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Activists sue Seattle over ‘expensive’ gear costs to protest police

Police use a chemical spray in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. (Seattle Times/TNS)
August 05, 2020

Activists filed a lawsuit Monday, arguing that their constitutional rights to protest have been violated by police responses and that the cost to buy protective equipment to protect themselves during demonstrations is prohibitive to them exercising their protest rights.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. federal court,  argues “because the Seattle Police Department has acted above and outside the law in dispensing its unbridled force, and the City has failed to prevent same, the government effect is to establish a de facto protest tax.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of five activists: Jessica Benton, Shelby Bryant, AnneMarie Cavanaugh, Alyssa Garrison and Clare Thomas. All five were present during demonstrations in Seattle on Saturday July 25, which the Seattle Police Department (SPD) declared a riot.

“Individual protesters subjected to SPD’s unabated and indiscriminate violence now must purchase cost-prohibitive gear to withstand munitions – even when peacefully protesting – as a condition to exercising their right to free speech and peaceable assembly,” the complaint further argues.

The lawsuit further argues “only those who have the means to purchase extensive protective gear can engage in 1st Amendment speech in the streets of Seattle, where its police force is not a source of protection but antagonism.”

The lawsuit argues protesters they were acting peacefully when SPD officers attacked. They included tweets of videos taken during the July 25 demonstrations as evidence of the alleged wrongdoing by police.

The lawsuit argues, based on one video they included, that police struck one woman and threw another to the ground and pepper sprayed people attempting to run away.

Another video alleges “Police knocked a man down and pepper sprayed him directly in the face.”

The complaint also argues against SPD’s use of crowd control munitions such as blast balls, tear gas and rubber bullets. Seattle has attempted ban some of those crowd control munitions, though a federal judge recently temporarily blocked the move amid concerns such a ban would leave police with just tasers and batons and actually creates an “increased likelihood of excessive force being used.”

SPD itself claims 59 of its officers were injured during the demonstrations they declared a riot. SPD shared videos and photos of officers injured by fireworks and other thrown objects, as well as damage at a police precinct building where a suspect explosive device blew in part of the wall.

The new lawsuit against the city of Seattle comes amid calls for the city to defund the SPD, a point referenced in the complaint filed Monday.