Baton Rouge Police Sued Over Arrest of Peaceful Protesters

The Baton Rouge Police Department was sued in federal court for violating the First Amendment rights of dozens of protesters, as captured in online video.

Protesters demonstrate a residential neighborhood in Baton Rouge, La. on Sunday, July 10, 2016. After an organized protest in downtown Baton Rouge protesters wandered into residential neighborhoods and toward a major highway that caused the police to respond by arresting protesters that refused to disperse. (AP Photo/Max Becherer)
Photo: Max Becherer/AP

The Baton Rouge Police Department and state law enforcement officials were sued in federal court on Wednesday for violating the First Amendment rights of dozens of protesters detained at demonstrations in the city last weekend.

The suit, which asks for a restraining order to prohibit officers from arresting or intimidating protesters rallying to express their anger at the killing of Alton Sterling, was filed by a coalition of rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild.

The lawyers note that a litany of violations can be seen in video recorded by protesters and journalists as more than 180 arrests were made over the weekend by heavily armed police officers, including:

a. Excluding lawful protestors from public forum space, including sidewalks, neutral ground, and public property;
b. Engaging with peaceful protestors in a militarized fashion, including full body gear, threatening the use of chemical agents, and keeping live automatic weapons trained on peaceful crowds;
c. Arresting protestors for “obstruction” of a highway in the absence of any impact on traffic or vehicle safety;
d. Giving contradictory and confusing ad hoc orders to protestors, then arresting individuals for noncompliance;
e. Arresting legal observers and members of the press without probable cause;

As The Intercept reported previously, images of officers dressed for battle confronting and arresting peaceful protesters in Baton Rouge provoked sharp reactions on social networks over the weekend.

More video has come to light in the days since, along with firsthand accounts from protesters and journalists who were detained.

Among the activists arrested on Sunday were Blair Imani, 22, a former student at Louisiana State University who now works for Planned Parenthood, and her partner, Akeem Muhammad, 24, who is also a former student at LSU.

Imani told The Intercept in a telephone interview that she and Muhammad took part in a protest at the State Capitol building in downtown Baton Rouge on Sunday. “Afterward, people felt energized, so we wanted to march,” she said. As video recorded by Muhammad shows, several hundred protesters were then blocked from continuing through a residential neighborhood by a large number of police officers in body armor, many wearing gas masks and toting automatic weapons.

State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson later described the second part of the protest as separate from the rally at the Capitol, but Imani disputed that on Twitter, pointing to images of herself, in a red jacket emblazoned with the words “Stay Woke” and a white hijab, at both locations, and Muhammad holding up a sign with the number to call at the National Lawyers Guild in case of arrest.

Imani explained that she and Muhammad, who was streaming live video using Twitter’s Periscope app, did not expect to get arrested themselves, since they were making an effort to understand the police orders and get the protesters to comply. “We were trying to quell antagonism — instead of shouting ‘F the Police,’ we were trying to get people to shout Alton Sterling’s name,” she said. That effort failed to stop the officers from escalating the confrontation with more aggressive tactics, Imani added. “When we started chanting, ‘The whole world is watching,’ they were enraged,” she said.

Imani added that when the police started roughly arresting protesters, she was particularly worried for a friend, the rapper and activist Sellassie Blackwell, who recently went on hunger strike to protest police violence in San Francisco. As the police moved in, Sellassie was photographed standing defiantly before them, wearing a T-shirt with a quote from Frederick Douglass: “I will united with anyone to do right, but with no one to do wrong.”

Muhammad later posted more than 10 minutes of his footage on YouTube. That video begins with the police driving an armored vehicle with a blaring siren directly at the protesters, and ends with Muhammad and Imani advising protesters who did not want to disperse but had largely cleared the streets that a resident of the area had invited protesters onto her property, hoping to shield them from arrest.

That effort, in the end, proved fruitless, as officers stormed the woman’s yard and roughly arrested protesters, including Imani and Muhammad.

“The police said being on private property is not good enough, you have to leave the area,” Imani recalled, “but we were flanked in all sides.”

Imani, who lost her red jacket in the mayhem, was photographed screaming as she was dragged away. She told The Intercept she had been trampled during her arrest, had watched her partner be tackled, and was concerned for her safety. “I heard one of the officers shout, ‘Really give it to her,’” she said. “They were marching me to the other side of the SWAT vehicle,” she added, explaining that her fear was of being beaten out of view of the cameras and other observers. “I started screaming, and that was because I was fearing for my life,” she said. “And they made the zip tie so tight, my hands turned purple.”

When she was processed later, another officer who took her details apologized to her for the tightness of the plastic cuffs. “He said, ‘I hate when they do this,’” she recalled.

Imani also noted that none of the officers who arrested her read her her rights, even though she asked them to do so.

Muhammad told NPR later that he too had been roughly treated.

They slammed me on to the ground. They jammed their knee into the back of my neck and to my back, and they put the zip ties on as tight as they possibly could. And then they — as we were walking down the street, I guess, I was walking too fast for one of the officers. And they said slow down. This is our show now.

More video of the protesters being boxed in and roughly arrested was streamed live to Facebook by another demonstrator.

That footage, the ACLU noted, shows the impossible position the police put the protesters in:

First the police told protesters to get off the street. So protesters went to the sidewalks. Then they were told to get off the sidewalks — and a private property owner offered refuge. So the cops told people the assembly was no longer lawful, and they’d be arrested. Where, exactly, do government officials expect their citizens to protest? It’s looking, unfortunately, like the answer is “nowhere.”

As Bill Quigley, a professor of law at Loyola University in New Orleans, noted in the Huffington Post, one of the journalists arrested a day earlier outside the Baton Rouge police headquarters, Ryan Kailath of NPR, had shared video of the moment he was detained for supposedly obstructing traffic that plainly showed he was standing next to the road, not on it.

As the activist DeRay Mckesson noted, visual evidence suggested that some of the protesters detained over the weekend, including a young man named Javier Dunn, had been beaten by officers.

The lawsuit against the Baton Rouge police filed on behalf of the protesters was not the only one related to the killing of Alton Sterling last week to go forward. The owner of the local Triple S Food Mart, Abdullah Muflahi, who witnessed the fatal shooting of Sterling by an officer, is seeking compensation for having been detained in a locked police car for four hours and the confiscation of his surveillance camera footage by the police.

Muflahi, who also recorded footage of the shooting, has opened his store to protesters demanding justice. He was seen at the start of a moving video about the protests posted online this week.

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