane said. “So it was the [state] police’s lack of action that let the demonstration to go on as long as it did. People were confused. That’s why they finally decided to just leave.”

The Arrest of Norman Clement

From holding a bullhorn at the corner of Church and Chapel streets to being arrested and pepper-sprayed, Clement was the only arrest made by state police at Saturday’s protest. With help from NHPD officers, the state troopers located and identified Clement as the leader of the protest.

But the details of his arrest vary greatly, depending on the source.

According to the state police press release, “Clement ran from law enforcement personnel through the crowd, knocking over several of his supporters, before being apprehended.” Clement also reportedly “actively resisted arrest” and thus was pepper-sprayed, the police said.

But according to Kane, Clement only ran away from state troopers because he was trying to get away from an aggressive police dog. Referring to the K-9 unit at the rally, Kane said that the police dog lunged at Clement in a menacing manner.

“His running away was an involuntary response to the threat of the vicious dog,” Kane added. “Norman is nonviolent. If he had been issued a warning about breaking the law, he would have complied with it.”

After the state troopers rendered Clement immobile on the ground, they sprayed Clement twice, inciting verbal outrage from the surrounding protesters, Kane said. She added that despite the protesters’ cursing and yelling at the police, no one lifted a finger or was involved in any threatening action.

“They were just upset at the mistreatment of people who were exercising their First Amendment rights,” she said.

This was the first time that Lugo has witnessed the state police and its K-9 units in New Haven, he said. He accused the canine’s handler of “pushing the dog to intimidate” the crowd of protesters, despite the nonviolent nature of the rally.

Charged with inciting a riot, disorderly conduct, interfering with an officer and reckless use of the highway by a pedestrian, Clement was released on a $5,000 surety bond and is scheduled to appear at New Haven Superior Court on Feb. 13, the state police statement read.

After being treated for a concussion from the rally, Blair is due to appear in court today to defend the charge of misdemeanor disorderly conduct.