By Manny Fernandez and David A. FahrentholdWashington Post
October 16, 2002
Lawsuit Alleges Protest Observers, News Photographers Were Unfairly Detained
Seven George Washington University students filed a federal lawsuit against District police yesterday, alleging they were unfairly swept up in last month's mass arrests at an anti-globalization demonstration even though they were attending the event as observers and news photographers and causing no trouble.
The suit marks the first civil action after a controversial police cordon Sept. 27 in Pershing Park, at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Several hundred protesters -- as well as bystanders, journalists and volunteer medics -- were kept from leaving the park for more than two hours by police in riot gear and then arrested.
Legal experts have differed over whether police exceeded their authority with the surround-and-arrest tactics used during demonstrations against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Police officials have said their actions were justified in response to threats to disrupt the city and to acts of vandalism earlier that day, while protesters argue the arrests were made with little cause and no warning.
"I feel like U.S. citizens are supposed to have the right to gather peacefully and have the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press," said Leanne Lee, 21, a plaintiff and George Washington senior. "I feel like it was taken away from us."
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey has defended the handling of the Pershing Park protest by saying demonstrators were blocking streets before they were corralled. He has also cited demonstration organizers' threats to shut down the city, in addition to vandalism at a downtown Citibank earlier that morning. "If they filed a suit, that's their right, and we'll answer it when the time comes," Ramsey said yesterday. "I don't have any problem with any of the actions taken during IMF weekend."
More than 600 people were arrested during three days of demonstrations. The majority were taken into custody Sept. 27, when the Anti-Capitalist Convergence, a group of anarchists and anti-capitalists, called for the shutdown of the city and held three events without obtaining permits.
Four of the students filing suit, including Lee, were covering the protest at Pershing Park as photographers for the student newspaper, the Hatchet, the suit said. The other three were described as law students serving as observers at the demonstration for the National Lawyers Guild, which helped provide legal support for activists.
In an interview, Lee said she first noticed officers surrounding the park about 9:20 a.m. When she asked them to let her leave the area, they refused, she said, even after she identified herself as a journalist. Lee said she was handcuffed by police a few hours later, as were scores of others, and then put on a bus to be processed.
But Lee said it wasn't until 5 p.m. that officers told her that she was under arrest, while she sat on a packed bus outside a Southwest police academy that served as a processing center. Lee added that even then she wasn't told the nature of the charge. Lee and the others subsequently were charged with failing to obey an order to disperse but contend no order was ever given.
The lawsuit alleged that authorities violated the students' rights under the First, Fourth and Fifth amendments and accused police of "abusive confinement" and denying the detainees access to counsel. According to the suit, Lee and three others were held at the police academy until the next afternoon, spending more than 10 hours on the bus waiting for processing and then at least 12 hours inside the facility's gym, where each reportedly had a wrist handcuffed to an ankle.
The students' lawyer, Jonathan Turley, a George Washington law professor, said the suit seeks to get the police "trap-and-arrest" tactic declared unconstitutional and to clear the arrests from the records of students and others. "The police do not have a license to operate outside of the U.S. Constitution when faced with demonstrations," Turley said. Besides police, the suit's defendants are the National Park Service, the federal and city governments and unidentified officers or officials.
District police have made similar mass arrests at other demonstrations using tactics that have spawned two previous lawsuits. Those lawsuits -- filed after anti-globalization protests in April 2000 and demonstrations against the presidential inauguration in January 2001 -- are still pending.
The lead counsel in those cases, the D.C.-based Partnership for Civil Justice, is preparing to file its own lawsuit against local and federal law enforcement for the Pershing Park mass arrests, its lawyers said.
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