[Content warning: The video of this arrest shows police using force against a civilian. The incident is also described in the text of the article.]
NORTHAMPTON — Last week, when The Shoestring published a video of Northampton police tackling and pepper-spraying a 60-year-old woman in April, city resident Jada Tarbutton was disturbed. As a Black woman who lives in Northampton, she said the violent arrest of a person of color reinforced her belief that the city’s progressive reputation is only true for some of its residents.
“I’m scared in Northampton,” she said. “It hurts my heart. I don’t feel safe.”
Tarbutton was one of over 70 people who showed up at City Hall on Sunday to protest against police brutality. The demonstration came after The Shoestring broke the story that on April 4, police pulled over Marisol Driouech — who was in the city working as a food-delivery driver — and within five minutes had yanked her out of her car, tackled her to the ground and pepper sprayed her. The Northampton Police Department cleared the arresting officer, John Sellew, and Jonathan Bartlett, the officer who pepper-sprayed Driouech, of any wrongdoing. So did a consulting firm the department hired to investigate the incident.
But for those gathered Monday, the incident was a clear case of police violently escalating a minor traffic stop on a woman whose first language is Spanish and who told Sellew she didn’t understand him.
“Hey hey, ho ho, John Sellew has got to go!” the protesters chanted. They called for Bartlett to be fired and for Police Chief Jody Kasper to resign over the department’s handling of the case.
Several communist and socialist groups organized the rally. John “J.R.” Rivera, a member of the Workers Party of Massachusetts, said that Driouech is from the same Holyoke neighborhood as him. As a Puerto Rican, he said her arrest makes him fear the possibility that somebody he loves becomes a victim of police violence.
“I’ve never felt particularly protected by any police, but this moment solidified what I know now: whatever community the police protect, people like me aren’t a part of it,” another speaker, Linell Peralta of the River Valley Party for Socialism and Liberation, told the crowd.
There was no immediately visible police presence at the protest. However, the Northampton Police Department’s drone flew above the crowd and officers erected barricades in front of the police department.
The officers’ arrest of Driouech sent her to the hospital. Sellew wrote in his arrest report that after failing to hand over her license and registration, Driouech tried to roll up her window during the traffic stop and then put her car in drive. He accused her of resisting arrest when he ordered her out of her car and grabbing his baton from its holster as he tried to take her down.
Another speaker at Sunday’s protest, Workers Party member Dennis Moore, noted that Sellew wrote in that same report that once Driouech had his baton, he realized that he “had the ability to utilize strikes or possibly lethal force.”
“However, due to her size, I believed that I could subdue her using takedown techniques until additional units arrived,” Sellew wrote. Driouech is 5 feet tall and weighs some 120 pounds.
“Officer Sellew believed that he had the right to kill a 60-year-old woman whose only fault was having a broken headlight and not understanding English well,” Moore said. He went on to ask what might have happened if Sellew had encountered a younger, more fit person during the traffic stop. “Had he pulled over a young, male ESL person, would the incident have ended in a blood bath? I hope we never find out.”
Reacting to Sellew’s comments about lethal force, city resident Dan Cannity — the former co-chair of the city’s Policing Review Commission — told The Shoestring that the entire system is irrevocably broken and that just firing one or two officers isn’t enough. He said protesters were sending a message to city leaders: “the community is fed up with violence and policing against members of our community.”
“If an old woman can be yanked out of her car, pinned down and pepper-sprayed, who is safe?” Cannity asked.
Police initially charged Driouech with assault and battery on a police officer, attempting to disarm a police officer, resisting arrest and refusing to identify herself, in addition to the lights violation, according to court documents. But the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office dismissed all of those criminal charges against Driouech, who admitted to the broken headlight charge.
Local defense attorney Dana Goldblatt is now representing Driouech and has said she intends to present claims to the city before possibly suing over the arrest.
Goldblatt is currently suing the city on behalf of another person Northampton police pepper-sprayed in 2017, Eric Matlock. Another man is also suing Northampton and five police officers over allegations that they tackled him to the ground, kicked him, beat him with a baton, pepper-sprayed and arrested him during a mental-health episode in 2019.
Update: This article has been edited to correctly attribute a quote to Linell Peralta.
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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