CLEVELAND — It’s no secret Saturday’s protest honoring George Floyd in Downtown Cleveland took a violent turn, but some say protesters were not to blame.
Attorney Sarah Gelsomino was there as a legal observer, along with a team of others, providing legal advice to protesters.
“We are neutral observers. We are not involved engaging in the protest at that time. WE are simply there to document police activity,” she said.
Gelsomino says as protesters marched things escalated.
“When the crowd approached the justice center our observers were at the frontline,” Gelsomino said. “Our observers who were there saw people tossing more than produce, broccoli, grapes, water bottles was the worst that we saw being thrown toward the justice center not directly towards the police officers but towards the justice center.”
Gelsomino says that’s when Cleveland police officers, without warning, started firing tear gas canisters, pepper spray and other devices into the crowd. Those actions were captured on cellphone video.
“None of our observers at any time at the justice center heard any orders to disperse. None. We did not hear nay police officers warning the crowd to move back and we did not hear any orders to disperse,” Gelsomino said.
But a Cleveland police spokesperson tells News 5 that was not the case.
“I reviewed the Incident Commander’s body worn camera footage. She gives the dispersal order three times beginning at 1537 hours (3:37pm) via a megaphone (Amplivox portable sound system.) This was before any munitions were deployed,” said Jennifer Ciaccia, Public Relations Officer of Cleveland Division of Police.
According to the department’s policy, “The Incident Commander shall inform the crowd of his/her intentions by loud speaker if possible. Whenever possible, the circumstances leading to the dispersal and the announcement shall be videotaped. The announcement shall include the request to disperse, the direction the crowd should proceed away from the scene, and any appropriate statutes that apply. There should be a reasonable time period allowed for the crowd to move. It goes on to state, “should the crowd fail to disperse in the prescribed manner, the Incident Commander shall be prepared to implement Mobile Field Force Strategies to mitigate the effects of the crowd and to enhance the chances for a peaceful conclusion to the event.”
Instead, Gelsomino says the officers incited fear and set off a dangerous chain reaction before any property damage was done.
“The way that the police approached the situation in a militarized way, throwing weapons at the crowd, inflaming the situation, terrifying and angering people absolutely raised the tension on the street that way in a way that was unnecessary and unjustified,” she said.
In an interview with News 5 Monday, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson defended the police response.
“Did our police do anything to any of them to cause them to behave that way? No,” he said.
But Gelsomino says de-escalation tactics from the police could have helped.
“This was well within the capacity for police to handle and they failed. They absolutely failed,”
News 5 has requested a copy of that body cam video.
The city remains under curfew from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. through Friday.