El Paso police fired tear gas and bean bags to disperse protesters at Memorial Park on Sunday. (Screen shot of video by Destiny Garcia, used with permission)

El Paso police say they fired tear gas and projectiles to break up a threatening situation at Memorial Park Sunday night, but protesters say police were responsible for the violence.

More than 1,000 protesters took part in a mostly peaceful march from Memorial Park to El Paso police headquarters to denounce police brutality and express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. They were part of nationwide demonstrations in response to the police killings of George Floyd and others. But as the sun set Sunday night, police began forcibly pushing people from Copia Street into Memorial Park, then fired tear gas and beanbag projectiles  at a small group that they had surrounded in the park.

“I don’t understand why the police would show up to a peaceful protest in riot gear with a SWAT van with large guns and (projectiles) and tear gas. I don’t understand why they would show up ready to treat us as though we were aggressive when we were not,” said Destiny Garcia, a 26-year-old UTEP student and organizer with Fronterizo Fianza Fund. “They set the tone for the rest of the evening. Had they continued with what they were doing earlier, which was just guiding the traffic, making sure the protesters weren’t being hit by cars and all that, there would have been absolutely no issue.”

Related: El Paso police fired “beanbag rounds” at protesters. Their use is controversial.

The El Paso Police Department said protesters spurred the violent encounter. “The crowd was hostile. Officers were surrounded and confronted in a menacing manner,” police spokesman Enrique Carrillo said, adding, “If that protest can be said was ‘peaceful’ then ‘peace’ has just been redefined.”

Carrillo said two police officers were injured, one struck in the hand by a rock and “another was hit in the face by a tear gas canister picked up at thrown directly at her face.” An unknown number of protesters also were injured.

YouTube video
Video by Destiny Garcia

Police said three people were arrested at the protest but provided no additional details. Court records showed that three men were charged on Monday with riot participation; all had been released from jail on bond.

A peaceful protest turns tense

Sunday evening was the first time UTEP student Texas Hart, 23, attended a protest. Hart livestreamed video footage of the protests throughout the day on Facebook, and described the escalation. 

“It was such a beautiful, peaceful protest. Such an effective protest, it really hit my heart. And then when we started getting pushed by the police, everyone panicked,” Hart said. “There were a couple people throwing plastic water bottles, but most of the crowd was telling those people to stop. Somebody threw a water bottle behind the cop lines, and there was about a 10 second gap between that one water bottle getting thrown and a tear gas can getting thrown at us.”

Protesters surrounded an El Paso police tactical vehicle near Memorial Park on Sunday. Police have said protesters around the vehicle were a threat to officers, though no one was injured in the area. (Photo courtesy of Michelle Rosado)

Andrea Rivera Figueroa was hit by a beanbag round in the back of her leg. She said she was trying to leave, and that her friend watched a police officer take aim and shoot her from behind while she was packing up her things. 

Andrea Rivera Figueroa had a large bruise on the back of her leg after being hit with a beanbag projectile fired by police on Sunday night at Memorial Park. (Photo courtesy of Andrea Rivera Figueroa)

“They shot some kid in the stomach with a (bean bag), another kid claims to have been shot in the leg, while we were running and walking away. They kept shooting, it was a bunch of rounds. As soon as I was hit I immediately felt an incredible pain. I was not able to run or move,” Rivera Figueroa said. 

“One of the kids that got shot also had a tear gas canister thrown at him, so he was on all fours. No police officers stopped to come and help anybody that was hurt or suffering. The only people that helped me were protesters and my friends,” she said.

Gabriel Solis, a 29-year-old Ph.D. student at Columbia University and El Paso native, witnessed many young people suffer injuries caused by police on Sunday night. 

“We all got tear gassed. One of my colleagues was shot with a (bean bag), and we retreated through the park. As I was going through the park I remember coming across so many kids who were hurt; really, really hurt. Young kids, teenagers,” Solis said.

Solis said that police immediately transformed the energy of the protest when they arrived at Memorial Park in tactical gear. 

“Police showed up in riot gear with gas masks, and this was out of left field because up until this point the protest had been extremely peaceful. I started seeing police push back against people, trying to move the crowd with force, with their shields,” he said. 

ACLU condemns police actions

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas issued a statement condemning the police response.

“We have heard reports of the use of tear gas and projectiles against protesters simply trying to express public outrage over the murder of George Floyd by police — and over the many black and brown lives lost at the hands of law enforcement,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. “These uses of force undermine the fundamental rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, but also compound the very harms that protesters are asking local officials to urgently address.”

El Paso police encircled protesters in Memorial Park, then fired tear gas and beanbags into the crowd. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

Several protesters said the police response reinforced the urgent need for reform of policing. 

“People are rightfully angry about a system that was designed to protect violent police at the expense of black and brown lives. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and all the other black lives that have died at the hands of police deserve justice, and that’s what we want,” Garcia said. 

Robert Moore contributed to this story.

Cover photo: El Paso police fired tear gas and bean bags to disperse protesters at Memorial Park on Sunday. (Screen shot of video by Destiny Garcia, used with permission)

René Kladzyk is a freelance reporter who also performs music as Ziemba. Follow her on Twitter @ziembavision.