Why My Son and I Are Suing D.C. Police

By Gwen Frisbie-Fulton
January 3, 2018 | 9:45 AM

I had to wake my son up to go to bed on Election Night because he is getting too big to carry. He asked to stay up to watch the election results even though it was a school night — and then fell asleep next to me.

Even though he is only 10, A. took a keen interest in the 2016 presidential campaign. He has always been interested in politics and community work. When he was six, he had a blanket fort-building birthday party, asking his friends to bring blankets that could be donated to the homeless shelter where I worked. When he was eight, he sold lemonade to support a local animal rescue. When he was nine, he wrote a comic book about the harms of fracking.

A.’s concerns about Donald Trump are not just an imitation of my own politics or of other adults around him; they are rooted in his personal values of kindness and respect. This is why we decided to go to Washington to protest the inauguration together.

We left early in the morning and bought day-long Metro passes. They were special inauguration passes with a picture of Donald Trump on them. A. thought these would be good for his memory box. But the memory we left D.C. with that January day felt much more sinister.

After we spent a few hours protesting, I learned that a friend was being detained. When we got to the location, people had gathered across from where a large group of protestors had been cornered by police. A. stood on the base of a lamp post so he could wave to the people he knew. He chanted “Let them go!” gleefully with other protesters. We talked with friends. We shared some of the snacks I had packed in my backpack. We were there for more than half an hour without incident.

But then, without warning, everything changed.

An officer pulled out pepper spray a little ways away from us. I told A. it was time to go. As we tried to leave, the police line rushed forward, knocking A. down. Instinctually, I jumped on top of him, rounding my back to create a pocket under my body so he wouldn’t be crushed. I felt people being knocked around above us and I could hear A. crying under me. When I was able, I stood up with A. in my arms and turned to leave again. I was blocked by police officers; I asked if I could go.

“You shouldn’t have brought your kid,” was one officer’s answer. They continued to block the sidewalk.

Clouds of pepper spray filled the street and the noise from flash-bangs ricocheted off the buildings. One officer tried to help us, yelling “she has a child, she has a child!” and running beside us — but we lost him. Many of the officers were masked; wearing all black and helmets so you couldn’t tell them apart. A. pressed his face into the space where my neck and shoulder meet as I ran with him to where I knew we would be safest — towards the protesters.

In this video, Gwen Frisbie-Fulton, wearing a dark windbreaker with a white-lined hood, is seen carrying A.S. after he was knocked down and exposed to pepper spray.

I had trouble running because he is getting too big to carry — and because I was coughing from the pepper spray. Another protester ran up and took A. and ran with him. Protesters — strangers — surrounded my child to protect him; his face was red and splotchy from either crying or being exposed to pepper spray. Someone wiped his face with their bandana and water. The flash-bangs and pepper spray continued, so we picked him up and ran again.

People have talked a lot about that day and the violence that took place. I need to be very clear: the police are the ones who put us in danger. The other protesters were our safety.

We ran to a Metro station and used our special all-day inauguration passes to get away from downtown. We left our friends behind who, as far as we knew, were still being attacked and maybe even arrested. We rode to the National Cathedral — it was the calmest place I could think of in the city. A. is a Star Wars fan, so we looked for the Darth Vader gargoyle on the Cathedral. I needed my child to feel safe again.

You shouldn’t have brought your kid.

All of a mother’s breath revolves around keeping her child safe. If I had known the police would attack the crowd like that I never would have gone. But if we live in a time that we expect police to attack us, then we need to be having a very different conversation. We don’t need to talk about what we should or shouldn’t do, we need to talk about how we are going to change.

Protest is not just a protected liberty; it is essential to community life. For me, protest is a logical continuation of the everyday community change work that I engage in; for nearly 20 years, I have made my career working for anti-violence and anti-poverty nonprofits. Likewise, for parents, protest is a logical continuation of the values we teach our children (stand up to bullies, speak out, befriend the kid who has been treated unfairly).

The night of January 20, we stayed with some of A.’s kid-friends who had also come to D.C. to protest. Instead of staying up with his buddies, A. asked to sleep next to me. After he fell asleep, I slipped out of bed and washed the pepper spray out of his Star Wars hat.

The next day we went to the Women’s March as planned. It was clear that the police department’s approach to this protest and the people who attended it was very, very different from its attitude the day before. Regardless, when we did see an officer, A. asked to leave.

Our lawsuit against the D.C. police for constitutional violations on Inauguration Day will not change what happened; it is an imperfect solution to a terrifying situation. But parents rarely get to do things perfectly, especially single mothers like myself. We patch together makeshift Christmases; we work second jobs at the expense of time with our children; we let them stay up late on election night knowing they will be exhausted in the morning.

But what joining the ACLU-DC’s lawsuit does do is show my son that he is right: he is right to want to stand up for justice, he is right for wanting to speak up, and he is right for imagining a very, very different future — and that my community and I will do what it takes to protect him from harm.

Gwen Frisbie-Fulton and her son, A.S., are clients in the ACLU-DC’s lawsuit against the District of Columbia and its police department for constitutional violations on Inauguration Day. Learn more about the case.

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