Officers with the U.S. Capitol Police violently shut down a peace protest outside the Democratic Party headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, in what organizers are calling an unprovoked attack that led to approximately 90 attendees being injured. While many media reports have described the events around the demonstration as a “clash” between police and protesters, members of the organizing groups say officers assaulted peaceful protesters without warning.
“We are still seeing the media use the descriptor ‘violent protest’ to describe what happened,” said Eva Borgwardt, who attended the protest and is a spokesperson for If Not Now (INN), an American Jewish organization that opposes the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Many of the protesters were Jewish, and some had lost loved ones in the Hamas attack on October 7, she said.
“Let’s be clear: this was a nonviolent, interfaith vigil and protest, and police responded by violently attacking protesters,” said Borgwardt.
The protest, organized by INN and Jewish Voice for Peace Action, along with Democratic Socialists of America, was one of hundreds that activists have held to mourn the deaths of Palestinians and Israelis and to demand a ceasefire in Gaza, where Israel has mounted a relentless bombing campaign following the October 7 attack by Hamas that killed more than 1,000 Israelis. Israel’s offensive has killed more than 11,000 people in Gaza, including over 4,000 children, at least 40 journalists and media workers, and over 100 UN workers. (This reporter is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, JVP Action’s sibling organization.)
As the death toll rises, American Jews have been among the most vocal voices calling for a ceasefire. Organizers of Wednesday’s event say it was meant to pressure Democratic lawmakers to listen to the voices of their party’s voters, 80 percent of whom support a ceasefire, according to recent polling.
Protesters at the demonstration laid out thousands of electric tea lights to represent the Palestinians killed by Israeli attacks. They locked arms in front of some of the entrances to the Democratic Party headquarters, where congressional lawmakers and candidates had gathered for an event. Organizers have said they were engaging in civil disobedience in hopes of speaking with members of Congress as they left the building.
Almost immediately, police officers became violent, deploying pepper spray, shoving protestors back with bicycles, and knocking some down stairs, according to Borgwardt.
“What felt like 10 minutes into this nonviolent act of civil disobedience, police officers were already putting on full riot gear,” Borgwardt said. Police did not give an order to disperse and refused to speak with the protesters’ liaison, according to Borgwardt. In an FAQ published on INN’s website, Jeff Ordower of Jewish Voice for Peace said this had never happened before in decades of actions in D.C.
Videos shared by INN with The Appeal depict police pushing, punching, and attempting to pull protesters who had linked arms away from the doors. A photo shows an officer appearing to dispense pepper spray in a protester’s face.
“There was never a plan to peacefully disperse us,” Devan Spear, who attended the protest, told The Appeal in an interview. “The only plan was to escalate and to treat us with brutal violence.”
Spear said she suffered a concussion after police repeatedly threw her to the ground. She saw an officer scream at a protester to get up while another officer held his feet above his head.
“The goal of the protests was to be peaceful and to make sure that members of Congress saw the consequences of their actions in the 11,000 candles laid out in front of them,” said Spear. “Anybody who was there or has seen any footage or anything like that can tell that this was a peaceful protest that was met with unprovoked violence.
Police have meanwhile characterized their actions as a necessary response to violence by protesters.
“We have handled hundreds of peaceful protests, but last night’s group was not peaceful,” Capitol Police said in a press release. “Our team was quick, decisive, courageous and in control.”
The department reported that six officers “were treated for injuries, from minor cuts to being pepper sprayed to being punched.” Police arrested only one protester, who they said punched an officer. Claims about demonstrators using pepper spray on police quickly spread in news reports, fueled in part by a social media post shared by Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman, who described the event as “pro-terrorist” and “anti-Israel.” Police have not released further information supporting this allegation. Organizers have denied the claim, saying it’s more likely the pepper spray came from other officers.
“I did not witness that,” said Borgwardt. “But there is plenty of very clear photo and video of officers [using] pepper spray directly in the faces of protesters with other officers nearby, who likely would have been impacted by the use of that aerosol.”
Despite evidence casting doubt on the official police account, top lawmakers from both parties, including Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson and President Joe Biden, have praised law enforcement or condemned protesters for their actions on Wednesday.
In a statement to The Appeal, a DSA spokesperson criticized reporters for credulously repeating unverified police accounts in coverage that served to undermine the demonstration.
“Police routinely lie about such matters,” said Renée Paradis, a member of DSA’s National Political Committee. “Focusing on the narrative of a ‘violent’ protest allows the media to focus on the alleged actions of protesters rather than the message of the protest.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to disclose the reporter’s membership in Jewish Voice for Peace.