North Jersey chaos near jail ‘not a peaceful protest’ — Sheriff
HACKENSACK — A day after demonstrations outside Bergen County jail devolved into violent clashes with law enforcement, the Bergen County Sheriff slammed several out-of state residents who he said incited violence before their arrests, noting "What occurred yesterday was not a peaceful protest."
Bergen County Sheriff Anthony Cureton held a brief news conference on Sunday, also shared to the office's Facebook page, where he delivered a statement and did not take questions from reporters.
Cureton, an elected Democrat, said that about 45 protesters first gathered outside the jail around 1:30 p.m., and that the crowd had tripled in size by 3 p.m to about 150 people.
The sheriff said that citing safety concerns, demonstrators were told to stay off jail property and away from blocking traffic in front of facilities — however, he said the gathering became “increasingly unruly” as protesters hopped over barricades and ignored requests from officers around the perimeter to back away.
“Despite efforts to de-escalate the situations, protesters continued their resistance, moving barricades, throwing bricks, spitting, spraying officers with pepper spray and even biting two officers,” Cureton said, also adding of the crowd “that many were there to protest peacefully and respectively.”
On social media, groups supporting the protests shared different accounts of the events of Saturday.
"Last night, police in Bergen County responded to peaceful protests with violence. We cannot and must not lose sight of the fact that people detained at Bergen are nearly one month into a hunger strike," a message from the collective group, Freedom for Immigrants, said on Twitter.
Cureton said officers from 17 different law enforcement groups at the municipal, county and state level, including State Police and Port Authority police responded to a request for backup after initial clashes with people who had jumped barriers and grappled with Bergen County officers.
“At one point, law enforcement used tactical smokes to disperse the crowd, but let me be clear tear gas was not deployed,” Cureton said.
The Twitter account "NYC Protest Updates 2020" was among those who said that tear gas had been used on Saturday in the chaos outside the Hackensack facility.
The same account shared a video clip of protesters earlier Saturday, behind the barricades outside the jail's perimeter, as did an Instagram account called "Thoughtstream_ig."
Of nine protesters arrested Saturday, eight of them were New York residents, Cureton said, adding those individuals face pending charges that include disorderly conduct, obstruction of a governmental function, aggravated assault on police officers and resisting arrest.
All were issued summonses and released and under routine procedure, a thorough review would be done on the events of Saturday, the sheriff also said.
As of Sunday afternoon, the names of those arrested on Saturday had not yet been disclosed publicly.
“Let me say how disheartened I am that this civil unrest happened here in Bergen County. I come to this position from a background of activism and civil engagement,” Cureton said, noting that before being elected as sheriff, he served as the president of the Bergen County NAACP. "I have spent my entire adult life advocating for civil rights. I have organized, marched, participated in more rallies and protests than I can count."
"What occurred yesterday was not a peaceful protest. It was not a productive act of political expression. What we saw yesterday was not, in the words of my hero, John Lewis, ‘good trouble,’” Cureton said.
“I respect anyone who exercises their first amendment right to speech for the purpose of positive change,” Cureton said, while adding that vandalizing and trespassing on property, biting officers and jeopardizing public safety would not be tolerated.
The sheriff also noted over the past year, numerous Black Lives Matter protests were held in Bergen County without similar issues of incited violence.
Cureton said Sunday that he's told federal officials that Bergen County jail will only accept detainees who have been convicted of crimes and that 92% of ICE detainees currently held in Hackensack have been convicted of crimes that include murder, sexual assault and drug distribution.
The Sheriff also said Sunday that he does not have the ability to release federal detainees, which he said is a misconception he wanted to clear up.
Cureton's own house was vandalized last week, as someone spray-painted the message "free them all" in red lettering on his garage. Officials have not identified any suspects.
The sheriff slammed social media claims of jail conditions described as “unacceptable,” citing his own history as an inmate advocate and saying such claims were unfounded.
Cureton's office on Dec. 8 shared photos to Facebook from a visit by the sheriff with inmates and inspection of Bergen County jail facilities.
In that post, the sheriff's office also said "We have confirmed that many inmates claiming to be on a hunger strike have actually been eating. They are medically evaluated daily and none are suffering from malnutrition."