Protesters and others swept up in mass arrests during September's anti-globalization demonstrations filed suit yesterday, saying their rights were violated.
The suit accused District police, the city and federal authorities of violating the constitutional rights of those at a Sept. 27 protest at Pershing Park, at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. It said those arrested were surrounded and detained without cause and were held in custody in often abusive conditions.
Several hundred people were blocked in the park for more than two hours by D.C. police and U.S. Park Police and then arrested. Some said they spent several hours on a bus waiting for processing after their arrest and an additional 12 hours handcuffed in a Southwest police facility.
The complaints have raised concern among some city officials and several George Washington University students who were among those arrested. The students, who were serving as National Lawyers Guild legal observers and news photographers for their campus paper, sued authorities last month.
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a lawyer with the Partnership for Civil Justice, a District-based law firm that filed the suit, has said, "The government illegally trapped, detained and arrested a lawful assembly of people, as well as others who had come out to hear the messages of the protests."
The suit, filed in federal court, alleged that the purpose of the arrests was to take protesters off the streets.
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey declined to comment on the suit. He has said in the past that he does not have "any problem with any of the actions" taken by police during the demonstrations against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Ramsey has defended the mass arrests by citing organizers' threats to disrupt the city, an incident of vandalism at a downtown bank and protesters' blocking of streets.
A spokesman with the D.C. Office of the Corporation Counsel, which represents the city in most civil cases, also declined to comment.
The 22 plaintiffs in the suit filed yesterday were protesters and others arrested, including nurses who stopped in the park to watch the gathering.
"It was dehumanizing, it was painful and it was sort of incredible that this could happen," Sally Norton said in an interview. Norton, 41, an assistant professor at the University of Rochester School of Nursing, was attending a nursing conference near Pershing Park that morning. Shortly after 9 a.m., she was surrounded by police, who prevented her from leaving.
"When we walked into the park, we walked past police officers, and no one suggested this wasn't a good place to be and we shouldn't stop here," said Norton, who was arrested with two other conference attendees. From about 3 p.m. to midnight, she said, she sat on a mat in the gym of the Southwest police academy that served as a processing center with dozens of others arrested. She said her right wrist was handcuffed to her left ankle.
Norton was charged with failure to obey, what she said was the first arrest of her life, and released about 1 a.m. the following day. "It was the irony of being charged with failure to obey, because we did nothing but obey at every turn," she said.
Three of those arrested testified last month at a D.C. Council hearing that they were unlawfully arrested and held more than 24 hours. A D.C. lawyer testified that she was handcuffed in the same manner as Norton for 12 hours and had to disrobe during a strip-search.
That testimony led D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) to ask Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to investigate. "Assuming the testimony was accurate, it was a clear violation and something that should not have happened," she said.
Williams asked Ramsey to investigate. Ramsey said yesterday that the department's Office of Professional Responsibility was looking into the allegations that protesters were mistreated. "We take allegations like that seriously," he said.
Two other uses of the surround-and-detain technique have led to lawsuits -- after IMF and World Bank demonstrations in April 2000 and inauguration protests in January 2001. Both suits are pending.
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