BENTONVILLE — Sam Lopez joined a peaceful protest on the Bentonville square for two hours June 1. Suddenly, as many as 40 law enforcement officers wearing gas masks, helmets and other protective gear poured out of the Benton County Courthouse’s front door.
Most carried riot batons — 3-foot long sticks made of hardwood.
“We saw all those deputies come out, and we’re all saying ‘What’s going on? They didn’t have to do that.’ We saw it as a power move,” Lopez of Springdale said. “Nobody communicated with us, they just came out in riot gear.”
Neither Lopez nor any protesters on the town square could have seen the narrow escape of a police pickup, video from that night shows. The pickup was the second of two vehicles surrounded and damaged by a fraction of the protesters, who were north of the square.
The confrontation on the courthouse steps escalated quickly, according to video, police records and witnesses.
The protest was one of hundreds nationwide and internationally after the May 25 choking death of George Floyd, 46, by a Minneapolis Police Department officer. Estimates of how many attended the Bentonville protest range as high as 2,000 at its peak.
The officers in riot gear, the Benton County sheriff’s “mobile field force” as described in police records, came out from the courthouse at 9:16 p.m., according to the time stamp on video taken from courthouse security cameras. The main body of protesters crossed the street in front of the courthouse, demanding to know what the show of force was for, audio from other video reveals.
This face-off between the main body of protesters and authorities on the courthouse steps offered the opportunity wanted by those trying to escalate the situation, Benton-ville Police Chief Jon Simpson said. Provocateurs threw water bottles, including some frozen ones, rocks and other items at the officers on the courthouse steps, he said, and witnesses and video confirms.
Lopez said the crowd yelled at the throwers to stop, but to no avail.
The night ended with authorities clearing the square with tear gas. It is Northwest Arkansas’ only protest sparked by Floyd’s death to date to result in force being used against the demonstration.
Benton County Sheriff Shawn Holloway declined comment on why he deployed the mobile field force, which was under his command, records show. He said Tuesday he couldn’t comment or release requested documents on the advice of his attorney because of possible litigation over the night’s events.
He added later there is an ongoing criminal investigation, which qualifies as an exemption under the state Freedom of Information law.
Bentonville Police Department call logs, the department’s report on the protest, Benton County Sheriff’s records, interviews with witnesses plus video and photos taken by bystanders and protesters show two related clashes between a smaller group of protesters and police happened before the deployment.
Simpson and the timeline of events confirmed by video taken during the night’s events agree. The decision to deploy the field force came after police vehicles were almost surrounded, one after the other. Simpson monitored the situation from law enforcement’s emergency operations center set up that night at city hall.
“If someone said ‘I was there and it was a peaceful protest,’ he could be telling the truth,” from the point of view of the large majority of the protesters in the square itself, Simpson said.
At 8:51 p.m., officers in a Bentonville Police Department Chevrolet Tahoe at the corner of Second and Main streets, at the northwest corner of the square, retreated from a surrounding crowd, communication logs and video show.
Then members of the same crowd saw a nearby Ford F-250 pickup on a side street, Legion Lane, north of the town square. They rushed to surround it. The pickup backed out on Legion Lane before turning onto N.E. A Street. The officers maneuvered the pickup free despite efforts to roll an empty metal trash container to block their retreat, police records say.
Neither incident took place within a clear line of sight of the main body of protesters in the square, who were mostly near the front of the courthouse on the eastern side of the square or at the central fountain, video shows. The view of the first attempt to surround the Tahoe was obscured for most protesters by members of the crowd itself, video shows. The pickup’s escape was hidden by the unbroken line of two-story buildings facing Second Street, just north of the square. Legion Lane runs behind those buildings.
The sheriff’s field force was stationed inside the courthouse in case they were needed to maintain order for the safety of the crowd and the officers, police records show. Arkansas State Police warned his department and the Sheriff’s Office earlier that day there were people traveling to Bentonville to incite the situation, Simpson said.
Police had also observed people among or near the protesters, including counter-protesters, that evening with heavily laden backpacks along with guns and knives, although their motives aren’t known, Simpson said.
The full picture showed an escalating situation the main body of protesters wasn’t yet aware of, Simpson said.
Benton County Justice of the Peace Carrie Perrien Smith said she expects the June 1 protest in Bentonville to be a potential talking point voters are going to ask candidates and elected officials about.
“I want to hear lessons learned and how it has affected policy and how they would handle such a situation again.” she said. “In Benton County, we had never experienced anything like the Black Lives Matter protests. You can train for situations all day long, but until you are in the middle of it for the first time, you don’t know how the whole team is going to put that training in action. “
Two men were arrested that night in connection with a misdemeanor charge of inciting a riot. Their attorney, Jason Boyeskie of Fayetteville, said his clients are each charged with failure to disperse and have pleaded not guilty.
THE HOURS BEFORE
Protests in the United States, particularly in Minneapolis, had begun as early as May 26 and ended in riots. Police became aware of the planned protest in Bentonville through social media posts, according to the Bentonville Department’s summary report. The Bentonville protest took place on a Monday. Bentonville Police attempted to contact organizers of the protest throughout the preceding weekend, according to the report.
Witnesses from the protest confirmed the original organizers left the planning after the Bentonville protest was announced. The event lacked any coordination, agenda or leaders, they said.
“Antifa, a known organization that has a history of violence in protest and demonstrations, also put on social media posts that they would be in attendance,” the report said. “Additionally, several pro-2nd amendment groups advised they would be on the square and openly carrying firearms.”
Authorities prepared for trouble, the report said. The police department met with the city’s Fire Department, the Sheriff’s Office and Arkansas State Police. The state police were stretched thin because of similar protests around the state and were unable to provide any manpower, the report said.
The Police Department’s 84-man force was almost fully deployed, but they couldn’t all be put around the square, Simpson said. The city still had to be patrolled. The events of that night led to officers working a total of 263 overtime hours, Simpson said. Also, the two vehicles forced to flee received damage estimated at $7,386 combined, police records show.
Some protesters came prepared, according to police reports. They were seen carrying jugs of milk, which helps neutralize tear gas on the face.
Most of the Bentonville protesters circled the square carrying signs and chanting for much of the evening.
“The protest was peaceful for an extended time,” the report noted, but not completely calm. There were some disturbances and confrontations during its course.
Law enforcement officers had formed a line in front of the courthouse and were stationed with police vehicles blocking traffic at intersections leading to the square, records and video show. They also went by foot and by bike in some cases among the crowd to render assistance and mediate disputes for most of the evening, said Autumn Tolbert of Fayetteville, an attorney who covered the event as a freelance journalist.
“The officers were being friendly, aware that how they were seen was going to be how they were perceived,” Tolbert said.
At 8:51 p.m., some of the protesters crowded around the isolated officers in the Tahoe parked at the intersection northwest of the square cursing them and telling them to kneel. The police pickup bringing street barricade materials to replace the Tahoe was almost through Legion Lane minutes later. The crowd rushed toward it.
Meanwhile, many of the protesters gathered around the square’s fountain. Video shows some confrontations in the square itself, but a mostly peaceful scene both during and after the incidents with the police vehicles.
“People still had their kids there,” Tolbert said.
“There was a family sitting here, and I remember them because the dad was saying to his son, who looked about 14, ‘now you’ve got to keep your mask on or we’re going to leave,’” Tolbert said while standing west of the square’s fountain, pointing at the spot. The mask she referred to was a covid-19 precaution. She witnessed this shortly before tear gas was deployed.
Grayson Gomulka, 17, of Rogers was leaving the protest with a friend because it appeared the night’s events were winding down, she said. She came back when people suddenly started running.
“We didn’t see or hear anything before people started running except crowd chants,” she said. “We asked, ‘Why are you running?’ They said, ‘They’re tear-gassing us.’”
THE FIELD FORCE
Protesters in the square reacted to the field force’s appearance along the bottom of the courthouse’s steps by rushing up to that line, video from the county courthouse and photos show. They filled A Street on the east side of the square, video taken from courthouse security cameras shows. The main body of protesters demanded to know what the show of force was for, audio from other video reveals.
“I would definitely be comfortable saying that it was not perceived well,” Simpson said of the field force coming out of the courthouse. “It’s not reasonable to believe everyone knew what was happening,” he said.
The crowd wasn’t aware of officers being in danger in their vehicles earlier, Simpson said. He didn’t criticize the sheriff’s decision to call out the force. He did criticize his decision to put police in their vehicles in widely separated locations.
“I have no criticism for any of the departments that helped us that night,” Simpson said.
Someone threw a water bottle during the face-off at the courthouse steps, Lopez said.
They threw more than that, Simpson said.
Some within the crowd — whether protesters, counter-protesters or people who just wanted to start confrontation isn’t known — threw water bottles, frozen water bottles, rocks and at least one bottle of urine, the chief said.
Lt. Shannon Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office, said some deputies suffered injuries in the protest. Jenkins didn’t specify the type of injuries or their severity.
Lopez and Simpson agreed a relative few sparked the confrontation.
“Most of the crowd was yelling ‘Do not throw things,’” Lopez said. “We didn’t want to instigate anything. Somebody else started something. But the authorities did nothing to de-escalate the situation.”
The plan, which Simpson said he coordinated with the sheriff, had been to issue warnings continually for five minutes for the crowd to disperse before deploying tear gas if they didn’t. The first warning went out to no effect, he said.
“You could argue we don’t have the best PA system in the world,” he said. “The crowd was ordered to disperse, but it is entirely possible that message was not heard.”
“There was chanting, screams and yelling, and even a tuba playing,” he said.
Gomulka never heard an order to disperse, either before the gas came or after it, she said. Tolbert agreed, saying the gas came with no effective warning.
At least some of the protesters would have left if there had been any effective warning, she said. Grandmothers, parents and minors were there, she said.
They had issued only one warning, when, “suddenly, gas starts flying,” Simpson said. He didn’t speculate on who fired the first canister. The sheriff declined comment.
Video shows one canister of gas, followed shortly by another emitting a much more dense cloud, both in the northeastern quadrant of the square. At that point, Simpson authorized his department’s use of gas, records show. The first gas canister billowed smoke at a 9:19 p.m., courthouse video shows, or about three minutes after the field force deployed.
PLACEMENT OF THE POLICE VEHICLES
“That was kind of a mistake, maybe the first one,” Simpson said in the July 15 interview of his decision to use police vehicles to block intersections near the square. Patrol cars at intersections blocking traffic access to the square were unintentionally provocative, he said.
“Having police there was symbolic more than I expected. And I didn’t think of how we would move them if we needed to,” he said.
Simpson decided to use parked police vehicles instead of street barricades because people have driven cars into crowds of protesters in other places in the country, he said. He wanted barriers that would stop a speeding car, he said.
There have been at least 66 incidents of cars driving into protesters from May 27 to July 6 — 59 by civilians and seven by law enforcement, according to Ari Weil, a terrorism researcher at the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats, as quoted by USA Today on July 9.
The department pickup was traveling along Legion Lane north of the square, carrying barrels and other street barricade materials to replace the blocking police cars.
Protesters trapped the pickup behind the buildings facing the square.
Video taken on the spot shows protesters holding their signs against the pickup’s windshield, windows and in the line of sight of the back-glass. The officers could not see out, according to police reports — except through the rear-view miniature camera. Using this electronic peephole, Sgt. Travis Scantling and passenger Cpl. Ryan Simmons slowly backed the pickup out of Legion Lane toward N.E. A Street, then north away from the protesters. In all, maps of the area show, Scantling drove the truck almost a quarter mile before opening enough room from the pursuing crowd before he could make a quick turn going forward onto C Street.
That police account is consistent with video taken at the scene.
Neither the protesters running from the northwest corner of the square from the first escaped vehicle scene nor the pickup would have been visible from any point in the square until the pickup and surrounding protesters emerged from behind the line of buildings onto A Street. Even then, the smaller crowd chased the pickup and would have obscured its view from the square, video shows.
Simpson praised Scantling’s and Simmons’ coolness. They had tear gas canisters in the pickup, but didn’t use them. Some protesters were jumping on the pickup’s front bumper and others on the side steps, according to those officers’ reports.
Another mistake was leaving all the large, metal trash receptacles empty, Simpson said. In other places where protests had turned violent, some had poured gasoline into full receptacles and started fires. The department sought to prevent this in Bentonville by having all of those near the square emptied.
However, an empty dumpster is easily moved, Simpson said. That is what happened in an apparent attempt to block the pickup’s retreat, he said.
“We had received reports from the Arkansas State Police from a concerned manager at a gas station that some people at the station were filling gas cans and talking about going to Bentonville” earlier in the day, Simpson said.
Holloway’s claim a criminal investigation is still ongoing comes in part because detectives are trying to identify some of the people at the protest, he said. Holloway also said the individuals being sought don’t live in Northwest Arkansas.
An unidentified man was seen firing a large-caliber pistol in the air after the first volley of tear gas, according to Simpson and police records.
“We were not going to have a gunfight in a crowd of people,” Simpson said. The protest needed to end, he said. “It’s remarkable those rounds fired in the air didn’t hit anyone in town when they came back down.”
Bentonville police called for assistance and got it. Responding agencies included the police departments of Rogers, Bella Vista, Centerton, Lowell, Springdale, Pea Ridge, Siloam Springs, Cave Springs, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office and the Arkansas State Police.
At least some of the protesters left after the first volley of tear gas, video shows. Police used at least four more volleys before the last protesters left.
“It seems a lot of people got gassed for the actions of a few,” Tolbert said.
To read the narrative from Cpl. Simmons, visit nwaonline.com/SimmonsNarrative726/
To read the narrative from Sgt. Scantling, visit nwaonline.com/ScantlingNarrative726/
To read the complete call for service, visit nwaonline.com/CallsforService726/
How the reporting was done
The Bentonville Police Department completed a report earlier this month on the June 1 Black Lives Matter protest in Bentonville. The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette compared the report with interviews already taken from protesters and freelance journalist Autumn Tolbert of Fayetteville. Tolbert also provided extensive photos and video. That material was added to NWA Democrat-Gazette reporter accounts and photos. Video from the Benton County Courthouse was also obtained by the newspaper before the police report came out. Video and photos posted by protesters on social media were also checked.
The following timeline is based on the call log and reports from the Bentonville Police Department the night of June 1.
6:59:49: Got intelligence people bought a bunch of OC from Bass Pro Shop in Rogers. (Editor’s Note: OC is the trade name for a mace-like bear repellent.)
7:12:36: Bass Pro confirms they sold out of chemical spray earlier that day.
7:49:52: Crowd estimated at 800 to 900 with 100 to 200 more walking in. (Editor’s Note: Final police report estimates the crowd could have reached 2,000 at its peak.)
7:53:31: County advised several people carrying milk jugs. (Editor’s note: Milk helps neutralize tear gas when poured over the face and eyes.)
8:11:10: Police block front of courthouse.
8:50:28: Crowd begins to gather at the northeast corner of the square. Officers are told to stay together.
8:51:12: City requests county send four deputies toward the northeast corner.
8:51:44: Officer [at the intersection of Main and 2nd streets] reports “they are surrounding us pretty bad.”
8:52:34: Officer reports someone kicked back rear fender of the patrol car and damaged it.
8:55:00: “Wait until they get violent. We aren’t going to gas.”
8:55:21: Officer [in Bentonville department pickup] reports “they got me completely surrounded behind Arvest building.
8:56:34: Officer asks for directions. “I’m about to get crawled on over here.”
8:59:52: “They were chasing us.”
9:00:44: Team one heads out, allowing team two to get their masks.
9:03:42: “We got some aggressors over here.”
9:05:07: “Does county have a team that is going to assist with this?”
9:06:26: “He has a bullhorn. We can’t deploy gas without any sort of notification.”
9:13:07: Confirms two police vehicles were damaged.
9:16:56: “I think they are releasing gas.”
9:17:09: “Officers, put on your masks.” 9:17:26: “I don’t see gas. [Benton County] Mobile Field Force came out and they are all running.”
9:19:16: “Announcement 5 minutes to leave. I assume that means intro to gas.”
9:19:40: Crowd is throwing items toward mobile field force. [Video shows items thrown started earlier]
9:20:19: “Gas or smoke has been deployed.” [Video shows gas deployed seconds before.]
9:24:14: “Someone fired a few shots in the air.”
9:25:54: “County needs more gas.”
9:36:51: “County is requesting more gas. They have a lot of people on them.”
9:38:14: “I am about to deploy gas to disperse them.”
9:38:32: “We are going to give them the warning since they fired a gun.”
9:40:01: “You ready for the gas?”
9:40:14: “I can’t make that decision over here.”
9:40:32: “He wants it now.”
9:40: Sgt. Travis Scantling fires tear gas based on request of a captain and Scantling’s observations of violent behavior of the crowd. He estimates he fired nine long and short range canisters. He notes all but the first three were fired into trees or at tops of buildings.
9:44:15: “Gas is working. Give it time. We don’t have a lot. Be Conservative. It has filled up the entire square.”
9:46:30: “They are going to keep coming back.”
10:33:16: “We are only going to gas when they throw things at us.”
10:47:13: “Gas deployed.”
10:48:28: “They are flash banging the officers.”
10:52:25: “Mobile unit. Drive through and give mobile commands to disperse.”
10:52:46: “Let them know it’s no longer a lawful assembly and that they need to leave or they will be arrested.”
12:00:18: “Everything’s done on the square. Clear the call.”