‘Unconstitutional police attacks’ in December Berkeley protests spur civil rights lawsuit

Lawyers Rachel Lederman and James Chanin (left) and plaintiffs xx, xx, xx and xx during the Monday press conference. Photo: Lance Knobel
Lawyers Rachel Lederman and James Chanin (left) and plaintiffs Joseph Watkins, Moni Law, Rasheed Shabazz and Cindy Pincus during the Monday press conference in front of Berkeley Police headquarters. Photo: Lance Knobel

Eleven demonstrators and journalists have filed a civil rights complaint against the city of Berkeley, the city of Hayward, former Berkeley City Manager Christine Daniel, Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan, and 13 other named police officers in federal court seeking changes in how Berkeley polices demonstrations and damages for what they term “unconstitutional police attacks” during the Black Lives Matter protests on Dec. 6, 2014.

Rent board counselor Moni Law, who describes herself as a "reluctant plaintiff." Photo: Lance Knobel
Rent Board counselor Moni Law, who describes herself as a “reluctant plaintiff.” Photo: Lance Knobel

“The Berkeley police treated all the demonstrators as if they were violent and lawless,” James Chanin, a Berkeley-based civil rights attorney representing the plaintiffs, said at a press conference in front of Berkeley Police headquarters Monday morning. “The results were predictable, and that is why we’re here today. Non-violent protesters were injured, massive amounts of gas were used on non-violent protesters as well as people who had little if anything to do with the demonstrations, and those who did commit property damage got away while non-violent, innocent people were injured and/or prevented from exercising their First Amendment rights.”

Moni Law, a Berkeley Rent Board counselor, is one of the plaintiffs. Law said she was clubbed in the back from behind by a Berkeley police officer when she was urging other demonstrators to step back from the police line. At the press conference, Law described herself as a “reluctant plaintiff.”

“I want my own police department to protect and to serve,” Law said. “Let’s keep our city free of violence, and that includes police violence.”

Read past Berkeleyside coverage of the Berkeley protests.

Attorney Rachel Lederman: Photo: Lance Knobel
Attorney Rachel Lederman: “Somewhat surprising” that Berkeley police received the most complaints. Photo: Lance Knobel

Rachel Lederman, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and head of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, said it was “somewhat surprising” that Berkeley police had received the most complaints and reports during the protests last December, even though there were demonstrations in Oakland and San Francisco, as well as other Bay Area cities.

According to Lederman, Berkeley police “made no effort to supervise or control” other public safety agencies, including Hayward police, who were called in for the demonstrations.

Berkeley police and the city of Berkeley would not comment Monday on the suit.

“We haven’t seen the specifics of the lawsuit,” said Officer Byron White, a Berkeley Police spokesman. “We cannot comment on something we haven’t seen.”

The complaint asserts that “Berkeley Police responded brutally, clubbing peaceful protesters and journalists, often from behind, some in the head, indiscriminately and unnecessarily; and using profligate amounts of teargas without justification.” The Hayward police, acting as mutual aid to Berkeley, “shot highly dangerous Specialty Impact Munitions at nonviolent demonstrators and used other unlawful excessive force,” according to the complaint.

Attorney James Chanin: BPD's own report was "massive apologia". Photo: Lance Knobel
Attorney James Chanin: BPD’s own report was “massive apologia.” Photo: Lance Knobel

The city of Berkeley, former city manager Daniel and Chief Meehan are accused in the complaint of violating the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights “by maintaining customs, policies and/or practices which foreseeably would result in constitutional violations… and/or by their deliberate indifference in the hiring, training, supervision and discipline of City of Berkeley police officers.”

The 11 plaintiffs are Curtis Johnson, a Los Angeles resident who was visiting the Bay Area, Moni Law, Berkeley residents Joseph Cuff and Emily Power, photographer Sam Wolson, who was on assignment for the San Francisco Chronicle during the protests, UC Berkeley students Nisa Dang, Joseph Watkins and Allie Loux, Cindy Pincus, an intern minister during the protests, Rasheed Shabazz, a multimedia journalist covering the demonstrations, and human rights activist Todd Zimmer.

In addition to Meehan and Daniel, the suit also names former Berkeley Police Capt. Erik Upson, Berkeley Police lieutenants Andrew Rateaver and Rico Rolleri, Detective Scott Salas, and officers Samantha Speelman, Joshua Smith, Jumaane Jones, Steven Fleming, Jitendra Singh, Bryan Waggonner and Brian Hartley. Chief Diane Urban and Lt. Bryan Matthews, of the Hayward Police Department, are also named.

At the press conference, Chanin criticized the police department’s own report on the protests, issued in June, as a “massive apologia” that was released instead of the after-action report that is required within 72 hours by BPD’s own procedures. Chanin said the report cost $200,000 and contained photos of “every rock and bottle” but “failed to account for their own use of force.”

Chanin also singled out BPD’s briefing notes from Dec. 6 where one of the tactical notes reads, “Get’um running! Stretch the crowd out so they are not a mass, but individuals.” Chanin said that showed “blatant discriminatory intent.”

The suit seeks injunctive relief to prevent further violations of what it describes as violations of constitutional and statutory rights. The relief sought includes “police policies, training and accountability measures.” Among the long list of damages sought are punitive damages against the individual defendants, statutory and exemplary damages and a $25,000 civil penalty per violation.

The full complaint can be read here. The Berkeley police briefing notes for Dec. 6 can be seen here, and additional documents related to the protests have been posted previously by Berkeleyside. A selection of Berkeleyside protest coverage appears below. See complete coverage here.

14 consider lawsuit against city of Berkeley after protests (08.11.15)
Police report mistakes, challenges in Berkeley protests (06.11.15)
Police Review Commission gets first chance for answers from police after protests (06.10.15)
Berkeley Police release long-awaited protest report (06.09.15)
Berkeley council refers community policing package to city manager (02.25.15)
Berkeley City Council limits police tear gas use, for now (02.11.15)
Exclusive: 23-minute delay for paramedics during Berkeley protests, patient later died (02.05.15)
Berkeley town hall examines race, police relations (01.18.15)
Berkeley Police Q&A: Tear gas use, protest costs, more (01.08.15)
After Berkeley protests: Local merchants react to damage, looting at their businesses (12.18.14)
Crowd demands fast action from council; officials set meeting on protests for January (12.17.14)
2 officials demand investigation into police tear gas use in Berkeley protest Saturday (12.10.14)
Photo Gallery: Third night of protests, trains halted, a freeway brought to a standstill (12.09.14)
CHP arrests 150 protesters after they block I-80 freeway (12.08.14)
City of Berkeley told police to use restraint, avoid tear gas, on second night of protests (12.08.14)
Photo Gallery: Two nights of protests, riots in Berkeley (12.08.14)
Protesters take to streets for second night: Violence, vandalism of local businesses, looting (12.07.14)
Ferguson demo in Berkeley: Injuries reported, tear gas used, property vandalized; arrests (12.06.14)

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