The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana and other local civil rights groups filed suit against the Baton Rouge police department on Wednesday for violating the first amendment rights of demonstrators protesting the recent fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling.
"Seeing the way the police were manhandling folks caused me to hide, scream out of fear, and finally flee for my safety. I had to run."
—Crystal Williams, North Baton Rouge Matters
Baton Rouge police showed excessive force when they arrived at this weekend's Black Lives Matter demonstration in riot gear and bearing machine guns, the lawsuit (pdf) alleges. The officers also violated protesters' First Amendment rights when they used "physical and verbal abuse and wrongful arrests to disperse protestors who were gathered peacefully to speak out against the police killing of Alton Sterling," the ACLU wrote.
"[The police response] made me afraid to protest. Seeing the way the police were manhandling folks caused me to hide, scream out of fear, and finally flee for my safety. I had to run. A peaceful demonstration should never be like that," said Crystal Williams, local resident and organizer with North Baton Rouge Matters. "I feel like speech is my most powerful tool to ensure my community and my family are safe. But now I feel totally silenced."
The harsh police response in Baton Rouge was well-documented. Multiple journalists were arrested, several demonstrators reported the police pointing machine guns directly at them, and at one point the Baton Rouge police department even used an armored military vehicle to physically push protesters back:
Swat car literally pushing crowd back pic.twitter.com/Z4GM5lEJpU
— Rebekah Allen (@rebekahallen) July 10, 2016
Another video showed police swarming a private residence in riot gear and making multiple arrests:
Around 200 people were ultimately arrested.
"Alton Sterling is on the long list of Black people killed needlessly by our nation's police, and protests in his honor have turned into circuses of violence where the First Amendment is tossed aside."
—Marjorie Esman, ACLU of Louisiana"I witnessed firsthand as peaceful protestors were violently attacked and arrested, assault weapons pointed at them with fingers on the triggers, some dragged across the cement, their clothes ripped off of them," said Alison Renee McCrary, president of the Louisiana chapter of the National Lawyers Guild and a Catholic nun.
"What I saw happening was an immediate threat to life," McCrary said. "My and other demonstrators' speech was chilled because of this event."
Lawyers for the rights groups filed a temporary restraining order against the police "to prevent them from interfering with people’s constitutionally protected right to gather peacefully moving forward," the ACLU reports.
ACLU of Louisiana executive director Marjorie Esman argued: "The police didn't do their job in Baton Rouge, again. They are bound to protect us from harm, to keep us safe, to do everything possible before throwing someone to the ground or pulling the trigger. Yet Alton Sterling is on the long list of Black people killed needlessly by our nation's police, and protests in his honor have turned into circuses of violence where the First Amendment is tossed aside."
"We can't bring Alton Sterling back but at minimum, the police can stop blocking our right to protest in his name," Esman said.