A troubled but resolute Bergen County Sheriff Anthony Cureton on Sunday said that he agrees with anti-ICE protestors but emphasized that "inciting chaos for the sake of chaos will not be tolerated."
"What occurred yesterday was not a peaceful protest. It was not a productive act of political expression," the sheriff said during a news conference Sunday outside the jail in Hackensack. "What we saw yesterday was not, in the words of my hero, John Lewis, 'good trouble'."
Cureton corrected social media errors -- noting, for example, that "tear gas was not employed" and that pepper spray was discharged by protestors, not his officers, during what became the most tumultuous in two weeks worth of ongoing protests outside the jail.
Eight of nine demonstrators who were arrested for aggravated assault on police, disorderly conduct and other offenses on Saturday "are neither residents of Bergen County nor the state of New Jersey," the sheriff added. "All but one were verified as New York residents."
Cureton -- a former civil rights activist and jail inmate advocate from Englewood -- said he was "disheartened" by what happened after what began as a peaceful protest, with about 45 demonstrators, quickly swelled to 150.
"Unfortunately, the gathering became increasingly unruly," he said. "Some protestors hopped over the barricades and began trespassing onto the jail property. Multiple requests to vacate the property were ignored.
"Despite efforts to de-escalate the situations, protestors continued their resistance, moving barricades, throwing bricks, spitting, spraying officers with pepper spray and even biting two officers."
There were a small number of law-breakers, Cureton said, emphasizing that "many were there to protest peacefully and respectably."
Before the trouble had ended, he said, reinforcements had converged on Hackensack from 17 different local police departments, along with the Bergen County Rapid Response Team, State Police, the Passaic County Sheriff's Office and Port Authority police.
"At one point, law enforcement used tactical smokes to disperse the crowd," Cureton said. "But let me be clear: Tear gas was not deployed."
All of the nine arrested were issued summonses and released, the sheriff said, adding that there "will be a thorough review of yesterday's events" from all sides.
While decrying the actions of a few, Cureton said he agrees that ICE is wrong to detain suspected illegal immigrants who hadn't committed any crimes for deportation hearings.
He called the Trump Administration's policy "divisive and wrong."
"Separating kids from their parents, targeting witnesses or victims of crimes, trying to detain people who have never committed a crime, simply because of their immigration status, goes against our values," the sheriff said.
"It is my hope that, under the new administration, DHS will reprioritize their efforts to focus on those who have truly been a menace to our society."
Cureton emphasized that he doesn't have the authority to release any inmates -- that comes from a judge.
However, he said, he personally told federal officials that the jail will accept only those ICE inmates who've been convicted of crimes.
He also noted that 92% of ICE detainees being held in the Bergen County lockup have been convicted murder, sexual assault, drug dealing and other serious offenses.
Given his background as an accredited inmate advocate -- one who fought for inmates and participated in grievance hearings and other proceedings on their behalf -- Cureton said accusations of poor treatment of inmates was undeserved.
"Any notion that I would allow the violations of anyone's civil rights, including denying medical treatment, poor sanitary conditions or starvation or heat deprivation, as claimed by many over social media, is unacceptable and contrary to my many years as a civil rights activist," he said. "It is MY responsibility to ensure public safety, provide custody and care and treat all equally."
Cureton became sheriff following a background of activism and civil engagement, including serving as president of the Bergen County chapter of the NAACP.
"I have spent my entire adult life advocating for civil rights," he said Sunday. "I have organized, marched, participated in more rallies and protests than I can count."
Several Black Lives Matter rallies have been held over the past year at the Bergen County Courthouse in Hackensack, along with "close to 100 across the county, all without incident, many of which I attended," Cureton said.
"I respect anyone who exercises their First amendment right to speech for the purpose of positive change," he noted. "[But] those who gathered with the intention of inciting violence, stirring up trouble weakens your argument."
He also warned that "vandalizing public and personal property, rioting, trespassing on jail property jeopardizing public safety and inciting civil unrest will not be tolerated.
"If you want to protest peacefully, that is your right and you are welcome to do so. However, inciting chaos for the sake of chaos will not be tolerated."
Cureton closed his news conference by thanking his officers and all the other responders who, he said, "performed their duties professionally and honorably.
"It was not an easy day."
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