A Thoroughly Predictable Chain of Events at the Wyatt Detention Center


The American legal system sometimes assigns to people a responsibility to retreat from conflict when it is reasonably possible to do so, even in cases where someone may be in the process of being wronged. Under this system, the former Wyatt Detention Center guard recorded on video driving his truck into a crowd blocking the entrance to the facility parking lot during an immigration enforcement protest likely cannot use the fact that he was unjustly physically blocked from a public space as a defense for initiating an assault.

The system is rooted in the principle of stopping conflict from escalating towards greater violence first, (or as some scholars would say, prevents the contagion of violence from spreading), then meting out justice later.

The stability of this system and its enforcement structures — indeed, the stability of the whole of civil government – depends upon people’s willingness to forego their immediate pursuit of fair outcomes when such pursuit could lead to an escalation of violence, and their placing their trust in the state to apply justice later once the threat of violent escalation has passed.

It is a system that will break down, obviously, when the state fails to visibly and impartially pursue its role in the trade-off between order and justice.

This is not a normative analysis. This is descriptive. If the authorities who control the modern state’s monopoly on the use of force take a pass on protecting fundamental rights like the right to travel through public spaces and add insult to injury by not dispensing justice later once the threat of violence has calmed, then those whose rights have been devalued will seek their own means to protect themselves from conflicts and to dispense their view of what is fair.

This is precisely the dynamic that unfolded at the Wyatt Detention Center on the evening of August 14. A mob asserted control over public space surrounding the detention facility, taking it upon themselves to decide who had the freedom to travel on the public streets there, without regard for norms, rights or any notion of consent of the governed. The response of driving a truck into the crowd, whatever you think of its proportionality, began from a choice made necessary by the disappearance of legitimate governing authority: either submit to a mob denying the right to traverse a public space or confront them.

The escalating conflict that followed is exactly the kind of predictable series of events that this blog has warned about

Once society accepts that fundamental rights can be limited by self-appointed groups who declare that their causes take priority over the natural rights of others…the rational response for every individual is to join a strong group that will protect their basic rights. With different groups sharing the same space, each defending the “rights” of their members, but not recognizing those of outsiders, the result will be an anarchy more brutal than anything any libertarian would be comfortable with (libertarians, after all believe in natural rights).

At this point, you may be tempted to respond to the argument so far with a stern lecture about how it is the job of the police to handle a situation like this.

Well, the police were there, and they weren’t handling anything. Now what?

This is not a normative analysis. This is a descriptive one — and there are only a few pathways along which the system can evolve from here.

Our society could choose to accept anarchy, to accept that whoever has the bigger, tougher, better organized gang wins for themselves the use of public spaces; literally implementing might makes right as a governing principle. This does not seem to be a pathway that governing authorities in Rhode Island will consciously choose, as state government quickly remembered the importance of deterring violence from escalating, once the focus of events became people not involved in the intentional blocking of traffic.

A second possibility would be to cut the problem off at its root: enforcing laws and norms against blocking traffic and against denying people the right to travel in public spaces, and uniting around a shared norm that has served our society well. (I concede that that last phrase is a bit normative).

Of course, this depends on the right to travel being a norm that is widely shared. Is this still the case? The affinity repeatedly shown by protestors for blocking traffic, combined with the so-far one-sided response by Rhode Island authorities, suggests that it may not be; this, in turn, points in the direction of the third possible evolution of the system: convincing people that it is acceptable for government to protect fundamental rights within the context of a caste system, where some people have fewer rights than others. For various reasons, this is an unlikely candidate for smooth implementation.

That is your universe of choices. In the end, any way forward that abandons the impartial defense of the right to travel will lead to more and more cycles of violent conflict that will only be eliminated once the norm acting against those who try to block innocent people from traveling in public spaces is rediscovered.

And that is not a normative analysis, it is most definitely a descriptive one.

n.b. Don’t think for a second that the story of a mob of teenagers running riot through Providence on a summer afternoon is unrelated to them hearing about various news stories and thinking: hey, when enough people get together to do what they want in public places, the authorities can’t do anything to stop them.

  • Christopher C. Reed

    Try a stunt like that in Prov and find out how fast the Staties and PPD will be all over it like a cheap suit. Remember the last time the Antifagoons came out to play?

    Norms depend on a shared culture.
    Culture is the shared historicity of a specific people.
    You sure you know where you are going with this?

  • Makaha Ken

    What has come to light as further information of the disturbing event that happened at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility, located in Central Falls, RI, operated by the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation (CFDFC) a quasi-public corporation documented on video from private citizens and television station reporters. The protesters (some elderly and some children) were standing and sitting on the City of Central Falls public sidewalk in front of the gated parking lot entrance to the private business for profit prision housing only federal detainees.

    There were City of Central Falls police department officers in vehicles on the street monitoring the situation but suddenly they all left the area. A black pickup truck suddenly came around the corner turning onto the street driving slowly then suddenly turning into the demonstrators stopping short of running some over but camera view did not show what was happening on other side of vehicle. Then the vehicle blew its horn and started to push its way through the crowd.

    It finally stopped and the driver could be seen using a walkie talkie (not a tactical radio). Suddenly a number of private Wyatt Detention Facility guards show up and start moving people out of the way. On video shared by Justin, one guard can be heard explicitly identifying himself as a “federal officer”. Suddenly on the other side of the truck multiple private guards deploy pepper spray to disperse the crowd of protesters. The Central Falls police department officers reappear in the videos. 5 people taken to hospital, 2 with injuries (1 Possible broken leg) and 3 for effects of pepper spray. 

    Private guards have no legal law enforcement authority on public streets or sidewalks. Protocol for truck driver (later identified as one of three shift captains, highest rank and resident of nearby Connecticut town who resigned, called his local police department for extra security patrols in neighborhood also former CT corrections officer named in federal lawsuit for excessive force) should have been to back out and call to have Central Falls police return and open pathway into parking lot.

    Spin it however you want as there was no blockage of a roadway and there is more going on behind the scene than appears. A complete investigation needs to be completed by all law enforcement agencies including why a second detainee at this facility has died in custody.

    • Justin Katz

      Actually, the protesters were sitting down in a crosswalk. You conspicuously remove their actions from your summary. After he pulled up, some of them stood in front of his car and began pounding on it. At least one came up from behind the truck and jumped up on it. The timing is difficult to tell, but it’s entirely possible that what actually led him to move forward a few feet was seeing the guy running up in his rearview and jumping on the truck.

      • Makaha Ken

        Justin, if you go on Google Earth and type in the search Wyatt Detention Facility you will fly directly there for a satellite view. You can see crosswalk marking on the public streets and public sidewalks.  If you want a closer view, you can drag the little man icon to the blue line in center of street and you will get a 360 degree street view wich you can walk around and zoom in on things.

        The protesters some sitting and some standing were on the public sidewalk in front of the gated parking lot entrance for Wyatt employees and yes it is painted as a crosswalk the same as the visitor’s parking lot entrance public sidewalk also painted as a crosswalk.

        The reaction of the protesters some banging on the truck and the one male that briefly hopped on the truck rear bumper was to get the driver to stop after he virtually assaulted peacefully sitting and standing on the public sidewalk. It’s the kind of reaction you would expect. In another country he could have been dragged out of the truck and beaten or killed.

        There are a number of videos showing different angles of this event. I would not be surprised after full investigation ends assault charges are not brought against the truck driver and the Wyatt guards plus federal charges for impersonating a federal officer are brought againsr the Wyatt guard identifying himself as a federal officer. Private guards do not have legal law enforcement powers on public streets and sidewalks.

      • Makaha Ken

        Justin, one further note, the shift captain driving the truck when he saw access to Wyatt employee parking blocked with protesters could have driven 200 ft and parked in visitor parking on same street which was reported not blocked by protesters.

    • Andrew


      The end of your reply says the driver should have called the police to get through a blockage that wasn’t there.

      • Makaha Ken

        Andrew, I was refering to the driver of the truck when he turned into the protesters and saw they were not going to move, he should have backed up and called the Central Falls police to come and clear the protesters off the parking lot entrance public sidewalk.

        It has not been made clear why the Central Falls police who were there monitoring the demonstrators left the scene however answers will most likely be made after full investigation.

  • bagida’wewinini

    I have encountered numerous times a gang of motorcyclists disregard stop signs as they follow the pack through an intersection effectively forcing me to wait even though I have the right of way. My solution is not to proceed on my way by driving through that intersection and by doing so putting some of those riders at risk of injury. The driver at the Wyatt center had a similar responsibility
    I wonder what we would be reading in this space if anti abortion protesters were blocking entrance to a facility where abortions were available and a driver trying to enter drove into the crowd

    • Justin Katz

      Hmm… it will be interesting if pro-life protesters were to do something like that. Recently, the most significant news in that area was a progressive state legislator in PA harassing and attempting to dox teenagers and seniors who were quietly praying on a sidewalk.

      • bagida’wewinini

        The real history of violence against the facilities and those who provide legal access to abortions is easily researched. But there has been non violence protests by anti abortion activists who broke laws and blocked access to facilities that provide abortions. In the Edgewood section of Cranston protesters chained themselves together and to structures on private property. In order to carry out the lawful arrest of the protesters meant that it was necessary to remove them from their self imposed bonds of chain. Under no circumstances should there have been any action taken that could have harmed the protesters (people). Even though I don’t agree with these people but I would not have or would now advocate anything but restraint.

    • Andrew

      It’s always an error to think that these situations can be reduced to their material components. For example, in other forums, I’ve seen people argue that intentionally blocking interstate traffic is no more coercive than placing concrete barriers to help traffic flow through an intersection.

      So to make your motorcycle analogy a little more appropriate:

      1. If one or more of the bikers intentionally stops in your path and says “I don’t like the way you look. Find another route to where you’re going”, do you have a responsibility to find another route?

      2. If a police officer standing on the street corner watches the situation above unfold, and decides there’s nothing going related to his law-enforcement job, is he making the right call?

      • bagida’wewinini

        1. No
        2. No