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Columbus Police Deploy Pepper Spray, Despite Crackdown, To Clear Protesters From Streets

Police and demonstrators on Broad and High Streets.
Nick Evans
Police and demonstrators on Broad and High Streets.

Columbus Police in riot gear returned to downtown Sunday afternoon, intent on forcing protesters out of city streets—and using chemicals like pepper spray to do so.

Last week, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther announced the city would immediately ban the use of chemical agents like pepper spray "to disperse non-aggressive, non-violent crowds."

But Sunday, Nickalaus Reid says police turned to that tactic to clear him and other protesters from an intersection downtown.

“They sprayed a large group of us, and I got caught in the cross wind,” Reid explains. “It was blowing downhill so I got kind of crop dusted by it, and then the other two times were direct maces straight to my face.”

Reid says he’s gotten pepper sprayed nine times throughout the protests.

In a Twitter threadSunday, Ginther defended officers’ actions.

"Increased enforcement today has been necessary to clear the right of way," Ginther wrote. "Officers instructed people downtown to keep protests to the sidewalks and out of streets for more than an hour. As police tried to clear streets, they were met with violence from some and took action, including using mace and pepper spray as appropriate to keep crowds in sidewalks."

Sunday’s conflicts marked a departure from the less-aggressive approach police began taking in response to demonstrators in downtown Columbus. While protests have gotten steadily smaller, with less law enforcement presence, people continued to congregate at the Statehouse. Those demonstrations often included the temporary blocking of traffic.

On Friday, the night of Juneteenth, crowds took over High Street between Broad and State Streets for an impromptu block party, complete with DJ and fireworks.

Nickalaus Reid
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
Nickalaus Reid

Reid says Sunday’s protest was proceeding like many others, but the police presence was more significant than in recent days.  The tension boiled over when police on bikes showed up, he says.

“We tried to make a stand on High and Broad,” Reid describes. “We squared off the entire intersection. They came through with full riot gear, shields, using bikes to ram shields, trying to steal people’s bikes, things of that nature, and then that’s when the sprays came in the chemical agents.”

Police on the scene defended their actions as restoring regular traffic. Sergeant D. Wilkinson, who refused to give his first name, described the reaoning behind officers’ more aggressive approach.

“From what I understand from our chain of command, last night we had some fires, apparently the firetrucks weren’t allowed to go through to put out the fires, there was too much aggression,” Wilkinson explains. “We’re feeling that every day that this goes on, it’s getting more and more outrageous.”


State troopers and police officers blocking the intersection of High and State streets. Police vehicles took over the center turning lane for nearly two blocks of High Street between Broad and Town Streets on Sunday, June 21, 2020.
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
State troopers and police officers blocking the intersection of High and State streets. Police vehicles took over the center turning lane for nearly two blocks of High Street between Broad and Town Streets.

Wilkinson justified the officers’ use of pepper spray as a response to demonstrators throwing water bottles.

“When you block the street and then you have people behind them, using them as a front and throwing stuff over top of the crowd, we need to get to that crowd, and then when they don’t let us through, it changes everything,” Wilkinson says. “So when we go after the people that are throwing water bottles and they prevent us from doing it, now you’re complicit.”

When city officials announced the chemical agents ban on Tuesday, they said pepper spray and tear gas would no longer be used to disperse a "non-aggressive, non-violent" crowd from a street or other area. But they were cagey about how they would handle crowds where the bulk of protesters remained peaceful, but a handful of individuals threw projectiles like water bottles. 

Columbus Police Chief Tom Quinlan said the division was developing strategies to avoid pepper spray in those circumstances, but he declined to give details about those strategies.

During the announcement, Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein criticized division policy that allowed police to use chemicals against demonstrators simply for being in the street.

"We’re adding explicit language and working with the Division of Police to add this language that failure to leave a street or to move by itself shall not justify the use of chemical spray against a non-agressive, non-violent crowd," Klein said.

Klein previously urged an independent investigation into the police department's response to protests.

For Reid, police actions Sunday put lie to the recent policy changesGinther and other leaders have touted.

“It makes me feel like they don’t care,” Reid says. “That’s what we’re out here for—the injustice, you feel me? They feel like they can do whatever they want, and that’s what we’re trying to put an end to.”

In addition to new restrictions on chemical agents, Columbus leaders last week announced they would adopt four new police use-of-force policies to bring the city in line with the #8CantWait campaign. Many local organizers were quick to dismiss the move as not going far enough, noting the city had already instituted half of the campaign's policies.

Nick Evans was a reporter at WOSU's 89.7 NPR News. He spent four years in Tallahassee, Florida covering state government before joining the team at WOSU.