PROVIDENCE — As hundreds gathered on the plaza at the bottom of the Rhode Island State House steps Friday night for a rally after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a man who was live-streaming the demonstration began shouting at the crowd.
The man, who identified himself as Josh Mello of Cranston on the social media accounts where he shared his live stream, was quickly surrounded by people, many of whom told him to leave. One man pushed Mello. More people started shouting.
One of the demonstration’s organizers, Jennifer Rourke — a board member of The Womxn Project and candidate for a State Senate District 29 seat in Warwick — rushed over to try to defuse the situation. “This (conflict) is not what this is about,” Rourke, who is also a co-founder of the R.I. Political Cooperative, told the Globe on Saturday.
Video from the demonstration shows Rourke holding her hands up and repeatedly asking people, in English and Spanish, to move away. She asked Mello to leave, and she said he agreed.
The bald man in the middle is the one who suddenly began shouting on the state house steps was here the whole time. More than midway through he moved toward the speaker and was immediately surrounded by crowd members. Some say they were punched. #RoeVsWade pic.twitter.com/xqLkgJSy4n— Carlos R. Munoz 📰 (@ReadCarlos) June 25, 2022
But as Mello walked up the stairs to the first platform at the State House steps, waving his cell phone as he continued live stream, he was assaulted by an unidentified man in a green- and white-striped jacket. As of Saturday, the man had not been identified.
“I screamed ‘Don’t hit him,’” Rourke said in a phone interview Saturday morning. Then, video shows, someone struck her in the face. “I was hit multiple times,” she said.
Rourke identified the person who attacked her as off-duty Providence police officer Jeann Lugo, her Republican opponent for the State Senate District 29 seat. In response to questions from the Globe, Lugo on Saturday did not deny punching Rourke.
“As an officer that swore to protect and serve our communities, I, unfortunately, saw myself in a situation that no individual should see themselves in,” Lugo said in an email to the Globe. “I stepped in to protect someone that a group of agitators was attacking.”
On Saturday afternoon, Lugo was charged with simple assault and disorderly conduct, the Providence police reported. The arrest result from coordinated efforts of the Providence Police Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility and the Rhode Island State Police.
Lugo, 35, of Warwick, was arraigned by a bail commissioner at the State Police barracks, and released on personal recognizance, with a re-arraignment date of July 8. He has been suspended with pay from the Providence Police Department.
“The officer has served on the department for three years and was placed on administrative leave with pay this morning, pending a criminal investigation and administrative review,” Providence Police spokesperson Lindsay Lague confirmed Saturday, echoing a statement tweeted by Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven M. Paré earlier in the day.
Under the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, known as LEOBOR, being placed on paid administrative leave is the normal procedure when an officer commits a misdemeanor, such as assault.
Immediately after the assault, Rourke did not appear to be injured but was visibly upset.
“I looked him in his face,” Rourke told the Globe on Saturday. “I’ve never even had a conversation with him [in person]. I just know him from social media.”
“Why attack me? I was the one trying to prevent this. It’s disappointing,” she said in the phone interview. “I am a survivor of domestic violence and I just froze.”
Rourke said her husband, who was home with their children at the time of the rally, is a retired Charlottesville, Virginia, police officer. “He said, ‘That’s not how we handle situations like that. On or off duty,’” Rourke said.
Rourke said she filed a police report Friday night, and is pressing charges. On Saturday, she said, Rhode Island State Police called her and asked her to come in to answer questions.
On Saturday, Mello said he did not know the man who assaulted him, but plans on pressing charges. “I was physically hurt,” he told the Globe. “My face is still swollen, I’ve had a headache, and ringing in my ears.” Rhode Island state police called him to get more information on Saturday as well.
A.J. Braverman, a spokesman for the R.I. Political Cooperative, said the organization does not know who assaulted Mello. When asked if the man was connected to the cooperative, Braverman said: “definitely not.”
Rhode Island State Police Lieutenant Peter Filuminia told the Globe late Friday night that two other people, one male and one female, were arrested around 9:30 p.m. on charges of disorderly conduct. The state police on Saturday identified them as Jessica Burton, 39, and Nicholas Morrell, 31, both of Warwick. Morrell was also charged with resisting arrest and carrying weapons other than a firearm. They were not involved in the altercation between Rourke and Lugo, or in the assault on Mello.
“It’s frustrating when you are trying to have something peaceful and it turns into something like that,” Rourke said on Saturday. “I’ve seen things happen across the country and I never thought that would happen here, or to me.”
Just before 2 p.m. on Saturday, Lugo quietly ended his campaign for State Senate District 29. “I will not be running for any office this fall,” he Tweeted at 1:52 p.m. Seconds later, his Twitter account was deactivated, though his campaign website remained active.
The rally, which lasted until about 10 p.m. and was attended by thousands of people, was otherwise peaceful. Here’s what it was like.
Edward Fitzpatrick and Carlos Munoz of the Globe Rhode Island Staff contributed to this report.
This article has been updated with additional information from Mello, Lugo, and the Rhode Island State Police.