A group of people caught up in the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, that followed the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer, sued local officials on Thursday, alleging civil rights violations stemming from arrests and police actions that used rubber bullets and tear gas.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, says law enforcement met the broad public outcry over the Aug. 9 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown with "militaristic displays of force and weaponry," and engaged U.S. citizens "as if they were war combatants."
The lawsuit, filed by D.C.-based Black Lawyers For Justice (BLFJ), seeks a total of $40 million on behalf of six plaintiffs, including a 17-year-old boy who was with his mother in a fast-food restaurant when they were arrested. Each of the plaintiffs was caught up in interactions with police over a period from Aug. 11 to 13, the suit alleges.
"We filed this suit because there were serious constitutional and human rights violations carried out at the hands of Ferguson police during the demonstrations,” said Malik Shabazz, lead attorney for the group filing the suit. Shabazz said the suit alleges “4th, 5th and 1st Amendment violations.”
Neither the city, county nor police departments had any immediate comment on the lawsuit.
The filing of the lawsuit followed nearly two weeks of demonstrations in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, where Brown's killing prompted area residents to take to the streets. The initial show of force by city and county police, which included riot gear and military-style assault weapons and armored vehicles, elevated local tensions and drew national attention.
Supporters of the police response cite looting of a few Ferguson businesses that occurred during some of the nights of demonstrations.
But attorneys for the plaintiffs said that is not a direct justification for police actions. “The evidence will come out showing that very few people were arrested for actual looting,” said Shabazz. “Many allegations of protester misconduct have been found to be blown out of proportion,” Shabazz said, adding it still didn’t merit a “blanket approach.”
“Gassing and arresting everyone within a 3 mile radius is preposterous,” said Shabazz. “Those kinds of actions, in fact, only encourage some people.”
“You can't just gas people off the streets, and arrest them simply because there's protesting and unrest,” Shabazz said.
One of the plaintiffs alleges she and her son were in a McDonald's restaurant when several police officers with rifles ordered them out. According to the suit, an officer threw her to the ground and handcuffed her, with she and her son both arrested.
Another plaintiff alleges he was trying to visit his mother in Ferguson when several police officers in military uniforms shot him with rubber bullets. When he fell over, he was beaten and sprayed with pepper spray, the lawsuit says.
Two other plaintiffs say they were peacefully protesting when officers in riot gear fired on them with tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades. A separate plaintiff says he was trying to record footage of the protests when police took his camera and arrested him.
"This is a blatant example of how police handle African-Americans ... how it can go terribly, terribly wrong. You have a right to peaceful assembly," said BLFJ attorney Reginald Greene.
Ferguson Police said officer Darren Wilson shot Brown on a residential street when a dispute erupted after Wilson asked Brown to move out of the road. Some witnesses have reported that Brown was holding his hands up in surrender when he was shot multiple times, including twice in the head.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they expect more complaints will come, and if more victims sign on, they will look to upgrade the suit to class-action status.
Shabazz, who is president of the BLFJ, said he hopes suits like this one will encourage better training of police, so that when there is unrest, it is met with a more disciplined and professional response. “We hope this will send a message to every police department in America,” said Shabazz, “if you violate the constitutional and human rights of black people, you will be aggressively challenged in court on these issues."
A St. Louis County grand jury has begun hearing evidence in the case. The U.S. Justice Department has opened its own investigation.
Reuters. Amel Ahmed contributed to this report