NEW YORK — The New York Civil Liberties Union and the Legal Aid Society are suing Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD brass, charging they are responsible for the “indiscriminate brutalizing of peaceful protestors” during a wave of demonstrations that swept the city earlier this year.
A federal civil rights lawsuit filed Monday morning in Manhattan argues the city’s treatment of protesters who turned out after the killing of George Floyd violated their First and Fourth Amendment rights. De Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea drew widespread condemnation for police aggression during the demonstrations.
“The police response to the protests was brutal, and the wanton display of brute force against people who were out there protesting non-violently was shocking,” NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said in an interview. “It was harmful. It was traumatic. And it was unlawful.”
News of the lawsuit was first reported by POLITICO.
Eleven plaintiffs named in the complaint say that while participating in protests between May 28 and June 28, they were beaten with batons, hit with pepper spray or subjected to “kettling” — a tactic in which police hemmed in and charged protesters. One protester’s arm was broken.
Some protesters said they were arrested and jailed without food, water or medical care, in crowded conditions that put them at risk for Covid-19. They also say police failed to wear masks as required by state law.
The suit charges that de Blasio, who publicly defended the NYPD’s response to the protests, maintained a de facto policy of allowing police officers to violently target protesters by approving forceful deployments and failing to discipline officers for their actions. In addition to the mayor, Shea and Chief of Department Terence Monahan are named as defendants.
“The Mayor of New York and the NYPD’s leadership condoned and even promoted that violence,” the lawsuit says. “As the protests continued and well documented, indisputable patterns of unlawful use of force emerged, the Mayor, the Commissioner, and Chief Monahan deliberately did not take steps to prevent police from using those tactics again and again. Instead, they repeatedly praised the actions of the NYPD, promoting, authorizing, sanctioning and encouraging further violence.”
De Blasio instituted a curfew in the city for the first time in decades in response to incidents of looting and vandalism.
In the face of outcry over police officers using force to disperse peaceful protesters, including from many of his own former aides and supporters, de Blasio mostly defended the NYPD — maintaining that the police force “uses as light a touch as possible,” though he acknowledged he had not seen widely circulated videos of cops rushing protesters and striking them with batons.
“He’s the apologist in chief,” Lieberman said.
The suit says the attacks on protesters were directed by NYPD supervising officers, including the highest ranks of police leadership, and carried out in retaliation for the demonstrators’ anti-police message.
The actions of de Blasio, Monahan and Shea "constitute a City policy to engage in excessive force, discriminate on the basis of viewpoint against those fighting for greater police accountability for brutality, and retaliate against people engaged in their constitutionally protected right to protest," the suit says.
The NYPD said it would review the suit. The mayor's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Bronx resident Vidal Guzman, one of the plaintiffs, said he was pepper sprayed in the face while protesting on the Lower East Side at the end of May and fell to the ground when hit with the spray, injuring his leg.
“A lot of people got injured that day,” he said. “It felt more like World War III, and the people they were going against were their own citizens.”
The suit asks a judge to rule that the city violated the First Amendment, which protects the right to protest, and the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure, and to award damages to the plaintiffs.