NLGSF Files Suit Against Berkeley For Police Brutality Against Black Lives Matter Protesters and Journalists

Eleven people who were clubbed, teargassed, slammed to the ground, shot with impact munitions or groundlessly arrested by the police during a December 6, 2014, Berkeley demonstration sued the City of Berkeley, then-City Manager Christine Daniel, Chief Michael Meehan, the City of Hayward, and Berkeley and Hayward officers in federal court today. The plaintiffs include journalists who were covering the demonstration, as well as demonstrators. They are seeking to revamp how Berkeley polices demonstrations, as well as to be compensated for their injuries.

The December 6 protest was a March Against State Violence calling for justice for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other unarmed Black people who have died at the hands of white police officers. “The march was largely peaceful,” explained civil rights attorney Jim Chanin. “But the Berkeley Police assumed the worst and almost immediately began hitting people in an indiscriminate manner. This was illegal, and unnecessarily exacerbated tension between police and protesters. It showed a complete lack of appreciation for the fact that the demonstrators were exercising their constitutional right to speak out on very serious issues: police racist killings and the failure of our criminal justice system to hold officers accountable.”

The lawsuit follows the recent revelation that Berkeley Police stop data shows a striking pattern of racial profiling against Black and Latino residents, with Blacks and Latinos far more likely than White Berkeleyites to be stopped and searched, and that those stops and searches were far more likely to be for no reason than stops of Whites. (See Berkeley Police Department Data Reveals Stark Racial Disparities)

The plaintiffs include a San Francisco Chronicle photographer, Sam Wolson, who was clubbed on the head as he knelt to take a photo. Wolson remarked that “I was really surprised and disappointed, by the whole situation. If you can’t have media safely holding all parties accountable then the whole system breaks down.”

Cindy Pincus, a minister, was also hit on the head as she bent down to help another woman who had fallen. “The response by police was so disproportionately violent to the peaceful gathering of protesters. We were indiscriminately beaten even as we tried to lawfully retreat. I suffered once; this is what our brown and black citizens suffer every day.”

Cal student Nisa Dang was clubbed from behind while she was urging other demonstrators to be peaceful. Later that night, the police forced her and others to march from Berkeley to the Oakland border. “The officers hit and jabbed us with their batons and shot tear gas canisters at our backs to forcibly make us keep moving south. They didn’t stop their violent tactics until we got to Oakland. Those of us who had been forced into Oakland then had to walk all the way back to Berkeley to return to the safety of our homes.”

Curtis Johnson was visiting from Los Angeles and happened on the demonstration. “I had only been with the march for about ten minutes when I was shot in the knee with an impact munition,” he said. “There was no warning.” Mr. Johnson was shot by Hayward officers who were providing mutual aid to Berkeley.

“There have been demonstrations all over the Bay Area as part of the growing nationwide movement for Black Lives, and the NLG had Legal Observers at most of them,” said Rachel Lederman, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and the president of the National Lawyers Guild, San Francisco Bay Area Chapter. “It was Berkeley who responded in the most brutal and unconstitutional manner. To make matters worse, Berkeley made no effort to control the other agencies who responded to its call for mutual aid.”

Lederman explained that although the Berkeley Police Review Commission has recommended that the City Council adopt reforms as a result of this incident, “The City Council has passed a number of resolutions concerning policing of demonstrations and supervision of mutual aid agencies in the past, but the Chief was not even aware of some of them and they were not followed at this event. We’re hoping that by litigating Berkeley’s misconduct in federal court we will be able to achieve more comprehensive changes that will protect the right to protest in Berkeley, birthplace of the Free Speech Movement.”

Case details (Johnson v. City of Berkeley, Case No. 3:15-cv-5343)