After some confusion about the tactics used by law enforcement to disperse a crowd of about 250 protesters Saturday night in Manassas, the Prince William County Police Department acknowledged Sunday that officers used chemical agents and rubber bullets against protesters.
The protest was held in response to the death of African American Minneapolis resident George Floyd, who died after a police officer pinned Floyd’s neck to the ground with his knee until Floyd became unresponsive. The police officer involved has since been fired and charged with third-degree murder. The Manassas protest was one of many that took place in towns and cities across the United States Saturday night as a result of the incident.
Livestreams, photos and live updates posted to social media by people who were at the Manassas rally showed plumes of yellow smoke engulfing the area near Sudley Road and Sudley Manor Drive, as well as protesters choking and vomiting as tear gas was deployed by police.
The protest began at around 5 p.m. Saturday. Police officials said the protest became violent -- with thrown rocks and bottles -- around 7:30 p.m., prompting officers to declare an “unlawful assembly” and order that everyone leave the area.
During the five hours of civil unrest that followed, protesters blocked the road and damaged several police vehicles and nearby businesses, including AT&T, Café Rio and Taco Bell. The protest ended at about 1 a.m., according to a police press release.
There were five law enforcement agencies on-site at the protest in addition to Prince William County police, including the Virginia State Police, the Prince William Sheriff’s Office, Manassas City police, Fairfax County police, and the Haymarket police.
Until Sunday afternoon, it was unclear which police agency deployed the chemical agents and rubber bullets used against the crowd. Now, Prince William County police officials say they take “full responsibility” for the actions of all law enforcement agencies involved in the protest.
At an emergency meeting of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors held Sunday afternoon, Prince William Police Lt. Col. Jarad Phelps, the department’s deputy chief, told the board regarding police actions during the Manassas protest: “That is on me. I take full responsibility for all that.”
The supervisors called the meeting in response to the protests and questioned Phelps and Police Chief Barry Barnard about the actions taken by local law enforcement during the event.
Phelps acknowledged that gas and rubber bullets were used by law enforcement to beat back protesters. It is still unclear which law enforcement agencies were involved in the deployment of chemical agents and rubber bullets.
“I will tell you that chemical agents were deployed. I will tell you also that rubber bullets were utilized in trying to gain compliance and get the violent people back,” Phelps said.
Phelps said four Prince William police officers and two state troopers sustained minor injuries during the event. Numerous police vehicles were also damaged throughout the evening, according to a Prince William County police press release issued earlier Sunday.
Phelps said there was “a lot of communication breakdown amongst the team” during the protest, leading to the use of gas and rubber bullets. Phelps said that “communication tends to break down … when you're not able to fully preplan a lot of things.”
“I did not know at certain levels what had been deployed. I have since learned a lot more,” Phelps said.
In a Facebook post on Sunday, Supervisor Margaret Angela Franklin, D-Woodbridge, said that she did not want Prince William County police to deploy tear gas at any future protests. During the emergency meeting, Franklin added that she thought the use of tear gas “escalates the situation."
Franklin did not make any formal request at the meeting asking police to stop using tear gas at any future protest, however. Phelps did not say that police would not use chemicals or rubber bullets in the future to maintain order if necessary.
Another protest took place on Liberia Avenue in Manassas on Sunday evening. Police were present on the scene, and the event was peaceful. Police say another protest is planned for Monday evening, but the details are not yet clear.
Five people were arrested during the Saturday night protest. One person was arrested for a DUI and charges related to driving through a police perimeter. Another four were arrested for obstruction of justice and unlawful assembly, according to a police press release.
Lubna Azmi, a 19-year-old Manassas resident who took part in yesterday’s protest, said the police acted aggressively toward the protesters once they arrived on the scene. Azmi said most of the people in the crowd were “young black and brown people.”
Azmi said many of the people at the protest were tear-gassed by police, and that rubber bullets were fired into the crowd. Azmi said her friend who was at the rally with her was hit in the hand by a rubber bullet after several quick shots were fired from the police.
“He was cut up. I could see the blood dripping down his arm,” Azmi said.
Azmi is a graduate of Stonewall Jackson High School and currently attends Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
An elected official, Del. Lee Carter, D-50th, of Manassas, was sprayed with a chemical agent after an altercation with police after 10 p.m., after the "unlawful assembly" had been declared. The incident that was videotaped by a bystander and live-streamed on Facebook. Carter, Virginia’s only socialist state lawmaker, said he came out to the rally to stand with the protesters.
The video shows a police officer deploying a chemical agent against Carter after he refused to move out of the way of advancing police officers. Carter said in a phone call Saturday night that he was unable to see for 10 minutes after being sprayed.
Clarification: In an earlier version of this story, it was stated that board supervisors did not join Supervisor Margaret Franklin, D-Woodbridge, in requesting that police not use tear gas during protests. We have added that no formal request was made by the board regarding the use of tear gas, and Franklin's request that police refrain from using tear gas was not a formalized request.
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