PROVIDENCE — Ellen Bar-Zemer said that when she walked out of the grand jury room last week, a fellow protester told her: “You look really shaken.”
Bar-Zemer, 73, of Providence, said she was upset in part because she had just relived the experience of being pepper-sprayed in the face by a correctional officer outside the Wyatt Detention Facility on Aug. 14.
But also, she said, she was shaken because prosecutors had seemed more intent on questioning the actions of the Jewish activist group Never Again Action than on the use of pepper spray by correctional officers and the officer who, according to witnesses, drove a pickup truck into a group of protesters.
“The emphasis was on the behavior of the demonstrators,” Bar-Zemer said Wednesday. “It created a false equivalency between banging on the truck or yelling profanities and someone trying to run over demonstrators.”
Bar-Zemer is one of five members of the Never Again Action group who told the Globe they testified last week in Providence before a state grand jury that is investigating the well-publicized incident outside the Central Falls detention facility. The members of the group said they came away from the grand jury appearance disappointed that many questions focused on the threat posed by protesters rather than the actions of correctional officers.
When asked for a response, Attorney General Peter F. Neronha issued a statement, saying his office is committed to conducting a thorough investigation of what occurred at the Wyatt Detention Facility on Aug 14.
“A thorough grand jury investigation requires asking all witnesses who appear before the grand jury to explain what they observed and how they were in a position to observe it,” Neronha said. “I have complete confidence in the prosecutors assigned to handle this investigation.”
At an Aug. 21 news conference, Neronha said investigators would be focusing both on the pickup truck and on the use of pepper spray by correctional officers.
The Wyatt Detention Facility is a nonprofit prison run by a quasipublic corporation. On Aug. 14, protesters gathered to object to the detention of immigrants held there by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Video shows a black pickup swerving toward protesters blocking Wyatt’s employee parking lot. Protesters scream, the trucks stops and then lurches forward. Organizers have said five protesters were injured.
The pickup driver, Wyatt Captain Thomas Woodworth, has resigned. He has not been charged.
Jared A. Goldstein, a Providence resident who took part in the protest with his wife and two children, said he testified before the grand jury last Thursday, and two prosecutors led the questioning.
“It was clear from early on that their focus was on potential threats or danger coming from the group,” he said. “I was incredibly disappointed.”
Goldstein, associate dean for academic affairs at the Roger Williams University School of Law, said prosecutors asked if protesters had blocked the pickup, called the driver names or spit at the truck.
And they asked what he knew about the local John Brown Gun Club, which describes itself online as “a leftist working-class community defense organization.” He said that as far as he knew, club members at the protest were not armed and provided medical care to those hit with pepper spray.
“It was an incredibly peaceful demonstration,” Goldstein said. “All the violence and threats of violence were coming from the guards. To put the attention on the victims of the violence is to take the side of the guards and say that what they did was justified.”
Goldstein’s wife, Amy Pickworth, said she served as a Never Again Action “marshal” whose role was to keep demonstrators on the sidewalk and de-escalate any conflicts with authorities. When the truck drove into the protesters, she talked to a demonstrator who was “really agitated,” she said.
Pickworth said prosecutors asked if she had told the police she was concerned that demonstrator would shoot someone. She said she replied: “Oh, God, no — I was worried the driver was going to shoot one of us because he had just driven his truck into a crowd of people. He was clearly angry and capable of violence.”
At another point, Pickworth said, she turned to the grand jury and said, “I don’t know about you, but I was taught you never drive a truck into a group of people.” She said that comment seemed to irritate the prosecutor, who asked her to simply answer his questions.
Another protester, Jessica Rosner, of Cranston, said she felt “demoralized” by the grand jury process.
“It’s not that they did anything wrong in the grand jury — it’s just it felt like they were trying to find reasons that the officers felt threatened enough that they needed to use the pepper spray,” she said. “They kept harping on that. They never asked me if I was afraid.”
Rosner said she answered all the prosecutors’ questions but if she had to do it over again, she would have told them: “There could be no reason for (the pickup driver) to decide to use his car as a weapon, which he did. And once he was safely inside the parking lot, I can’t imagine why they used pepper spray.”
Ellen Bar-Zemer said she and her 76-year-old husband, Uri Bar-Zemer, were also serving as Never Again Action “marshals” when the pickup drove into the group. She said she was moving people away from one side of the truck when a correctional officer approached her.
“He looked me in the eye and sprayed me right in the face,” she said. “I was completely blinded and in a lot of pain.” She said her husband led her away and she ended up at the Miriam Hospital emergency room.
“One of the things that haunts me from that night is that a bunch of correctional officers were willing to do that in front of news cameras while the whole world was watching,” Ellen Bar-Zemer said. “If they are willing to pepper-spray a 73-year-old white woman who is no threat, what are they doing inside to men of color who are completely at their mercy?”