CLEVELAND — Longtime free-speech activistGregory “Joey” Johnson, who took his fight for the right to burn flags all the way to the Supreme Court, was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct following a flag burning outside the Republican National Convention on Wednesday. Police said he accidentally set himself on fire, prompting them to take action to extinguish the fire and disperse the crowd, but eyewitness accounts as well as photo and video evidence seem show a different story.
When Johnson set the flag alight on Wednesday, a lieutenant with the Cleveland Police Department almost immediately moved to extinguish the fire. At a press conference on Thursday, Chief Calvin Williams said that the lieutenant had done so because Johnson had accidentally set himself on fire. According to Williams, the officer said, “Hey buddy, you’re on fire,” and sprayed him with a fire extinguisher. Demonstrators pushed the officer away, at which point other police—including officers in riot gear and mounted on horseback—moved in and begin dispersing the gathered protestors and media.
There is little reason to doubt that the lieutenant did say this: Immediately after the protest, a photographer standing next to Johnson told Gawker that he had heard officers tell Johnson he was on fire; however, there does not seem to be any photo or video evidence supporting this claim. Quite the contrary, actually: The photo from the Associated Press above appears to show the lieutenant rushing in to extinguish the fire on the flag, not a fire on any human body. A Gawker reporter, standing a few feet to the left of this photographer, did not see any evidence to suggest Johnson was on fire.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the Revolutionary Communist Party disputed the police version of events. “Police claim that Johnson lit himself on fire and they were protecting him,” Sunsara Taylor said. “This is a lie made up to justify their illegitimate attack on protected political speech they wanted to suppress. Inside the arena, a fascist mob is whipped up on American supremacy and domination. If you can’t burn the American flag to speak against that there is no meaning to ‘free speech.’”
Asked to comment at a press conference Thursday morning, Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson responded, “That will be determined in court.”
Altogether, 18 people were charged with failure to disperse, ten were charged with aggravated disorderly conduct, three with resisting arrest, one with aggravated arson, and one with disorderly conduct. This was the largest mass arrest of the convention thus far, and according to city officials brings the total number of RNC-related arrests to 23.
As it happens, Johnson has been arrested for burning the American flag outside a Republican National Convention before—in Dallas, in 1984, where he was charged with desecrating a venerated object. That case made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Johnson’s favor, designating flag burning constitutionally-protected free speech.
Johnson had not yet been released from police custody at the time of this writing.