Reprinted with permission from Alternet.
A group of protesters facing trumped-up federal charges for protesting at Donald Trump’s inauguration are now seeing an extension of support from the American Civil Liberties Union.
On Wednesday, the ACLU filed a suit against three parties: the District of Columbia, officers of the Metropolitan Police Department and Police Chief Peter Newsham. The ACLU filed the 41-page complaint on behalf of New Yorker photojournalist Shay Horse, who was documenting the anti-Trump protests; legal observer Judah Ariel; and Elizabeth Lagesse and Milo Gonzalez, both of whom were demonstrating at the protest. The suit seeks jury-awarded compensation for the four plaintiffs.
The suit, Horse v. District of Columbia, accuses D.C. police officers of “making unconstitutional arrests, using excessive force, denying arrested people food, water and access to toilets” as well as conducting “invasive bodily searches of protesters exercising their First Amendment rights.”
ACLU attorney Scott Michelman said in a statement that the actions of the officers were unconstitutional and unjustifiable. “MPD’s wanton and vindictive conduct on January 20 chills free speech, which is a vital part of our democracy,” the statement reads.
The allegations in the lawsuit stem from a protest on a D.C. street corner. A number of demonstrators began to vandalize the stores, prompting D.C. police to round up the hundreds of protesters in a crowd-control tactic known as kettling. Officers also reportedly used “pepper spray, tear gas, flash-bang grenades, concussion grenades and smoke flares” against the demonstrators.
According to the suit, several of the plaintiffs were subjected to pepper spray, tear gas and painful handcuffing, and were denied basic access to food, water and a bathroom for several hours. The suit also accuses the police of prolonging the arrest process “to keep detainees in a state of anxiety, hunger, thirst, and other discomfort.” Horse and Gonzalez were subjected to manual rectal probing and grabbing of their testicles by officers.
The ACLU lawsuit alleges that the treatment of the plaintiffs violated their rights under the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments as well as the D.C. First Amendment Assemblies Act. The suit argues that the use of kettling is unlawful if officers do not have probable cause that protesters “have committed unlawful acts” and the police can identify those people. The lawsuit also makes several claims for assault and battery and false arrest.
In an email sent to Mic responding to the suit, the MPD said the department protects the safety of protesters and demonstrators. The MPD added that during the inauguration protests, “there was another group of individuals who chose to engage in criminal acts, destroying property and hurling projectiles, injuring at least six officers.” With many of those protesters now facing indictment by a grand jury, the MPD says it will “continue to support and respect the formal legal process” as well as investigate “all instances of use of force by officers and allegations of misconduct.”
The plaintiffs in the ACLU suit are some of the 212 protesters arrested by the MPD on inauguration day. These demonstrators were initially charged with felony rioting, but were later charged in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia with urging to riot, conspiracy to riot and destruction of property, which together carry sentences of between 70 and 80 years.
The heavy charges facing protesters signals a troubling movement toward increased criminalization and crackdown on demonstrations and social movements. In recent months, about 30 anti-protest bills have been introduced in 18 states, taking aim at increasing and expanding penalties for protesters.
A separate class action lawsuit against the MPD was filed by a group of lawyers representing some of the demonstrators, alleging that officers engaged in excessive use of force and conducted false arrests. The Office of Police Complaints in D.C. has called for an independent investigation looking into the actions of MPD officers on inauguration day.
“I’ve been documenting protests for years and I’ve never seen police act like this in America in such an open, blatant way in broad daylight,” Shay Horse said in an ACLU statement. “So many of us suffered tremendously just for exercising our First Amendment rights to cover the demonstrations or participate in them. With this lawsuit, I want to stand up for all the protestors who were abused and bullied and assaulted and molested.”
Celisa Calacal is a junior writing fellow for AlterNet. She is a senior journalism major and legal studies minor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Previously she worked at ThinkProgress and served as an editor for Ithaca College’s student newspaper. Follow her at @celisa_mia.
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