Eleven people who were clubbed, teargassed, slammed to the ground, shot with impact munitions or arrested by the police during a December 2014 demonstration sued the city of Berkeley and officials of the California city in federal court.
The plaintiffs include journalists who were covering the demonstration, as well as demonstrators. They are seeking to revamp how Berkeley polices demonstrations, as well as to be compensated for injuries.
The Dec. 6, 2014, protest was a March Against State Violence calling for justice for Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other unarmed black people killed by white police officers.
"The march was largely peaceful," said civil rights attorney Jim Chanin. "But the Berkeley Police assumed the worst and almost immediately began hitting people in an indiscriminate manner. This was illegal, and unnecessarily exacerbated tension between police and protesters. It showed a complete lack of appreciation for the fact that the demonstrators were exercising their constitutional right to speak out on very serious issues: police racist killings and the failure of our criminal justice system to hold officers accountable."
The lawsuit follows the revelation that Berkeley Police stop data shows a pattern of racial profiling against black and Latino people, with blacks and Latinos far more likely than whites to be stopped and searched.
The plaintiffs include San Francisco Chronicle photographer Sam Wolson, who was clubbed on the head as he knelt to take a photo. Wolson said, "I was really surprised and disappointed, by the whole situation. If you can't have media safely holding all parties accountable then the whole system breaks down."
Cindy Pincus, a minister, was also hit on the head as she bent down to help another woman who had fallen. "The response by police was so disproportionately violent to the peaceful gathering of protesters. We were indiscriminately beaten even as we tried to lawfully retreat. I suffered once; this is what our brown and black citizens suffer every day."
Cal student Nisa Dang was clubbed from behind while she was urging other demonstrators to be peaceful.
Later that night, the police forced her and others to march from Berkeley to the Oakland border.
"The officers hit and jabbed us with their batons and shot tear gas canisters at our backs to forcibly make us keep moving south. They didn't stop their violent tactics until we got to Oakland. Those of us who had been forced into Oakland then had to walk all the way back to Berkeley to return to the safety of our homes."
Curtis Johnson was visiting from Los Angeles and happened on the demonstration. "I had only been with the march for about ten minutes when I was shot in the knee with an impact munition," he said. "There was no warning." Mr. Johnson was shot by Hayward officers who were providing mutual aid to Berkeley.
"There have been demonstrations all over the Bay Area as part of the growing nationwide movement for Black Lives and the NLG had legal observers at most of them," said Rachel Lederman, co-counsel for the plaintiffs and the president of the National Lawyers Guild's San Francisco Bay Area Chapter. "It was Berkeley who responded in the most brutal and unconstitutional manner. To make matters worse, Berkeley made no effort to control the other agencies who responded to its call for mutual aid."