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Protesters relive ‘fearful’ day

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In disbelief: great-grandmother Marie Smith, 75 (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)

A 75-year-old woman who was pepper-sprayed at Friday’s protest outside Parliament, described her fear yesterday at the response of riot police, claiming officers “treated us like a bunch of dogs”.

Great-grandmother Marie Smith told The Royal Gazette: “My poor heart was pumping. I couldn’t believe that this was what I was up into. I didn’t expect it at all.”

Ms Smith was one of five demonstrators who met at the headquarters of the Bermuda Industrial Union yesterday afternoon to share their experiences, before going together to make formal complaints about the police.

One man, Andre Simmons, 50, alleged he was punched in the ribs and back by officers after being pepper- sprayed, for refusing to move to allow police to get into the grounds of Sessions House.

Michael DeSilva, the Commissioner of Police, said last night that 26 complaints had so far been recorded from members of the public regarding the events of December 2 and they would be notified to the independent Police Complaints Authority and investigated.

He added: “Six officers received injuries. Statements of complaint from other officers regarding common assault are still being recorded and numbers are not currently finalised, but [are] expected to exceed 20.”

Mr DeSilva said in the aftermath of the protest that some officers used incapacitant spray in a “proportionate response to disperse the crowd”.

He reiterated last night that it was his job alone to “determine the use and control of the operations of the [police] service” and that no individual outside of the BPS was told about the decision to deploy riot police to the scene before the decision was enacted.

Ms Smith, who took part in the 1977 riots sparked by the hangings of Buck Burrows and Larry Tacklyn, was among the demonstrators on the Reid Street entrance to the House of Assembly when she was sprayed.

She followed officers in riot protection helmets to that area from Parliament Street.

“When they walked off and went down the hill, I went behind them,” she said. “That’s when they started pushing and then they started to spray.

“I was just outside the sidewalk when they sprayed the pepper spray. The person who was up on the steps, spraying, when he sprayed, it came to me. It got in my throat and when I started coughing, that’s when I backed across the street because I have thyroid problems.

“I had surgery recently and I can’t have anything like that because it makes me cough. It was almost a choking and I had to keep coughing to clear my throat.

“It lasted about five minutes. I got it from somebody else. The guy that was up on the steps spraying, it came right across to me. I wouldn’t say direct or indirect, but I know it reached me.”

She viewed the decision to deploy riot police — known officially as a police support unit or PSU — as “unbelievable, really, because I don’t think it was really called for”.

Ms Smith added: “I didn’t see anybody raise their hand. People were shouting and telling them [the police] they were wrong. I didn’t see nobody attack any policeman. I think that they treated us like a bunch of dogs …[I told an officer] this is no different to South Africa.”

Her son Richard L Brangman, 59, was also at the Reid Street entrance and saw his mother get sprayed.

He said he realised at that point “these guys are serious, they’re sick”.

Mr Brangman described being part of the “frontline” of protesters stopping access to Parliament when the riot police came “barrelling in, shoving”.

“I found myself face to face with the officers. We [protesters] were locked in arms stopping officers getting past.

“We were holding on, and these guys were shoving, and we were back and forth, shoving, shoving,” he said.

“Three or four minutes later, the female officer, I recognised her pulling out the spray. She held it like maybe eight inches or a foot away from my face and my reaction was to drop my head down.

“It caught my eyes, the back of my head, my arms, that was burning. She didn’t say nothing [in warning] and there was too much noise going on for her to.”

Another Reid-Street-side demonstrator, Winnae Wales, said she did hear a warning from police that pepper spray and tasers were to be used if she didn’t move. “They came around to us and at that time we locked arms,” said Ms Wales. “When they got close enough to us, the police officer started to try to pull the frontline gentlemen; there was a bunch of burly guys in the front.

“They tried to pull them away and with the resistance they were showing, they pulled out their pepper spray and started to spray people in their face.”

Ms Wales said a male officer “came up behind my neck … and he actually took his [spray] gun and tried to spray me directly in my face. Another one came on this side and tried to spray me directly on my face. So not only were they spraying the crowd but they were targeting people’s faces. Our arms were locked. We couldn’t assault them because our arms were locked.”

Mr Simmons claimed he was punched because pepper spray from an officer didn’t make him move and was eventually “thrown up against a wall”.

“They gripped me, punched me in my ribs,” he said. “They gripped my clothes and were pulling me. I was being punched in my ribs and my back until finally my jacket tore off.”

A fifth protester, Lilymay Bulford, 64, said she too was pepper-sprayed.

Friday’s protest was organised to prevent MPs entering the House to debate a controversial plan to redevelop the airport.

The Centre for Justice, an organisation which promotes civil rights, said on Monday the law did not permit those gathered for assembly and protest to block public access ways or rights of way. Ms Wales said: “If you feel there is something that’s going on that’s not congruent with what you believe to be right, I’m willing to break a law.”

On occasion The Royal Gazette may decide to not allow comments on a story that we deem might inflame sensitivities or when the discourse is lowered by commenters to unacceptable standards. As we are legally liable for any slanderous or defamatory comments made on our website, this move is for our protection as well as that of our readers.

Winnae Wales
Richard Brangman (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)
Lilymay Bulford (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)
Andre Simmons (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)
Protesters tell their story (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)
Protesters tell their story (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)