Let the litigation begin. Eight lawsuits have been filed in U.S. District Court claiming civil rights abuses by police officers during events surrounding the Republican National Convention (RNC) in September. The civil suits accuse officers of physical and sexual abuse, illegal searches and seizure of property, and wrongful detainment.
“This is just the beginning,” says Ted Dooley, one of the attorneys handling the cases. “There’s going to be a lot of litigation, and it’s going to take a long time.”
Plaintiff Michael Whalen’s duplex was raided by St. Paul police on August 30, two days before the start of the convention. At the time, Whalen (pictured below) was housing members of Eyewitness Video, who were in town to document RNC protests.
Among the reasons given for the search, according to his lawsuit: He once co-owned Arise Bookstore with former Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson and had received “large, heavy boxes” in the mail.
What was inside these suspicious boxes? Vegan literature. Nonetheless officers searched the house and detained the occupants for three hours. Ultimately no property was seized and no arrests were made.
Police also claimed in their search warrant application that they’d tried to pull over a vehicle driven by Whalen and that he’d fled the scene.
“It’s not a mistake,” says Dooley, of the assertion. “It’s a goddamn fabrication.”
Three other lawsuits claim the actions of police officers prevented them from working as journalists.
Wendy Binion, an Oregon resident who works with the Web site Portland IndyMedia, was arrested on the second day of the convention near Mears Park. Her lawsuit claims that she was “battered, assaulted, subjected to excessive, unreasonable force, unreasonably seized, falsely arrested and falsely imprisoned” by St. Paul police officers. She also alleges that officers confiscated her video camera, ATM card and other personal property and did not return it for two months.
“I firmly believe that if they are going to declare war on our Constitutional rights of free speech, assembly and press that they should be tried as the war criminals that they are,” Binion says.
Similarly, Vladimir Teichberg and Olivia Katz of New York were in town to document the convention for the Glass Bead Collective. Five days before its start, they were stopped by police officers while walking in northeast Minneapolis. They claim the officers detained them for at least 30 minutes and held their possessions — including a laptop computer, cell phones and cameras — for 14 hours. (This Minnesota Independent video features Teichberg discussing the incident just after it happened.)
They were never charged with a crime. Most of their property was eventually returned. Still missing are a $100 bill and Katz’s driver’s license, according to the lawsuit.
A pair of local activists are also among the plaintiffs who filed cases yesterday. Mick Kelly previously sued St. Paul in June after he was arrested for handing out literature outside Xcel Energy Center on the evening that Barack Obama laid claim to the Democratic presidential nomination. The city settled the suit by paying the anti-war activist $5,000.
In the new lawsuit Kelly claims that on the final day of the convention he was attacked by Minneapolis police officers while marching in a parade. According to the lawsuit, Kelly was carrying a banner that read “Confront the warmakers, U.S. out of Iraq now.” He was surrounded by officers on horseback, the banner was ripped from its pole, and he was shot at close range with a non-lethal weapon. The projectile left a bruise “the size of a frisbee,” according to the lawsuit.
“What it was, I don’t know,” Kelly says of the weapon used against him, “but it was close and it was painful.”
He was detained and ticketed, but the citation was later dropped. He is is seeking more than $1 million in damages.
Michelle Gross is a founder of Communities United Against Police Brutality, which highlights alleged civil rights abuses. She was present at the headquarters of the RNC Welcoming Committee when it was raided by the Ramsey County Sheriff’s office three days before the start of the convention. Gross claims that she was inappropriately “strip-searched” by deputies and that one officer touched her “under her brassiere in a sexually offensive manner.”
Gross believes she was targeted because of her work highlighting police misconduct.
“I do think it was retaliatory,” she says. “But how can you know what’s on people’s minds?”
The final two lawsuits were filed by Rebecca Sang, of Cerritos, Calif., and Jason Johnson, of Cedar Lake, Ind. Both claim they were victims of excessive force and false arrest. They were cited for allegedly obstructing police, but the charges were subsequently dropped.
There are expected to be a slew of additional cases filed in the coming months. Although nearly 800 people were arrested during the four-day gathering, only about 15 of those cases have resulted in criminal charges. Last week the St. Paul city attorney’s office announced that it would not be pressing charges against 323 swept up in a mass arrest on the final day of the convention.
Dooley says the cases are important because they will allow the public to scrutinize police tactics leading up to and during the four-day gathering.
“This could go, God help me, for years,” he says. “But we will find out things.”