In the aftermath of the police killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, police officers clad in military gear attacked nonviolent protesters while brandishing automatic weapons. Armored vehicles, as well as chemical agents and a device designed to blast loud sound waves, were deployed. To bring these acts to a halt, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the Baton Rouge Police Department.
As captured on video by store owner Abdullah Muflahi, on July 5, Sterling was selling CDs when officers tasered him and slammed him on the hood of a car. He was tackled to the ground and shot six times. He died from the gunshot wounds.
Sterling’s death, along with the police execution of Philando Castile in Minneapolis, has fueled over a week of Black Lives Matter protests across the United States. The protests have been most intense in Baton Rouge, where the city’s police responded with brute force and even entered private homes to conduct unlawful searches and seizures.
The lawsuit [PDF] requests a court issue a temporary restraining order to stop police from dispersing assemblies on public sidewalks. It asks the court to insist officers properly identify themselves as police and prohibit officers from using chemical agents, like pepper spray, on protesters. It also requests the court prohibit the city from initiating criminal prosecutions when there is no documented evidence for the vast majority of cases.
It asserts the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, assembly, and press, as well as Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection under the law, were violated.
Crystal Williams, an organizer with North Baton Rouge Matters, said the response has made her afraid to protest.
“Seeing the way the police were manhandling folks caused me to hide, scream out of fear, and finally flee for my safety,” Williams added. “I had to run. A peaceful demonstration should never be like that,” expressed Crystal Williams, local resident and organizer with North Baton Rouge Matters, “I feel like speech is my most powerful tool to ensure my community and my family are safe. But now I feel totally silenced.”
According to the lawsuit, in the evening on July 10, police blocked off an intersection and advanced on protesters while “brandishing batons and assault rifles.” They proceeded to close off a sidewalk and leave protesters with no area to protest or path to leave the area. Protesters stood on sidewalk until officers in riot gear drove the protesters into “neighboring private property” by East Boulevard.
“Police grabbed and pushed some protesters to the ground and arrested them. Police arrested a reporter, who was clearly engaging in reporting activities,” the lawsuit recounts. “Homeowner Lisa Batiste invited protesters onto her property on East Boulevard after police ordered the protestors to disperse from the street. With Ms. Batiste’s permission, more than one hundred protestors gathered on her lawn and porch, and some protesters entered her home.”
Officers ordered the protesters to leave the property and used force on protesters. The police tackled and arrested numerous protesters. They ignored Batiste and others, who informed them the protesters had permission to be on her property.
“At one point, at least a dozen police crowded onto Ms. Batiste’s porch, where they grabbed and pushed protestors standing inside the home’s open doorway and forced them out of the house and off the porch. Police also arrested protesters standing or walking on the public sidewalk abutting Ms. Batiste’s property,” according to the lawsuit.
Protesters taken to the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison have also allegedly experienced systematic violations of their rights. Arrestees were pepper sprayed for singing protest songs in prison. Those arrested on July 10 were “only fed on meal after 24 hours in detention.” At least two people under 18 were jailed in an adult facility. Protesters were “caged together inhumanely, with 40 to 50 protesters in “single small cells.”
A sheriff allegedly stated to one protester, “One of you will be shot tonight.” Protesters in need of medical attention, such as those with concussion symptoms or bloodied from their arrests, were denied health care. Individuals with diabetes in need of insulin were denied medical assistance.
“I witnessed firsthand as peaceful protestors were violently attacked and arrested, assault weapons pointed at them with fingers on the triggers, some dragged across the cement, their clothes ripped off of them,” said Alison Renee McCrary, who is a Catholic nun and president of the Louisiana chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG). “What I saw happening was an immediate threat to life. My and other demonstrators’ speech was chilled because of this event.”
NLG legal observers were arrested as they attempted to help protect protesters as they exercised their rights to protest. Police refused to speak with them. Local area reporters had their rights violated too.
The lawsuit claims reporters were ordered on July 9 to be in an “small 10-foot-wide area.” Any reporters without credentials were ordered to leave or face arrest. Reporters who stepped in the street were threatened with arrest as well.
WAFB assistant news director Chris Slaughter stood on the sidewalk. He attempted to get a better angle while shooting video of protesters along Airline Highway. Police dashed across the highway to arrest him. They also arrested Juvenile Justice Information Exchange reporter Karen Savage and provided no explanation when they took her away from the scene.