One of the three separate lawsuits states that people who had been sitting on their porches at home were affected by out-of-control tear gas.
Philadelphia protesters are suing the city, citing “extraordinary abuses of police power.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that more than 140 protesters are participating in three separate, federal-level lawsuits against the city. Collectively, they claim that Philadelphia police used heavy-handed, often brutal tactics to suppress peaceful protesters. In some instances, bystanders and onlookers were injured, too.
According to the Inquirer, the lawsuits focus on two incidents: the June 1st teargassing of demonstrators blocking traffic on I-676, and law enforcement’s crackdown on West Philadelphia protesters the day before.
In the latter case, police say they were trying to prevent looting and violence which had broken out around 52nd Street. But in employing tear gas, rubber bullets, and other crowd suppression techniques, officers injured dozens of nearby people who were not breaking the law.
“They were just opening fire on anybody they saw, for hours and hours, regardless of any conduct or justification,” said Bret Grote, legal director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “They were shooting children. They were shooting old people. They were shooting residents on their own street.
“They were gassing the firefighters,” said Grote, adding that the law enforcement’s response to the protests was reckless.
Cara McClellan, an attorney for the NAACP’s Defense Fund, said cops’ actions were patently unlawful.
“City officials must be held accountable for these militaristic police actions, which are discriminatory, illegal, and completely unacceptable,” said McClellan, who is representing 13 people. “Our clients deserve safety and security in their own neighborhood and to be free of fear of discrimination and police terror.”
Other attorneys concur, saying the police department’s use of force was “grossly excessive.” On June 1st, for instance, officers trapped protesters atop I-676—then they launched a barrage of tear gas, even as hundreds of people remained “stranded on [a] hill, unable to leave, engulfed in clouds of smoke.”
Video footage of the incident shows many protesters pushed up against the freeway’s border walls, with some people attempting to scale them.
The assault, says the Inquirer, left people “coughing, vomiting, crying, unable to breathe, and, in some cases, losing consciousness.”
On I-676 and 52nd street, chemical fumes drifted beyond protest zones, affecting people who were not in the immediate vicinity of any unrest.
“Resident and passerby were doing nothing more than sitting on their porches or wakling home from work,” one lawsuit states, “causing residents—including elderly residents and children—to seek shelter at home or wherever they could nearby.”
Jonathon Feinberg, an attorney representing 41 protesters involved in the June 1st incident, said the city’s response to civil unrest was excessive.
“The city’s actions on 676 were simply stunning,” he said.
“Our firm,” Feinberg, “dates back to 1971. We cannot recall a single episode in which the Philadelphia police used munitions like this in a peaceful protest.”
Speaking in late June, two weeks before the lawsuit was filed, attorney Paul Hetznecker said he expects individual officers will eventually be held accountable for their own misconduct.
“There were so many incidents where we can’t really identify the police officers right now, because many of them did not have their names or badges displayed,” he said. “And others, it’s hard to identify with riot gear on.
“So we will probably file the lawsuit and name them later on once we discover their identities. They should be named personally. They should be held accountable along with those in charge.”
Hetznecker said in a separate, later statement that Philadelphia’s crass response to civil unrest was not only unconstitutional, but a threat to the nation’s democratic values.
“The First Amendment is the cornerstone of our democracy, as is the struggle for racial justice,” he said. “The city sent a paramilitary force to crush peaceful protests against racial injustice. This lawsuit amplifies their message from the street into the legal process.”