A group of protesters was marching on South Figueroa Street in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday afternoon when they came across a couple of women who were being taken into custody by two officers.
The group stopped to keep watch and chanted, “Let them go, let them go!” Suddenly, a man — whom the protesters say they did not know and was not in their group — sprayed water from a bottle onto the Los Angeles Police Department officers.
“That’s when things escalated. The batons came out right away,” said Charli Morachnick, a 22-year-old protester.
After a chaotic scene unfolded, police arrested three people: 30-year-old Mario Chacon of Glendora was arrested on suspicion of battery on a police officer; 33-year-old Joshua Wilson of Los Angeles was arrested on suspicion of being a felon in possession of a firearm; and 53-year-old David Dixon, also of Los Angeles, was arrested on a felony warrant.
LAPD spokesman Mike Lopez had reported that four people were arrested Tuesday, but the official count was later corrected.
According to the LAPD, the incident was sparked by protesters who were aggressive toward officers from the beginning. Four officers were treated for minor injuries.
But protesters say that after 44 straight days of demonstrating against police brutality in downtown L.A., it was the LAPD officers who used excessive force that left one disabled man out of his wheelchair and an asthmatic teenager convulsing on the street.
“The fact that the violence is still happening is barbaric,” said Tyson Suzuki, the head of the organization Active Advocate, which has been leading daily protests starting outside City Hall.
Asked about the force used against the disabled man and the teenager, LAPD spokesman Joshua Rubenstein said Thursday that the details of those encounters are under investigation.
Cailin O’Brien, a 25-year-old protester, said police in riot gear and SWAT vehicles appeared seemingly out of nowhere to surround the group of about 15 protesters, far outnumbering them, after the man with the water bottle sprayed officers. Morachnick described the group of protesters as “fiercely nonviolent,” and she did not understand why they had been targeted by officers.
“We were unarmed. We were holding signs. We were saying chants. And we were met with riot gear, batons and forceful shoving” from police officers, Morachnick said.
Video shows Wilson in a wheelchair pushing officers away. He fell to the ground and slid himself off his wheelchair, still pushing the officers away.
In the video, officers shoved protesters with batons as the protesters attempted to help the man in the wheelchair. The officers pushed him to the ground and handcuffed him. One officer grabbed the man’s wheelchair and tossed it, causing a wheel to fall off, video shows.
Wilson had been out on the streets protesting for several days, fellow protesters said. The video never showed Wilson reaching for a firearm or his bag.
The officers “showed no remorse after tossing a man in a wheelchair onto the ground and after slamming this young man with a baton, sending him onto the floor with a seizure,” O’Brien said.
In another part of the street, video shows 17-year-old Elliot Sanchez on the ground, convulsing and crying.
In an interview, Sanchez said an officer was asking protesters to clear the streets and was walking toward him as Sanchez stepped backward. Sanchez asked the officer for his badge number, and said he was hit with a baton in the chest and neck, causing him to fall to the ground and suffer an asthma attack and a seizure.
The crowd pleaded for an ambulance as more officers arrived on the scene, protesters said.
“Why did you bring so much military but you can’t even bring a … medic?” a man can be heard saying through a megaphone. “We just need a medic.”
Sanchez said he was taken into custody after being treated at the hospital and given a citation for resisting arrest.
“I don’t understand how they were considering me resisting arrest if I was having a seizure,” he said Wednesday as he went out to protest again downtown.
Rubenstein contradicted the teenager’s account. He said that although Sanchez was pushed, he was not struck with a baton, nor was he arrested. He could not confirm whether Sanchez was given a citation because he is a minor, Rubenstein said.
“There was a use of force, and I believe he was pushed back, but I don’t know the details behind it,” he said. “That’s under investigation. The investigators say it was not a swinging baton strike.”
Suzuki described the police activity Tuesday afternoon as militarized and inhumane.
“They were ready to go,” he said. “They looked like they were in some sort of game mode, like this is them playing … ‘Call of Duty.’ To them it just seemed like a drop in the bucket.”
On Thursday, the LAPD gave its version of what had unfolded. According to the police statement, officers were conducting an investigation involving two women who appeared to be “in the midst of a mental health crisis.” The officers planned to take the women to a hospital for evaluation.
During that investigation, they saw Dixon yelling at and pushing another man. While officers were “preparing to leave the area” with Dixon and the two women, a group of about 50 protesters surrounded the officers and began chanting, the police statement said.
LAPD Chief Michel Moore said that “there was some dispute” between the officers and the protesters, and that the protesters began “forcefully attacking the officers.”
According to the LAPD’s statement, Wilson “punched an officer in the face and a use of force occurred between the officers and Wilson.” Investigators found a loaded gun in Wilson’s backpack, which had been hanging on his wheelchair, according to the police statement.
“He battered the officers, punched an officer, tried to take the baton away from the officer,” Moore said. “And so that is what happened with that protest. It was largely peaceful, but not in that episode of violence.”
Meanwhile, according to the LAPD, Chacon tried to grab one of the officers’ “equipment” and another “use of force occurred.” Police said Chacon tried to take a baton from one officer and pushed another.
Rubenstein said the incident is still under investigation and detectives will review body camera and surveillance footage from the area.
Times staff writer Cindy Chang contributed to this report.