Chief stands by department’s actions

Published 6:42 am Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Austin police chief said Monday that his officers acted appropriately Saturday when using a chemical spray and making three arrests at a downtown protest.

Austin resident and member of the National Socialist Movement Samuel Johnson organized the illegal immigration protest at the Veterans Memorial in front of the courthouse, but things escalated when a large group of counter protesters — including many from an anti-racism coalition arrived.

Members of the Anti-Racist Action Network, a Minneapolis-based group that describes itself as a coalition of militant anti-fascists opposed to all forms of hate, gathered, while some in the crowd threw tomatoes, cups of Jell-O and other objects at Johnson and three supporters, according to a police report.

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The group of 25 to 30 also pushed its way toward Johnson, at one point stepping on and breaking a speaker.

As the event became more heated, an Austin police officer used the chemical spray to disperse the crowd and help another officer with arrests.

Three people — a 21-year-old male from Memphis, a 20-year-old male from Austin and a 21-year-old female from Minneapolis — were arrested and cited.

Police chief Paul Philipp said his officers did the right thing.

“Our mission is to use the least amount of force necessary without people getting hurt significantly,” he said.

Philipp said he was not aware of any injuries stemming from the rally.

According to the report, one man told officers he was suffering a reaction to the chemical spray but he declined medical attention.

Philipp also said there was no damage done to any public property.

Permit necessary?

Currently, the city does not require people to receive permits for public gatherings, but Philipp said that issue is likely to soon be addressed.

The chief said with a permit requirement in place, his department would be able to better prepare for an event like Saturday’s.

“Certainly, it took a fair amount of manpower,” he added.

Philipp said the city would likely look at other communities that have such permit requirements in place before potentially adopting an ordinance locally.

The city does require people to apply for permits before marches, parades and other uses of public streets.

Johnson says crowd control an issue

The event organizer said he didn’t mind the opposition to his rally, and he thinks arrests were handled well, but he does wish crowd control was handled better.

“I wish police would’ve kept them back more,” Johnson said of the counter protesters that pushed in on him.

Johnson said the Anti-Racist Action Network is known for violence, something he and his supporters don’t condone, he added.

“They say they’re for First Amendment rights, but they’re not,” Johnson said. “They talk about using violence.”

A representative of the ARA Network could not be reached for comment, but their Web site states that the group does not advocate violence as a solution to hate.

Despite the controversy and opposition Johnson has been generating locally — similar rallies he has held in recent months have also spurred counter protests, though without arrests — the NSM member said he will continue holding public events.

“Absolutely we will,” Johnson said. “Illegal immigration is a huge problem in Austin.”