Anti-brutality protests met with brutality, lawsuits claim

Protest on May 26
Protest on May 26

Protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd were met with brutality and excessive force against participants and the journalists covering the fray, according to lawsuits filed in June.

The two lawsuits filed in federal court seek class action status. One represents all peaceful protesters injured by law enforcement using force to disperse crowds, while the other represents media members similarly targeted or arrested while reporting.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of St. Paul resident Annette Williams against the City of Minneapolis alleges she was on a downtown sidewalk on May 28 when a Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) squad car drove past and an officer sprayed a chemical irritant at her. The suit alleges the officer was not attempting to clear a path but instead was randomly spraying. Multiple videos of law enforcement engaging in drive-by spraying have been shared on social media, including one video taken by a Star Tribune columnist.

Williams has since suffered from labored breathing and chest pain. The lawsuit says the tactic has a chilling effect and is meant to deter people from expressing their First Amendment rights. The document also accuses the MPD of using a “corral and combat” strategy where officers would box protesters into an area then shoot in tear gas and rubber bullets.

On the ground, witnesses reported seeing a heavy-handed, antagonistic approach from law enforcement.

Jake Armato, a trained EMT who lives in Northeast, went out to the most intense nights of protesting near the 3rd and 5th precinct headquarters to offer emergency medical care. He was expecting a scene of chaos with crimes of passion and fighting, but he said what he saw “was shocking.” Armato said he treated about 110 people in total and that “all their injuries were from the police.”

He treated people for chemical burns, cuts, the effects of tear gas and welts and concussions from rubber bullets. His most common treatments were washing out the eyes of people who’d been tear gassed, Armato said. In addition to physical injuries, he helped people process

“a lot of psychological trauma.” Many people he treated were teenagers or young adults who were coughing from gas and overwhelmed by constant explosions and disorientation.

“Tear gas can be very scary if you’ve never been gassed before,” he said.

A protester is treated for tear gas exposure with milk
A protester is treated for tear gas exposure with milk on May 28 after police sprayed a crowd near the Pourhouse in Downtown Minneapolis. Photos by Isaiah Rustad

Armato, who used to work with a university police department, said he thought officers were pushed to a breaking point and snapped. He said it was clear the police were in a militant mode. He said he noticed a “good number of officers provoking and shooting people at point blank range with rubber bullets.”

“There was no sense of de-escalation,” Armato said.

One widely shared video shows law enforcement yelling “light ’em up” before firing paintball rounds at residents on a Whittier porch at the start of the state-imposed curfew on May 30. The video has been viewed more than 28 million times.

“We are reviewing the allegations in the lawsuits and take them seriously,” the City of Minneapolis wrote in a statement to the Southwest Journal. “We continue to support the First Amendment rights of everyone in Minneapolis.”

Media targeted

Reporters, like many protesters, were struck with rubber bullets and exposed to chemical irritants used by law enforcement, according to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota on behalf of Minneapolis-based freelancer Jared Goyette and other media members.

Goyette was struck in the face by a projectile by the MPD without warning, despite clearly being a member of the press, states the lawsuit, which was denied class-action status by the U.S. District Court on June 8.

The lawsuit also documents several arrests of journalists, who were exempt from the curfew, by state troopers and the MPD, including WCCO’s Tom Aviles and CNN’s Oscar Jimenez, who was notably handcuffed on live television. Several other local, national and international members of the press were detained and hand- cuffed while covering the event, according to the lawsuit. Freelance journalist Linda Tirado was struck in the face by a projectile fired by law enforcement and has permanently lost vision in her left eye, according to the suit.

Maggie Koerth, a journalist with FiveThirtyEight who lives in the Wedge, went out reporting with Goyette the week of the protests. She was interviewing a man near the LynLake Popeyes on May 30 when law enforcement began marching west down Lake Street. Police began firing rubber bullets, she said, and struck the man she was interviewing. Officers also fired at her and Goyette and the two put their hands up and shouted that they were press but were told by officers to “shut up,” she said. When the group of officers walked back around 11 p.m., the two again identified themselves as reporters, and one officer told her, “I really want to f—ing peg you,” Koerth said.

Video compiled by Mother Jones magazine documented law enforcement slashing the tires of cars parked at the Lake & Nicollet Kmart on May 30. The Star Tribune identified state troopers and Anoka County sheriff ’s depu-
ties as the agencies involved in the incident. A Department of Public Safety spokesperson told the newspaper that law enforcement was “strategically deflating tires” to preemptively prevent people using vehicles from driving at high speeds near protesters and officers.

Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith (DFL) responded harshly to that claim in a post on social media.

“Please,” Smith tweeted. “Call it what you want, this is slashing the tires of cars belonging to members of the press and other innocent people.”