activist defense

on the intersection of activism and legal systems

Category: lawsuits on activists’ behalf

oakland pays hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle two more lawsuits by protesters

In June, Oakland and Alameda County agreed to pay $1.025 million to settle a class action lawsuit filed by 150 protesters who were arrested and detained on November 5, 2010 for demonstrating against the light sentence former BART officer Johannes Mehserle received after fatally shooting Oscar Grant. In July, the Oakland City Council agreed to pay $1.17 million to settle another lawsuit filed by a dozen Occupy Oakland protesters who were subjected to excessive force by police in October and November 2011. Yesterday the Oakland City Council agreed to pay more than $693,000 to settle two additional lawsuits filed by Occupy Oakland protesters, according to a San Francisco Chronicle article:

In the first case, Army veteran Kayvan Sabeghi will receive $645,000 to resolve a lawsuit he filed against the city in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, alleging that he was clubbed by Oakland police during an Occupy protest on Nov. 2, 2011. … Sabeghi underwent surgery for a lacerated spleen. … In a second case, the council agreed to pay $48,500 to settle a lawsuit filed by Robert Ovetz, a college instructor and activist from Marin County who said he was thrown to the ground and struck twice by a police baton during an Occupy protest in Oakland on Jan. 28, 2012.

Video footage of the second incident showed that Ovetz was not resisting when officer Ercivan Martin hit him in the abdomen and back with a baton. Ovetz was jailed for three days for, among other allegations, assaulting an officer. Alameda County prosecutors dismissed the criminal case against him.

today we remember the ogoni nine, executed for struggling against shell in nigeria

Shell began oil production in the Niger Delta of southern Nigeria 55 years ago, in 1958. ‘Ogoni’ is the name of a region in the Niger Delta, and the name of the ethnic group that lives there. In 1990, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) was founded to fight for human rights and environmental justice.

In 1994, the military prevented the leader of MOSOP, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and other Ogoni leaders from attending a gathering. At the gathering, four Ogoni chiefs were killed. Despite a lack of any connection between MOSOP and the deaths, the military governor announced that Saro-Wiwa caused the deaths, and he and other leaders were taken into custody. According to a website maintained by EarthRights International and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR),

A three-man tribunal was created by the Nigerian government to try the Ogoni leaders —known as the “Ogoni Nine”– for the murders of the four chiefs. The tribunal denied the Ogoni Nine access to counsel, a fair trial, and the opportunity to appeal the decision. During the course of the trial they were tortured and mistreated, as were their relatives.

The tribunal convicted the Ogoni 9. On November 10, 1995, they were executed. At least two witnesses who testified that Saro-Wiwa was involved in the deaths of the Ogoni chiefs subsequently recanted, saying they were bribed with money and offers of jobs with Shell, in the presence of Shell’s lawyer. One month after the executions, Shell agreed to invest $4 billion in a liquefied natural gas project in Nigeria.

In 1996, CCR sued Shell for its complicity in human rights abuses against the Ogoni people, such as colluding with the Nigerian government to bring about the arrest and execution of the Ogoni 9. In June 2009, on the eve of trial, the parties agreed to a settlement providing a total of $15.5 million to compensate the plaintiffs, establish a trust for the benefit of the Ogoni people, and cover some of the legal costs and fees associated with the case.

Yet Shell is still polluting the environment and placing human health at serious risk in Nigeria, where hundreds of oil spills occur every year. Amnesty International and the Center for Environment, Human Rights and Development (CEHRD) revealed on Thursday that Shell is wrongly attributing spills to sabotage and theft to avoid compensating affected communities.

minneapolis says it will stop charging people with trespassing for engaging in first amendment protected activities

The authoritarian impulse of governments to control speech is still alive in the world.

On June 9, 2011, Melissa Hill was detained and issued a trespass notice after she wrote with chalk on a public sidewalk outside the Federal Building in Minneapolis. Hill filed a lawsuit asserting violations of the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Today’s press release from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota gives a more detailed explanation of the incident:

In 2011 Hill was in the process of re-chalking “Don’t Enlist, Resist” when she was handcuffed, detained, searched and questioned by security guards, [Federal Protective Service] Agents and a Minneapolis Police Department officer. The MPD issued Hill a trespass notice that prohibited her from entering the property of the Federal Building for a period of one year.

Hill recently entered into a settlement agreement resolving her lawsuit. According to the agreement, the U.S., DECO (a privately-held company providing protective security services), and the City of Minneapolis will pay a total amount of $5,000 to the ACLU of Minnesota for attorneys’ fees and costs. In February 2012, Hill settled a separate lawsuit, arising from her arrest in October 2011, for $15,000 and changes to Hennepin County’s trespassing policy.

food not bombs wins first amendment lawsuit against city of flagstaff, arizona

Yesterday U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake overturned an Arizona state law that criminalized being “present in a public place to beg.” The Flagstaff Police Department and City Attorney had aggressively enforced the law, negatively impacting Food Not Bombs (FNB). For example, several FNB members had apparently been arrested for requesting donations from passersby. According to yesterday’s press release from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),

In 2008, the City of Flagstaff adopted a policy in cooperation with local businesses—called “Operation 40”—to remove panhandlers from downtown areas by jailing them early in the day. Flagstaff utilized the now-void statute, which equated panhandling with loitering, to justify the arrests. Between June 2012 and May 2013, 135 arrests were made by the Flagstaff Police Department under the law.

On June 25, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the City of Flagstaff on behalf of FNB and three people who had been arrested, threatened with arrest, or who feared being arrested for “loitering to beg.” Judge Wake ruled yesterday afternoon that the 1988 state law at issue was unconstitutional. He also prohibited Flagstaff from “interfering with, targeting, citing, arresting, or prosecuting any person on the basis of their act(s) of peaceful begging in public areas.”

activist who revealed psuedonym of undercover officer could face up to six months in jail

Julian Ichim was one of the first people arrested during the June 2010 G20 protests in Toronto, for allegedly masterminding the riots that overtook downtown. The charges against him were dropped fewer than six months later. Yet Ichim was charged again after he violated a “publication ban” by revealing the alias of undercover officer Bindo Showan, who infiltrated activist groups and testified against alleged G20 conspirators.

The maximum punishment for violating a publication ban is six months in jail. But the Crown charged Ichim with violating a court order, a violation carrying a maximum punishment of two years. Yesterday Ontario Superior Court Justice Michael Quigley ruled that the Crown could only charge Ichim with the lesser offense carrying the potential six month sentence.

As a person affiliated with the G20 protests, Ichim contended that he was being prosecuted for political reasons. He is currently suing law enforcement related to infiltration, excessive force, and jail conditions surrounding the G20. According to yesterday’s Toronto Star article,

Ichim is … pursuing a $4-million lawsuit against the undercover officer, the province and the Toronto police force. He alleges that Showan, who he once considered a good friend, crossed a legal line by encouraging criminal acts and driving drunk ahead of the G20 summit. The notice of claim also alleges Ichim was beaten by Toronto police and underwent “cruel and unusual treatment” in the G20 temporary jail.

ballot initiative in washington regarding genetically engineered food and seeds results in litigation

Up to 80 percent of non-organic products on grocery store shelves include genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. Connecticut recently became the first state to pass a GE labeling law. In Washington state, residents will vote in November on a GE labeling initiative that would require retail food products and seed stocks that have been genetically engineered to be labeled. According to yesterday’s Bellingham Herald article, the upcoming Washington initiative has led to litigation:

More than a week ago activist lawyer Knoll Lowney made the first move. Acting on behalf of a newly formed group calling itself Moms for Labeling, Lowney filed a lawsuit against the No on 522 campaign committee, which was created with financing from national agribusiness interests to oppose Initiative 522. The suit sought to force No on 522 to disclose how much of the $2.2 million it got from the Grocery Manufacturers Association came from specific food-industry companies so that information would be put on the no campaign’s television ads.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and No on 522 campaign responded by filing a counterclaim seeking $10,000 in sanctions against Moms for Labeling. Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Wickham is expected to hold a phone conference with the parties this morning.

The No on 522 campaign has already raised $11.6 million from half a dozen out-of-state donors, including $4.8 million from Monsanto. Last November, a similar initiative failed in California after large chemical and pesticide companies spent more than $45 million to defeat it. Yet outside the U.S., 64 countries require labels for food or ingredients that have been genetically engineered.

professor and activist loretta capeheart wins appeal in defamation lawsuit

Loretta Capeheart is a tenured professor in the Justice Studies department at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU). She has been employed by the NEIU since 2002. According to Dave Zirin’s April 2012 article in The Nation,

She is also a vocal union and anti-war activist of many years standing. Understandably, anti-war students sought her out as a group-adviser during President Bush’s war on Iraq. When two students were arrested for peacefully protesting a CIA recruitment station, … [NEIU] President Sharon Hahs denied Capeheart merit raises and department chair positions and attacked her in public meetings.

In addition, the NEIU vice president of student affairs at the time, Melvin Terrell, said during a March 2007 Faculty Council meeting that a student had filed a “stalking” complaint against Capeheart. The student had actually written in a statement to police that Capeheart attempted to chase the student while the student handed out information about the group Capeheart advised. As the student never filed a “stalking” complaint, Capeheart sued Terrell for defamation, among other claims she brought against NEIU, in March 2008.

The court dismissed Capeheart’s claims against Terrell and awarded Terrell attorney fees and costs. Yet Capeheart appealed, and yesterday the appellate court reversed the order dismissing Capeheart’s claims. Her case will now proceed toward trial.

judge allows lawsuit against university of california berkeley chief of police to proceed

In the fall of 2009, protests erupted on the UC Berkeley campus related to state budget cuts. Three of the protests occurred at Wheeler Hall, one of the largest classroom buildings on campus. The first of the three protests was on September 24, 2009, when a group of protesters briefly occupied the building after a rally and march.

The second protest at Wheeler Hall was on November 20, 2009, when a group occupied and barricaded the building. Approximately 2,000 people gathered outside. Confrontations with police ensued, resulting in injuries and at least 40 arrests.

The third protest at Wheeler Hall was on a Monday, December 7, 2009, when a group of protesters occupied the building and announced that they intended to occupy it for the entire week. The next day, a UC police officer told one of the protesters that the University was prepared to informally allow the occupation as long as the protesters exited the building before final exams that Saturday morning. Yet when Wheeler Hall closed every evening, UC officers continued to tell protesters that if they remained in the building, they were subject to University disciplinary proceedings and criminal charges.

The protesters scheduled a hip-hop show inside Wheeler Hall, featuring Boots Riley of the Coup, for the Friday night before final exams. A flyer said the party would last “until the cops kick in the doors.” University officials asked the protesters to change their plans, but the protesters declined.

At approximately 4:35 a.m. that Friday, UC officers entered Wheeler Hall and arrested 65 people. Roughly 12 of the arrestees, who had previously been arrested in the past month for occupying campus buildings, were taken directly to jail. Although the officers planned to cite and release the remaining arrestees inside Wheeler Hall, most of them were also taken to jail, where they were cited and released. (Full disclosure: I represented one of the arrestees after he re-entered the campus with a protest sign two days later, despite having received a notice of exclusion ordering him to stay away. The prosecutor dismissed the case.)

The arrested protesters sued, arguing that the University never informed them that they no longer had permission to remain in Wheeler Hall. Last week U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler disagreed, but she allowed the case to proceed on another issue the protesters raised: whether sending them to jail instead of citing and releasing them inside Wheeler Hall was in retaliation for, or to chill, their exercise of First Amendment rights. Judge Beeler emphasized that in response to activists’ plans for a noon rally at Cal Hall regarding the arrests, the UC Berkeley Chief of Police said the following in an email to the campus crisis management team:

The good news is that the arrested protestors are still at Santa Rita getting booked so they won’t be able to participate in the rally.

Officers can’t book people in retaliation for First Amendment activity. Judge Beeler’s decision means the case will continue moving toward trial.

jury finds police officers not liable for occupy portland activist’s injuries

One day before the “pepper spray copdebacle at UC Davis in 2011, police officers gratuitously hit Occupy Portland activist Liz Nichols during a demonstration and pepper-sprayed her directly in the face. Nichols fell to the ground, was dragged by the hair through a police line, and was charged with three misdemeanors. According to last week’s Associated Press article,

[Officer] Paisley jabbed Nichols with a baton, and the baton then struck Nichols’ throat, according to video footage. Sgt. Jeffrey McDaniel then sprayed her mouth. A photographer for The Oregonian newspaper captured the moment.

Nichols’s attorneys at the Portland Law Collective filed an excessive force lawsuit on her behalf. Yet last Friday a jury found that the city of Portland and the two officers were not liable for Nichols’s injuries. That doesn’t necessarily mean the legal efforts were in vain, however. As CrimethInc. explains,

We should include the battle in the courts in our strategies, even if we don’t believe in the legitimacy of the law any more than our rulers do. In cities that have seen a lot of recent demonstrations and lawsuits, police departments are often more hesitant to beat and arrest protesters.

the eight surviving ‘move nine’ prisoners have been incarcerated for thirty-five years

In August of 1978, approximately 600 police officers used guns and fire hoses in an attempt to evict the Philadelphia-based MOVE organization from a residence. MOVE was a multiracial community founded in the early 1970s that protested injustices ranging from police brutality to animal exploitation in zoos. The MOVE 9 were arrested, tried, and collectively sentenced to 30 to 100 years for an officer’s death on the day of the eviction, though there was a dispute regarding whether any of them were actually guilty. Mumia Abu-Jamal, one of the reporters covering the MOVE 9 trial, describes the confrontation in Death Blossoms:

On August 8, 1978, after a brutal police assault on MOVE during which their home in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia was destroyed, nine members of the organization were arrested for allegedly killing James Ramp, a police officer. These “suspects” were in the basement of their home at the time of the shooting; Ramp, who was facing the house on the street above them, was shot from the back.

Almost 7 years after police evicted MOVE and bulldozed the MOVE house in 1978, officer Frank Powell, with Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode’s approval, dropped an explosive device on a new MOVE house on May 13, 1985, following a gun battle. The device started a fire that killed 11 of the 13 people inside, including 5 children, and destroyed 61 other homes. The city delayed commencing effective steps to extinguish the fire.

Ramona Africa, one of two occupants who survived the fire, filed a lawsuit that was consolidated with lawsuits on behalf of Frank Africa and MOVE founder John Africa, both of whom died in the fire. The trial began in April of 1996 and lasted roughly two months. On June 24, 1996, the jury found the City of Philadelphia liable and awarded $500,000 to each of the three plaintiffs.

Merle Africa, one of the MOVE 9, died of cancer in prison in 1998. The other eight MOVE prisoners, who continue to maintain their innocence, have consistently been denied parole since they became eligible in 2008. As Ashanti Alston has said about political prisoners,

We need to honor those who laid it down before us. Especially those who are still alive but are just in these dungeons. We need to let the system know that they are on the front of our minds. We want them out.