Dover-area protests continue Wednesday night

Protesters raise their fist in solidarity during a peaceful protest on Legislative Mall on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

Protests continued in downtown Dover Wednesday, a night after 20 people were arrested on misdemeanor charges following a Tuesday event where participants marched toward Camden on U.S. 13, blocking traffic in both directions.

Delaware State Police said protesters marching from Dover left city limits and reconvened on U.S. 13 where they began to act “aggressively toward motorists” and ultimately blocked all lanes of travel.

According to DSP spokeswoman Senior Cpl. Heather Pepper, the sequence began within Dover city limits with a gathering of about 40 protesters. The group then traveled from city limits and reconvened on U.S. 13 southbound to the area of the Wawa at 200 East St. at approximately 6:17 p.m.

Authorities said law enforcement officers told the protesters multiple times that the gathering was unlawfully obstructing traffic. The protesters were told to exit the roadway and move onto the shoulder, police said.

DSP said 22 people were taken into custody and detained, including Dover Post reporter and photographer Andre Lamar, who was not charged and later released.

Mr. Lamar’s video coverage Tuesday shows protesters on the ground and records an officer pushing him to the ground as well as he repeatedly identifies himself as a member of the press. The videos were posted on the The Dover Post Facebook page.

Mr. Lamar’s detainment by police drew the attention of Gov. John Carney and Attorney General Kathleen Jennings, who reacted on Twitter Tuesday night.

Attorney General Jennings wrote, “I’ve been clear with law enforcement that I do not believe civil disobedience should be treated criminally and that peaceful protesters should not be harmed.”

Gov. Carney tweeted, “Reporters have a fundamental right to cover the demonstrations we’re seeing in Delaware and across our country. They should not be arrested for doing their jobs. That’s not acceptable.”

In a statement provided Wednesday by Dover Post News Editor Ben Mace, USA TODAY Network President Maribel Wadsworth described the arrests of journalists covering protests “unacceptable.”

“We have seen incident after incident over the last many days of reporters, photographers, other journalists on the front lines of this coverage being arrested, yes, but worse, being pepper sprayed, hit with rubber bullets,” Wadsworth said. “These attacks on journalists absolutely are unacceptable and absolutely must be stopped.”

Also, Ms. Wadsworth said, “When law enforcement are trying to keep journalists from reporting on the news as it’s happening, they’re going against our very constitution. The journalists are there to document the story. The journalists are there to shine a light on what’s going on. We absolutely will defend every one of our journalists with the full weight of our company to ensure the freedom of the press in this country.”

The 20 arrestees each face four disorderly conduct charges — refusal to disperse, obstructing vehicular traffic, obstructing pedestrian traffic, and fighting or violent tumultuous or threatening behavior. Four persons were charged with resisting arrest, three for hindering prosecution.

All arrestees were arraigned before Justice of the Peace Court and released on either their own recognizance or unsecured bond, DSP said.

As a bail condition, defendants were ordered not to “interfere with public egress or ingress or shut down public right-of-ways or block roadways when physically protesting unless legally permitted,” DSP said.

Sr. Cpl. Pepper said the incident, which continues to be investigated, escalated with protesters becoming disorderly and then refusing to allow a Dover Police officer in a marked police vehicle to proceed through. Once the officer exited the patrol car, individuals became disorderly, authorities said.

Series of events

Dover Police released a statement Wednesday describing what they said were efforts “to engage and support the core group of demonstrators over the past week of activity” in the city area.

Chief Thomas Johnson Jr. and other Dover PD officers met with demonstrators on June 5 and 6 at Legislative Mall, according to spokesman Master Cpl. Mark Hoffman. Officers at one point willingly walked arm in arm with demonstrators as a show of support, authorities said.

Up to six of the group’s leaders were scheduled to meet with Chief Johnson on Tuesday afternoon with the goal of holding “a meaningful and productive conversation about police and criminal justice reforms and discuss any of the demonstration groups objectives and goals,” according Dover Police.

Late Monday, however, police said the group sent an email stating its wish to cancel/postpone the meeting. A police followup call to a group member confirmed the cancellation, authorities said.

According to police, “Throughout the week, protesters, both armed and unarmed, began to encroach on private property and/or jump into active lanes of (U.S. 13) traffic in order to closely engage motorists and pedestrians.

State Rep. Sean Lynn, center, talks with two protesters during a peaceful protest on Legislative Mall on Wednesday.

“These decisions led to several near misses of persons being struck by cars and/or chain reaction crashes during panic breaking to avoid such impacts.”

Police said they received 911 calls from “many motorists … out of fear when being approached by protesters, some of whom were wearing body armor and armed with weapons in uncontrolled traffic patterns …”

Dover Police said a conference call was held at 4 p.m. Tuesday in collaboration with DSP and senior level members of the Attorney General’s Office.

“The purpose of this call was to clearly define the applicable laws that could be utilized to ensure the public safety for all …,” according to the statement.

Enforcement options were discussed regarding the possibility of risks to safety and what to do if “verbal warnings proved to be ineffective,” police said.

According to Dover Police, they were prepared to provide safety and traffic control for a demonstration that began to form around Legislative Hall.

“However, the group left the area in vehicles and traveled to the area of the Camden Wawa store,” police said.

“Once they arrived, the demonstrators rapidly initiated protest activity, including running out into active traffic, and engaging motorists.”

Video, drone footage

Dover Police released drone footage Wednesday, and described Mr. Lamar at the scene putting on a press credential lanyard and “rummaging through his backpack.”

Police said an officer who engaged Mr. Lamar didn’t know he was a journalist and was unaware of the contents in the backpack, causing concern.

According to the Associated Press, protesters disrupted traffic “to refocus people” and were blocking roads so others “can think about people like George Floyd,” Mr. Lamar said in another video explaining his arrest after he was released.

State police tweeted Wednesday they will support “citizens of Delaware with their rights to peaceful protest” and asked for the public’s patience as they investigate the arrests, the AP reported.

State Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, said he watched incidents unfold via Facebook Live, including Mr. Lamar’s arrest Tuesday.

“In general I believe the presence of armored vehicles and paramilitary equipment likely escalated that event beyond where it needed to go and perhaps could have caused some additional arrests given the funeral of George Floyd (Tuesday),” he said.

Mr. Lynn attended a gathering of around 75 at Legislative Mall on Wednesday night.