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Occupy Wall Street Protesters Sue Over Free Speech, Use Of Force

Occupy Wall Street Lawsuits

First Posted: 12/22/11 06:37 PM ET Updated: 12/23/11 10:11 AM ET

By ERIKA NIEDOWSKI, Associated Press

Most major Occupy encampments have been dispersed, but they live on in a flurry of lawsuits in which protesters are asserting their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly and challenging authorities' mass arrests and use of force to break up tent cities.

Lawyers representing protesters have filed lawsuits – or are planning them – in state and federal courts from coast to coast, challenging eviction orders and what they call heavy-handed police tactics and the banning of demonstrators from public properties.

(CLICK HERE FOR THE LATEST OCCUPY UPDATES)

Some say the fundamental right of protest has been criminalized in places, with protesters facing arrest and charges while doing nothing more than exercising protected rights to demonstrate.

"When I think about the tents as an expression of the First Amendment here, I compare it to Tahrir Square in Egypt," said Carol Sobel, co-chairwoman of the National Lawyers Guild's Mass Defense Committee.

"Our government is outraged when military forces and those governments come down on the demonstrators. But they won't extend the same rights in this country," she said. "They praise that as a fight for democracy, the values we treasure. It comes here and these people are riffraff."

A handful of protesters began camping out in September in a lower Manhattan plaza, demanding an end to corporate excess and income inequality, and were soon joined by scores of others who set up tents and remained around the clock. Similar camps sprang up in dozens of cities nationwide and around the world, but patience wore thin, and many camps – including the flagship at Zuccotti Park and in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Oakland, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore. – were forcibly cleared.

Public officials and police unions have generally defended moves to break up the camps, citing health and safety concerns. They also said that responding to problems at Occupy encampments was draining crime-fighting resources.

Protester lawsuits are now beginning to wend their way through the legal system, and attorneys say more are likely on the way.

The National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California sued the Oakland Police Department in federal court in November, saying police and other agencies violated demonstrators' Fourth Amendment rights by using excessive force – including "flash-bang" grenades – against demonstrators who posed no safety threat. The suit says officials also violated their First Amendment rights to assemble and demonstrate.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan on Wednesday announced an independent investigation into the police response.

In Austin, Texas, this week, a federal judge has been hearing the case of two Occupy protesters who were arrested and later barred from City Hall under a policy their attorneys call overly broad and say amounts to a ban on speech. The Texas Civil Rights Project says around 106 people have been banned since the protests began, in some cases for up to a year. The policy says a criminal trespass notice may be issued for "unreasonably disruptive" conduct.

Yvette Felarca is among those suing campus police and administration officials at the University of California, Berkeley, after officers forcefully dispersed a group of Occupy protesters and others rallying for public education last month.

Felarca, a middle school teacher and organizer with the civil rights organization By Any Means Necessary, which filed the suit, says she was standing, arms linked with other demonstrators', before a line of police officers who moved in after some tents were set up on a lawn. She said she was chanting and yelling when a police officer hit her in the throat with his baton. She said she was also hit in her ribs, abdomen and back and watched others bear repeated blows.

"The brutality was absolutely designed to chill the speech of students in the movement and literally try to beat and terrorize our right to criticize, to think critically and to act on that criticism," Felarca said.

The university has called it "disconcerting" that the suit contains "so many inaccuracies."

Sobel, of the National Lawyers Guild, said a lawsuit is also planned in the case of the pepper-spraying by campus police of peaceful protesters at the University of California, Davis, video footage of which went viral.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, called the lawsuits an important check on police power. She noted that authorities haven't been uniformly excessive around the country, but pointed in New York City to mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge – which are under litigation – as well as the pepper-spraying of several women and the dark-of-night breakup of Zuccotti Park.

She said that her group has been concerned for years about police tactics, but that the response to the Occupy movement shines a light on them in a way that "engages and offends a new sector of the public."

She predicted there will be other lawsuits about excessive force, civil rights violations and mostly likely people's rights to get back into Zuccotti, which she said police have blocked from public usage with their pens.

"I think what's been happening with Occupy is so reminiscent of what happened during the Republican National Convention" in 2008, she said. "When people get together to engage in that most American of pastimes – protest – it almost always generates a defensive and repressive response from law enforcement. Occupy is no exception."

Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., said police overreacted to the Occupy movement in some cities, which probably earned protesters some new support. Still, he noted, protesters' First Amendment rights are not without limitation.

"We've always had to balance our rights," he said. "No one can really claim you have an unfettered unlimited First Amendment rights. The courts are there to say, wait a minute, that goes too far, or that's OK. It is part of that give and take. Of course we all wish our rights were never intruded upon."

___

Niedowski reported from Providence, R.I. Associated Press writer Deepti Hajela in New York contributed.

Related on HuffPost:

Here are the 10 most memorable moments of the Occupy protests:
Protesters Begin Encampment At Zuccotti Park
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Responding to the call from AdBusters magazine, protesters gathered at noon in New York's financial district on September 17 to begin the occupation. Even on the first day of the protests, the activists compared the movement to the Arab spring and protests in Greece and Spain, according to ABC News.

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Via HuffPost Miami:

When an Occupy Miami member offered evicted protestors vacant apartments in a building he owns in Downtown Miami's Overtown neighborhood, it seemed like the perfect solution: the 'Peace City' space would provide headquarters for the movement and shelter a small faction of the group's most vulnerable members. But it hasn't gone well. Other tenants say the building has become a cesspool of drug use and violence while non-resident Occupy Miami members are trying to distance themselves from the 'radicals' -- all while the two factions are wrestling for control over Occupy Miami's social media sites and future plans.

From the Miami New Times:

The feud between the Overtown occupiers and more mainstream members has only gotten worse. The two factions are now battling for control of Occupy Miami's social media sites. The movement's main Twitter account recently announced it had been "hijacked by a small, non-consensus group of radical members." The Occupy Miami Facebook page was also temporarily hacked by someone inside Peace City. Meanwhile, the Overtown occupation is slowly driving away more moderate members.

"This is a black eye on the Occupy movement," says Shannon Reaze, an Overtown community organizer and Occupy Miami supporter who is now helping tenants move out of Paz's building. "The violence and drugs going on here are way outside of what I thought Occupy stood for. This place is destabilized."

...The supposedly hard-core activists here spend their days drinking and getting high. And as Peace City devolves into lawlessness, the most committed occupiers are leaving. Local landowners and politicians want the place shut down, while cops are suspicious. Yet as long as Paz wants the protesters around, nothing short of a demolition order can keep them out.

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Via HuffPost DC:

WASHINGTON -- Occupy DC has a new lawsuit involving tents on its hands. But it doesn't involve temporary structures in McPherson Square.

Two protesters arrested during a February action outside Merrill Lynch's offices on 15th Street NW near McPherson Square have filed suit against the Metropolitan Police Department, Legal Times reports. (Read the complaint here.)

The plaintiffs, Samuel Dukore and Kelly Canavan, were part of a "targeted occupation" of Merrill Lynch on Feb. 13 where protesters were raising awareness about Merrill Lynch's reportedly close ties with Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Issa, for his part, claims that the reports of these close ties are "wildly inaccurate."

Full story here.

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OWS reports via its website:

After the brutal attack on the attempted re-occupation of Liberty Square by NYPD on the 6-month anniversary of #OWS, a number of Occupiers have relocated their base of occupation to Union Square in midtown Manhattan, a point of convergence for several #OWS protests over the past 6 months.

According to reports on the ground, several dozen people slept in the park after the illegal and violent raid on Liberty Square. Over 70 people remain, now on Day 3. Although tents and tables are still banned, Occupiers have brought blankets and sleeping gear. Many are calling it ¨the new Occupation.¨ In addition to holding General Assemblies, Union Square Occupiers are providing vital jail support for those arrested on #M17 as they are released from NYPD custody. So far, the NYPD has made no attempt to remove Occupiers or prevent them from sleeping in the park.

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Occupy Long Beach is defending the mother's home. For more information, click here.

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The woman had the apparent seizure has been identified by the New York Observer as Cecily McMillan:

Cecily McMillan, an Occupy Wall Street activist once profiled in Rolling Stone, suffered a seizure Saturday night during protest action near Zuccotti Park. Many on-scene reported Ms. McMillan had trouble breathing after she was tackled and handcuffed by law enforcement.

A video uploaded to Youtube late Saturday night purports to show the attack. Two women can be heard commenting, “There’s Cecily,” then there is confusion as the police clearly perform a violent take-down on someone in the crowd.

According to Jeff Sharlet’s November, 2011 article about the Occupy Movement, this may be Ms. McMillan’s second violent encounter with police.

To read the full story, go here.

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Cops caught on video about 10 seconds in taking down the woman who had the apparent seizure:

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Watch video from inside Zuccotti Park as police moved in late last night:

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The paper reports from last night's chaos at Zuccotti Park:

At one point, a woman who appeared to be suffering from seizures flopped on the ground in handcuffs as bystanders shouted for the police to remove the cuffs and provide medical attention. For several minutes the woman lay on the ground as onlookers made increasingly agonized demands until an ambulance arrived and the woman was placed inside.

By 12:20 a.m., a line of officers pushed against some of the remaining protesters, forcing them south on Broadway, at times swinging batons and shoving people to the ground.

Kobi Skolnick, 30, said that officers pushed him in several directions and that as he tried to walk away, he was struck from behind in the neck. “One of the police ran and hit me with a baton,” he said.

To read the full story, go here.

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@ Greg_Palast : Our photographer ZD Roberts beaten @OWS Zucotti Park by cops. Thrown to ground, hair grabbd, hit with clubs while yelling, I'M PRESS PRESS!

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@ macfathom : Doubling east on Barclay, and now the ragged front of the march is at City Hall. #OWS

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@ LuddoftheFuture : girl in the street having a seizure and the cops have her in handcuffs. can this get any worse (live at http://t.co/4pLyy3gP)

Activists cry out for paramedics. The woman is limp on the ground. "Come on you violent bastards where's the paramedics?"

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@ jeffrae : March is heading north up broadway #ows #occupywallstreet

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@ macfathom : Dozens of arrests, many cuffed and sitting on broadway waiting for their ride to jail. #OWS

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@ RDevro : Police are barricading the park. It's cleared. I witnessed countless violent arrests. No way to estimate numbers.

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@ troutish : Protesters being dragged out by the head at #OWS #Zucotti Park http://t.co/qomhKkrA

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Cops pulling apart human chains. There are shouts for mic checks. Now, chants start forming. "The NYPD are sweeping through," says Tim on the live stream.

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@ ANIMALNewYork : Police are moving in. It's chaos.

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@ ANIMALNewYork : NYPD just made an announcement that Brookfield has to "clean the park" and Liberty Plaza is officially "closed."

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@ OccupyWallStNYC : Bagpipers just started marching into the park bringing the party mood with them, NYPD arrested one of them, and things got real heated. #OWS

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@ JackieHRye : NYPD just "destroyed" the tent in Zuccotti Park, Occupiers call for its re-building. Marching band also going through the park. #OWS

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@ RDevro : The tent in the middle of the park continues to fill with people planning to stay the night. Lots of energy here.

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Activists ask for more room as the tent is growing, expanding.

"It looks like a floating tent." -- as Tim on his live stream.

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Owly Images

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@ OccupyWallStNYC : .@justawall is leading us in a song! "Hit the road, banks! And don't ya come back no more no more no more no more!" #OWS

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Activists have assembled make-shift, cardboard sleeping areas inside Zuccotti Park. The cardboard is joined by a large green tarp.

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@ RDevro : A tarp is going up in Zuccotti as protesters march around the park chant-dancing. #m17 http://t.co/rJfP3GF9

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Filed by Benjamin Hart  |