A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle alleges that protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement are being priced out of their civil rights by the prohibitive costs of defending themselves against police violence.
The five plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege that the purchase of helmets, gas masks, protective clothing, goggles, gloves, boots, umbrellas and other gear they say are needed to fend off police pepper spray, less-lethal projectiles and other crowd-dispersal tools has impinged on their civil right to peacefully protest.
All five — Jessica Benton, Shelby Bryant, Anne Marie Cavanaugh, Alyssa Garrison, and Clare Thomas — say they were the victims of “indiscriminate” police violence during protests on Capitol Hill on June 25. They claim that repeated use of force by SPD during more than six weeks of civil unrest over systemic racism and police brutality against people of color has made it impossible to exercise their right to gather and protest without personal protective gear, which isn’t cheap.
“Because protesters now must purchase expensive equipment to be assured that they will be able to protest safely, the indiscriminate use of weapons by SPD implicates equal protection,” the lawsuit alleges.
“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: 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,” wrote attorney Talitha Hazelton of Renton, who filed the lawsuit Monday.
The Seattle City Attorney’s Office will “look into these new claims and intend(s) to defend the City in this matter,” said spokesperson Dan Nolte.
The lawsuit, assigned to Chief Judge Ricardo Martinez, seeks a temporary restraining order prohibiting the department from using force or crowd-dispersal munitions. That order would join an injunction against police violence against peaceful protesters already in place in a separate lawsuit filed by Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County last month before U.S. District Judge Richard Jones.
Another federal judge, U.S. District Judge James Robart, has temporarily prevented a new City Council ordinance blocking SPD’s use of tear gas and other crowd-control weapons from taking effect until the court and others have had a chance to review its impact on a seven-year-old overhaul of the Seattle Police Department’s policies, procedures and data-collection resulting from a 2012 consent-decree with the Department of Justice. DOJ civil-rights lawyers had sued SPD over findings that its officers routinely engaged in excessive use of force.
Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County has asked Jones to hold SPD in contempt of the injunction issued in his court last month after weeks of clashes between mostly peaceful protesters and police.
Jones found that police, in earlier protests, violated the civil rights of thousands of Seattle protesters by deploying tear gas, concussion grenades, blast balls, and streams of pepper-spray to disperse otherwise peaceful crowds.
Police have reacted after isolated but destructive incidents of arson and vandalism by some involved in the protests, and say dozens of officers have suffered injuries from thrown objects and fireworks.
Jones has set a hearing on that motion for Aug. 25.
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