Cops said dreadlocked Buddhist barista Nate Blair shoved them at a political protest on Church Street. Blair said that he never touched them — and that they shoved him and then threw him to the ground and arrested him unprovoked.
A judge or a jury may end up trying to decide which of them is telling the truth. Because, unlike in most cases involving arrestees who feel unfairly charged but lack the money or time or spend months fighting the charges in court, Blair is pursuing his right to be heard in court.
And newly available video of the incident, while incomplete, will become part of the process of determining who was right.
Some of the accusations about the Feb. 4 rally concerned the actions of state police at the scene. The state police are conducting an internal review of why their trooper — Michael R. Beauton, who has a history of alleged brutality — set a dog on the crowd, and why that dog ended up biting other cops. (A New Haven protester arrested by state cops, Norman Clement, has also pleaded not guilty.) The department is finishing up that review and should be able to announce results soon, said Arielle Reich, chief of staff to the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.
City, not state, police arrested Blair, a 26-year-old coffee shop employee and activist trained in nonviolence. He said that after police shoved him and threw him to the ground to handcuff him, then processed him on disorderly conduct charges, he went to the hospital, where he learned he had suffered a minor concussion.
He said he refuses to accept what state prosecutors usually offer in cases like this — a nolle, which would not require a formal admission of guilt and would erase the charge from his record if he avoids getting arrested again for 13 months. In an interview, he said that a nolle would enable police to intimidate him in future protests, because another arrest would keep the original charge on his record. Also, he said, he did nothing wrong and police should be held accountable for false arrests.
His attorney, Patricia Kane, made the same argument. She isn’t charging Blair to represent him in this case, she said. She’s also representing Clement for free in his case versus the state police. Recently, she offered her services for free to protester John Lugo, who then fought a $50 disorderly conduct ticket at another demonstration — and convinced a judge last week to dismiss it.
“Most individuals can’t afford to fight it. That leaves police free to harass [and] pick off people one at a time,” Kane said in an interview.
“It sounds a bit corny, but it’s the First Amendment right to speak and protest what your government is doing. It still matters that people can take to the streets and voice their opinion without interference and certainly without harm or injury. For nonviolent protesters to be assaulted by the police is not the country we want to live in.
“If I don’t take these cases, it gives police license to abuse citizens. I don’t see police policing themselves.”
“Continuously Ignored Lawful Orders”
According to the police, Blair himself was the aggressor.
New Haven police officer Brian Watrous offered that story in a report he filed about the incident to support the disorderly conduct charge.
He and fellow officer John Gregorczyk were on foot alongside the marching protesters helping state and other city cops on Church Street approaching DHQP3L Street at 5:18 p.m., Watrous wrote in the report. Earlier the protesters had blocked traffic on Route 34, a state road. Now they were headed back toward the Green.
“Protesters were marching across the entire width of Church Street heading north. As they approached the intersection of Church Street and Chapel Street a New Haven Police mobile unit was attempting to respond to a call.
“As the patrol car headed north on Church Street it stayed to the left lane and used its lights and sirens to try and go around the protesters. Several protesters refused to move out of the way of the patrol vehicle. Officers guided the protesters to the right to allow the patrol unit to get by.
“One protester, later identified as Nathaniel Blair, was told several times to move to the right of the traffic lane by Officer Gregorczyk, to allow the patrol vehicle by. Blair continuously ignored lawful orders given to him and continued to keep walking back into the far left traffic lane.
“Blair eventually pushed Officer Gergorczyk as he was trying to order Blair back out of the traffic lane. I assisted Officer Gregorczyk as he placed Blair into handcuffs and detained.”
Let’s Go To The Videotape
Blair and Kane said the cops shoved Blair several times, unprovoked, then threw him violently to the ground even though he offered no resistance.
Blair had joined the demonstration earlier in the day as a member of a group called Food Not Bombs. The group served free vegan soup, salad, and cooked broccoli to the demonstrators. Then Blair joined the march to Route 34, then back up Church.
On Church, he said. he participated in a group chanting, “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” A New Haven cop at the scene grew enraged at the chant, Blair said. Next thing he knew, the officer charged at him, Blair said. “He grabbed my arm. He went to put it behind my back. I didn’t resist, because I did not do anything wrong.” The officer and several others wrestled him to the ground and handcuffed him.
At least two citizens were video-recording the protest march. They didn’t focus specifically on Blair. But their footage includes some of the interaction between Blair and the cops on Church Street. Those segments have been compiled in the above video.
A photographer named Eino Sierpe also took still photos of Blair’s arrest. Those photos appear throughout this article.
Kane has made the video footage available to the state prosecutor’s office. She argued that the video “refutes the claim that Nate’s arrest was instigated by his refusal to move from the far left lane. It also refutes that there was truly an emergency for the squad car to respond to,” or that “Gregorczyk repeatedly told Nate to move before making the unlawful arrest.” Rather, she observed it shows cops pushing Blair, not Blair pushing cops; and an officer grabbing Blair from behind, dragging him, pushing him in the chest, without being resisted.
Click on the video above to watch the segments. Blair is wearing a knit hat and backpack.
Soon, incidents like these will usually have video available from police body cameras showing more of the story, as the department proceeds with a plan to outfit officers with the devices.
Meanwhile, will the state prosecutor’s office change its mind based on the videos or other aspects of this case? In recent cases of controversial arrests, the state has stood by the police and made arrestees prove their side in court. Blair said he’s ready to do just that if necessary.
Lucy Gellman contributed to this story.