police brutality

Washington, D.C. police attack protesters and journalists with "less-lethal" weapons including chemical agents during racial justice protests on August 29, 2020. (Photo: Oyoma Asinor/ACLU/Flickr/cc)

ACLU Sues DC, Cops Over Attacks on Journalists at 2020 Racial Justice Protests

"The fact that MPD attacked, arrested me, and then held my camera for nearly a year for no reason sends a chilling message to everyone of what is at risk," one of the plaintiffs in the suit warned.

Noting that Washington, D.C. police violently attacked reporters whose job was covering officer brutality during last summer's racial justice protests, the ACLU on Thursday filed a lawsuit against the District of Columbia and Metropolitan Police on behalf of two photojournalists who were accosted with "less-lethal" weapons during the demonstrations.

"I found a voice photographing protests against police brutality but ended up fleeing it myself."
--Oyoma Asinor, journalist and plaintiff

"On August 29, 2020 and August 31, 2020, people gathered near Black Lives Matter Plaza, near the White House, to protest racism and brutality in policing. On both nights, the District of Columbia's Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) responded to these demonstrations with the very sorts of tactics people were protesting," alleges the lawsuit (pdf), which was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

"MPD officers, some clad in riot gear and wielding batons, deployed chemical irritants and stun grenades against demonstrators, even though, just two weeks earlier, the D.C. Council had unanimously banned officers from using these weapons to disperse demonstrations," the complaint states.

"Plaintiffs Oyoma Asinor and Bryan Dozier, independent photojournalists seeking to document demonstrations in D.C., were victims of the attack on August 29," the document continues, "and Mr. Asinor was similarly attacked on August 31. Both endured searing pain and emotional distress as a result."

The suit further states:

Following the attack on August 31, MPD officers carried out a mass arrest of people near the plaza, including Mr. Asinor. The officers did not have probable cause to arrest Mr. Asinor: [He] was not involved in any conduct that was unlawful or that could reasonably have been viewed as unlawful.

Nonetheless, officers detained Mr. Asinor overnight. The next day, when Mr. Asinor was released without charges, MPD refused to return his cellphone, camera, and goggles--items officers had seized upon his arrest. MPD did not return these items for almost a full year, even though he requested them multiple times, and MPD had no lawful basis to keep them.

"MPD's use of chemical irritants and less-lethal projectiles on August 29 and 31 violated the D.C. First Amendment Assemblies Act and D.C. common law," the lawsuit argues. "Additionally, MPD's baseless arrest of Mr. Asinor and unreasonable retention of his property were also unlawful. Both plaintiffs now seek compensation for the injuries they sustained due to the officers' illegal conduct."

In a statement announcing the lawsuit, ACLU attorney Megan Yan said that "MPD flagrantly used tactics that D.C. laws explicitly ban."

Asinor said in the statement that "last summer, police turned D.C.'s streets into a war zone. I found a voice photographing protests against police brutality but ended up fleeing it myself. The fact that MPD attacked, arrested me, and then held my camera for nearly a year for no reason sends a chilling message to everyone of what is at risk when they attend these demonstrations."

In June 2020, Common Dreams reported that 18 groups--including the National Press Club, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and PEN America--published an open letter calling for an end to police violence against journalists covering protests in the wake George Floyd's murder by a Minneapolis officer on May 25 of that year.

The letter noted that "police have opened fire with rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray, pepper balls, and have used nightsticks and shields to attack the working press as never before in this nation. This must stop. When you silence the press with rubber bullets, you silence the voice of the public."

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