When black-clad marchers began smashing windows in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day, the city’s police force — reputedly the best in the country at upholding protesters’ rights during disruptive demonstrations — went nuclear.
Officers quickly deployed pepper spray, tear gas, and crowd-control grenades of various types. The Metropolitan Police Department opted to “kettle” everyone on the streets nearby the initial anarchist-driven property destruction, something it does not, by reputation, make a habit of doing during protests.
The mass round-up swept the “Antifa” rowdy types together with many peaceful protesters, journalists, and volunteer legal observers who turn out in bright green hats to help uphold First Amendment rights at such events in the capital. After hours of kettling, police arrested more than 200 people. All were initially charged with felonies by the United States Attorney’s office, which continues to pursue the vast majority of those cases.
This is how the public has understood what happened in the District on Inauguration Day for the past five months. But that story undersells the full scope of the MPD’s violent conduct that day, the D.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) alleges in a lawsuit filed Wednesday against the city, police department, police chief, and numerous yet-unnamed officers.
“Molestation and rape as punishment”
The “guilt by association” round-up and mass arrests, the liberal use of pepper spray, and the kettling itself would all be constitutionally dubious enough on their own, the ACLU-D.C.’s Scott Michelman said Wednesday.
But the experiences of the lawsuit’s four plaintiffs — independent photojournalist Shay Horse, volunteer legal observer Judah Ariel, and peaceful protesters Elizabeth Lagesse and Milo Gonzalez — suggest that MPD sought physical and emotional retribution on the hundreds of people kettled, the ACLU alleges.
An officer ordered Horse, fellow plaintiff Milo Gonzalez, and three others to take their pants off before grabbing their testicles and then inserting a finger into their anuses while “other officers laughed,” the complaint alleges. Horse is a photojournalist, one of six reporters initially arrested and charged whose cases have been dismissed.
“It felt like they were trying to…break us so that even if the charges didn’t stick, that night would be our punishment.”
“I felt like they were using molestation and rape as punishment. They used those tactics to inflict pain and misery on people who are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty,” Horse said. “It felt like they were trying to break me and the others — break us so that even if the charges didn’t stick, that night would be our punishment.”
In a statement responding to the lawsuit on Wednesday, the MPD defended its reputation and maintained that all its arrests were proper.
“Each year, the men and women of MPD protect the rights and ensure the safety of thousands of First Amendment assemblies, demonstrations and protests,” the department said. While thousands demonstrated peaceably on Inauguration Day, the statement went on, “there was another group of individuals who chose to engage in criminal acts, destroying property and hurling projectiles, injuring at least six officers. These individuals were ultimately arrested for their criminal actions.”
The department also pledged that “all…allegations of misconduct will be fully investigated.” Michelman said the ACLU welcomes that promise but doesn’t exactly trust it.
“We have significant concerns that that won’t be sufficient, in light of repeat problems MPD has had with arresting law-abiding demonstrators and responding…with excessive force,” Michelman said.
The discovery phase of the new suit should allow the plaintiffs to identify the names, ranks, and badge numbers of the specific officers they accuse of abusing them physically and psychologically. But it’s also important to the plaintiffs that such individualized accountability not shunt responsibility away from supervisors and top brass. “The events of the day show a high degree of coordination, suggesting the problems run deeper than the misconduct of a handful of officers,” said Michelman.
The U.S. Attorney for Washington, D.C. declined to comment on how the lawsuit, in which it is not named as a defendant, might alter the course of the 202 ongoing felony prosecutions it is pursuing related to Inauguration Day events. A spokesman cited the office’s policy of never commenting on ongoing felony cases.
“I came to D.C. to do a good thing”
Baltimore resident and fellow plaintiff Elizabeth Lagesse still faces felony charges stemming from her arrest that day. She detailed how she and other peaceful marchers were suddenly herded into the kettle along with some of the Antifa glass-smashers, kept there for hours, then eventually cuffed with zip-ties so tightly that they cut her wrist and numbed her hands.
Lagesse, who had come down from Baltimore to protest, said she was then dropped into a holding cell with 20 other women and denied food and water through the night.
“I came to D.C. to do a good thing: To express my concern about the direction of our country,” Lagesse said. “You would think that of all the cities in the world, Washington, D.C., would respect my freedom of speech and right to peaceably assemble.”
Even before the full depth of the alleged depravity of MPD officers’ actions toward protester detainees was laid out in Wednesday’s suit, the rough crowd control methods employed on Inauguration Day had alarmed protest law observers. ACLU and National Lawyers Guild representatives told ThinkProgress at the time that the department’s actions break from a long pattern of sensible, calm response to protests — even ones that radically disrupt roads, businesses, and private organization headquarters in the capital.
By dint of geography, MPD responds to far more mass demonstrations than any other police department. Marchers without permits regularly take over streets, sit in at organizational buildings, and even chain themselves to physical structures in protest without prompting the sort of crackdown that followed the Antifa provocations on Inauguration Day.
But MPD’s reputation for high standards on protester civil liberties coexists with a less-prominent and darker track record in cases like this one, Michelman said.
“When there are groups of people who protest only peacefully, demonstrations that go off without a hitch, MPD does tend to handle those pretty well. They tend to be prepared and respectful, and we commend them for that,” he said. “The problem is when there’s a little bit of lawbreaking at a mostly peaceful demonstration, the response from MPD is massive, it’s excessive, it’s unjustified, and it’s unconstitutional. That’s what we saw on January 20.”
The indiscriminate targeting of reporters, legal observers, and peaceful protesters along with those who had broken windows and assaulted officers is not a one-off, he said. MPD reacted similarly to a World Bank protest in 2002 that went sideways. The city later paid $8.25 million to settle civil rights cases brought by nearly 400 protesters. That case, known among local lawyers as Pershing Park, was not the first multi-million-dollar payout by the District over an episode that broke from MPD’s broader pattern of high-road protest management.
For Judah Ariel, a plaintiff who was on hand that day as a legal observer and described officers firing pepper cannons at the crowd he was in “like Al Pacino in Scarface,” the experience felt like a betrayal from the place he’s chosen to make his home.
“This is the city where I’ve chosen to make my home and raise a family. And all of the sudden it felt like my police department, my government, had turned on me without warning and without justification,” Ariel said.
“Wherever we live, the issues facing our country are too important and the stakes are too high. All of us must feel free to protest and speak out against the government without fear of retribution.”
This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Elizabeth Lagesse’s name and clarify that Scott Michelman works for the ACLU’s D.C. affiliate.