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ACLU, Minneapolis protesters sue for right to not get tear-gassed

Jennifer Brooks/Twitter

Jennifer Brooks/Twitter

On the afternoon of May 26, thousands of protesters gathered on the corner of 38th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis to demand justice after the murder of George Floyd, who was killed by police officers.

Then they marched together for about two and a half miles to the Third Police Precinct on Minnehaha Avenue, arriving there at about half-past 7 in the evening.

Most of the protesters had headed home by that point, but Nekima Levy Armstrong,a civil rights lawyer and former candidate for mayor of Minneapolis, was among the last hundred or so to remain. So was her husband, Marques Armstrong.

According to a complaint filed in Minnesota’s U.S. District Court on Tuesday, Nekima and Marques were just waiting for their ride to get there. A few other protesters in a smaller group were throwing some rocks and water bottles.

Then, around 8 p.m., the dial reportedly ratcheted up a bit.

Squad cars rolled in, and out stepped officers “dressed in riot gear,” who began to fire “less-lethal munitions,” tear gas, and flashbangs at the protesters – whether they were throwing water bottles or just standing around.

The complaint says neither Nekima nor Marques heard a warning or orders to disperse.

The next night, when they went back to the Third Precinct to protest, they came with goggles and helmets. They weren’t the only ones who came prepared.

“When protesters… arrived at the Third Precinct in the early evening, [Minneapolis Police] officers were standing on the roof of the precinct,” the complaint says. “Officers were dressed in riot gear, holding impact weapons and canisters of tear gas.”

Around 8 p.m. – again, allegedly without warning – the protesters were covered in a stinging blanket of chemical irritants. Nekima and Marques were forced to flee. When they got to a safe spot, they rinsed their eyes with milk. (This was not their first time getting gassed.)

But the stuff lingered in their throats and chests, “tingling and burning.” It would continue to do so, according to the complaint, for days afterward. Nekima’s voice has reportedly not returned to full strength.

The two of them are now plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota against the city, Minneapolis Police Department Chief Medaria Arradondo, police union head Bob Kroll, Minnesota Department of Safety Commissioner John Harrington, and Minnesota State Patrol Col. Matthew Langer.

The lawsuit -- not the first filed over police brutality during George Floyd protests, or by the ACLU -- argues people have a right to protest, and should do so peacefully without fear of getting shot (without warning) by a rubber bullet and sustaining bruises that last months, or a gassing that takes away a voice. The ACLU complaint intends to represent plaintiffs that have “never been afraid to protest but [are] now.”

“These acts would chill a reasonable person from continuing to engage in a constitutionally protected activity,” the complaint says. State and local government, it says, should be held responsible for not creating policies preventing this kind of thing, and not training or supervising officers to that effect.

The plaintiffs are asking for an end to “unconstitutional conduct against protesters,” attorney's fees, and damages for their injuries. So far, city and state officials haven’t commented on the issue.

“It is deeply disturbing that the MPD chose to respond to protests – and to the justifiable frustration and outrage that people feel over George Floyd’s murder by MPD – with violence,” Levy Armstrong said in a statement with the ACLU. “We are participating in the lawsuit to protect our First Amendment freedoms of speech and the right to peaceably assemble in protest, which will help us fight for justice for George Floyd.”

Plenty of protesters who were at the Third Precinct – among them young adults and journalists just doing their jobs -- have given accounts of moderate to severe injuries sustained at the hands of police that week, including permanent blindness and busted jaws. Several have started Gofundme pages in an attempt to pay their hospital bills.