Man in pickup drives into group of ICE protesters in Rhode Island

The protesters, part of Never Again Action, were outside the Wyatt Detention Facility protesting the treatment of migrants in ICE detention.

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By Ben Kesslen

A man wearing a guard uniform in a pickup truck drove into a group of ICE demonstrators Wednesday night outside the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, Rhode Island.

The protesters, picketing outside the facility that has contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, were organized by Never Again Action, a Jewish group formed in the past two months calling for the end of ICE detention, and Amor, a Rhode Island-based immigrant rights group.

The Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility said in a statement Thursday that Capt. Thomas Woodworth had been placed on administrative leave pending a state police investigation, NBC Boston reported. He is the man suspected of nearly running over the protesters, the station reported.

Attempts to reach phone numbers listed in online records as matching that name in the area were not immediately successful late Thursday.

Amy Anthony, a spokesperson for Never Again Action, told NBC News that earlier in the evening, around 400 people had gathered outside the facility to protest, the second time the group has planned an action outside the detention center.

As the protest died down, about 30 demonstrators linked arms and sat in the parking lot entrances to block staff from leaving or entering, Anthony said. The group was peacefully protesting when seemingly out of nowhere a man in a truck drove toward them, slowing down just before hitting the crowd, footage of the incident shows. The video then shows the driver continuing to drive through the crowd, as protesters scream and try to get away from the car.

Anthony described the interaction before 10 p.m. as “terrifying,” saying the “brazen act" shows the driver believed he is "beyond reproach.” She said several people suffered non-life-threatening injuries from the incident, and some were brought to a local hospital, including an elderly protester whose leg was fractured during the incident. She also added a father was in the crowd with his three children.

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Never Again Action thinks the driver worked at the privately run facility, based on his uniform that can be seen in the video. While police were at the protest, they did not intervene, Anthony said, and video of the incident shows the protesters yelling at the driver, who appeared unfazed by the interaction. Soon after the truck almost hit the crowd, Never Again Action says other guards at the facility pepper-sprayed the crowd and escorted the driver into the facility.

Representatives for the Wyatt Detention Facility, the Central Falls police, and ICE did not return NBC News’ requests for comment.

The Rhode Island attorney general’s office said in a statement that it was working with Rhode Island State Police, were investigating what transpired.

“Once we have a full understanding of the relevant facts, we will determine how to proceed,” the attorney general’s office said. “Peaceful protest is a fundamental right of all Americans; it is unfortunate last night's situation unfolded as it did. We urge all to exercise restraint as our investigation proceeds.”

Wyatt Detention Facility Warden Daniel Martin said he is also conducting an internal review of the incident and the facility's protocols regarding protest activities, NBC Boston reported.

The protest was one of more than 30 demonstrations Never Again Action has held around the country in the past two months, and Anthony said despite last night’s incident, the group remains steadfast in its mission to free all migrants from detention.

“We will not be deterred by the violence that was taken against us last night,” she said, adding that if a person she believes to be a guard at the facility is behaving this way in public, she can't imagine what his behavior looks like behind closed doors.

“People are being harmed in ICE custody every day," Anthony said. "This is exactly why we are doing what we’re doing."

The state's elected officials on Thursday called for a thorough investigation while stressing the value of peaceful protest.

"RI was founded on the principle of tolerance & there is no place here for any assault on peaceful protestors," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, tweeted Thursday.

The state's other U.S. senator, Jack Reed, also a Democrat, echoed the sentiment, saying "Peaceful protest is an American right."

Gov. Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, tweeted Thursday that "President Trump’s immigration policies are immoral, and these Rhode Islanders were exercising their constitutional right to protest" and she pledged a full investigation.

Central Falls Mayor James A. Diossa also tweeted that he spoke with the attorney general and other officials and said what he called a "disturbing incident" is under investigation.

Phil Helsel contributed.