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More than 140 protesters, residents sue Philly police over tear gas, ‘extraordinary abuses of police power’

Philadelphia police (chrisinphilly5448/Flickr)

Citing “extraordinary abuses of police power,” more than 140 Philadelphia protesters and residents sued the city Tuesday over the department’s response to the unrest that has gripped the region in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.

In three separate federal lawsuits filed Tuesday, 145 plaintiffs alleged police and city officials violated their constitutional rights to free expression and freedom from excessive force with heavy-handed tactics deployed to disperse crowds of largely peaceful protests and bystanders.

Their claims focus on two incidents that have garnered national attention — the June 1 tear gassing of a crowd of demonstrators on I-676 and the police use of military-style armored vehicles, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas on protesters and neighborhood residents during efforts to quell looting and violence along West Philadelphia’s 52nd Street business corridor the day before.

In hundreds of pages of legal filings, the plaintiffs — who range in age from 18 to 50, with most being Philadelphia residents in their 20s or 30s — describe skin rashes, difficulty breathing, and pain they suffered due to their exposure to noxious chemicals. Some required hospitalization, while others are still undergoing mental health treatment for trauma.

Two of the groups are represented by local civil rights attorneys, while the third is represented by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. Together, their suits are believed to be the first filed in response to the unrest that roiled Philadelphia, and part of a wave of litigation against police departments nationwide alleging violence and excessive force during the protests.

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In both incidents, attorneys said, the department’s use of force was “grossly excessive.” The police corralled the I-676 demonstrators, leaving “hundreds of demonstrators stranded on [a] hill, unable to leave, engulfed in clouds of smoke and tear gas,” as officers fired gas canisters and rubber bullets that left people “coughing, vomiting, crying, unable to breathe, and, in some cases, losing consciousness,” one lawsuit said.

“The city’s actions on 676 were simply stunning,” said Jonathan Feinberg, one of several attorneys representing 41 protesters caught on the Vine Street Expressway. “They caused a wholesale violation of peaceful protesters’ civil rights. Such large-scale and unlawful conduct calls for accountability, and that’s why we have brought this case.”

The city did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In West Philadelphia, the plaintiffs said, what started as a police response to looting and violent skirmishes with officers drew crowds of peaceful protesters and bystanders who were met with the same aggressive tactics. Dozens described indiscriminate deployments of pepper spray, rubber bullets, and tear gas over hours that blanketed surrounding neighborhoods, sickened children, and prompted some residents to evacuate their homes as clouds of noxious fumes seeped through windows and under doorways.

“Residents and passersby [some of whom] were doing nothing more than sitting on their porches or walking home from work” were caught in the cross-fire, “causing residents — including elderly residents and children — to seek shelter at home or wherever they could nearby,” that lawsuit states.

One of the plaintiffs, a 32-year-old man who was protesting police brutality near 52nd Street with his children, says he repeatedly heard officers use anti-Black racial slurs while telling the demonstrators to go home. Police officers “repeatedly sprayed” him with pepper spray and dislocated his shoulder with a rubber bullet, the lawsuit says.

Calling the department’s use of force “racially discriminatory” and retaliation against Black residents for exercising the right to free speech and assembly, his lawyers noted police did not employ the same tactics in the predominantly white neighborhoods of Center City and Port Richmond, where looting was also reported, or the next day in Fishtown, where mobs mostly of white men wielded bats and assaulted protesters.

“Law enforcement has a long history of engaging in overly harsh tactics and racist violence against residents of West Philadelphia — most notably, the police bombing of the homes of MOVE members and their neighbors in 1985,” said Cara McClellan, an attorney with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, representing 12 plaintiffs in West Philadelphia. “City officials must be held accountable for these militaristic police actions, which are discriminatory, illegal, and completely unacceptable. Our clients deserve safety and security in their own neighborhood and to be free of fear of discrimination and police terror.”

The lawsuits name Mayor Jim Kenney, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, and Managing Director Brian Abernathy among the defendants and seek compensatory and punitive damages.

Attorneys for the group on I-676 also seek punitive damages for individual officers and city officials involved with the decision to use tear gas on protesters that day. Lawyers with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund also request that a judge issue a declaratory judgment that the police department’s use of force was unconstitutional and in violation of civil rights laws.

City officials have acknowledged that they were unprepared by the size of the protests that erupted after Floyd’s death. The Inquirer has previously reported that police abandoned strategies that had previously earned them national accolades for dealing with demonstrations largely without incident. Instead, they risked responding with minimal staffing and once they became overwhelmed, officers escalated their response with heavy-handed tactics.

Earlier this month, after the New York Times published a video report on the incident on I-676, city officials apologized for tear gassing protesters there, calling the use of force “unjustifiable,” and admitting that they had offered incorrect and uncorroborated explanations for why officers resorted to the tactics.

Kenney also said he regretted his decision to green-light the use of tear gas in the West Philadelphia neighborhood in response to what he said was “violence, arson, and looting,” but stopped short of apologizing for its use there.

The suits Tuesday come as Kenney announced that Abernathy — under fire for his role in the city’s response to the protests — will resign from his position, the latest development in a seven-week stretch of unrest across Philadelphia as protesters have called for police reforms, abolition, and an end to police brutality and racial injustice in the city.

“The First Amendment is the cornerstone of our democracy, as is the struggle for racial justice,” said Paul Hetznecker, one of the lawyers involved in the litigation. “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. “

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© 2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer