(CN) — Seattle protesters brought a federal complaint against the city Tuesday, saying police used excessive force in firing tear gas and rubber bullets at them in recent demonstrations.
The protests in Seattle against racism and police brutality have been part of movement around the world, triggered in part by the May 25 death of George Floyd after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
Seattle police responded to peaceful demonstrations by deploying tear gas, less-lethal rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades and pepper spray.
Direct actions from protesters denouncing the police tactics prompted Mayor Jenny Durkan to announce a 30-day ban on the use of tear gas for crowd control.
But Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County says in the lawsuit that the Seattle Police Department deployed chemical agents, also called CS gas, against demonstrators as recently as Sunday night.
Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, Black Lives Matter is joined as a plaintiff by one journalist, one woman who says the risk of police violence has deterred her from protesting, and four protesters who say they were injured by police weapons during recent actions.
“In response to these protests, the SPD has exercised an overwhelming and unconstitutional use of force to discourage these protesters from exercising their constitutional rights,” the 27-page complaint states. “On an almost nightly basis, the SPD has indiscriminately used excessive force against protesters, legal observers, journalists, and medical personnel.”
Despite recent statements by Durkan and Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best apologizing for deployment of chemical weapons, the lawsuit claims injunctive relief is the only measure that can prevent such police action and protect protesters’ First and Fourth Amendment rights.
The lawsuit cites various studies showing that tear gas and pepper spray can lead to death if used excessively by police and that during the Covid-19 pandemic, their deployment puts protesters at increased risk of poor health.
“Even when not directly lethal, exposure to tear gas has been shown to increase the risk of developing acute respiratory illnesses,” the lawsuit states. “When people with Covid-19 are exposed to chemical irritants during a demonstration, this exposure may also increase the likelihood that Covid-19 will spread to other people because of the immediate effect both tear gas and pepper spray have on those who are exposed.”
Livio De La Cruz, board member of Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County, said in a statement that the police’s behavior is unacceptable.
“These daily demonstrations are fueled by people from all over the city who demand that police stop using excessive force against black people, and they demand that Seattle dismantle its racist systems of oppression,” De La Cruz said. “Rather than trying to silence these demonstrations, the city and SPD must address the protesters’ concerns by focusing on its policies and systems regarding police practices, use of force, and accountability.”
Abie Ekenezar, a U.S. Army veteran with asthma and a spinal disability, said in the lawsuit she was hit with tear gas and flash-bang grenades during a May 30 protest in Seattle.
Ekenezar, who served in Afghanistan and Somalia and completed tear gas drills during military training, said she was hit with another chemical agent at a June 6 protest that caused her to develop a cough that lasted two days.
“Ms. Ekenezar plans to attend other protests scheduled in Seattle this week, and she is worried not only about again being subjected to chemical agents deployed by the SPD or others acting at its direction but also about being unable to escape the police brutality because of her limited mobility,” the lawsuit states.
The use of chemical weapons by police have forced Sharon Sakamoto, a retired attorney who survived internment as a child during World War II, to avoid attending the demonstrations in person.
“If SPD stopped its use of tear gas, OC spray, blast balls, and flash-bang grenades, Ms. Sakamoto would attend a protest,” the lawsuit states.
Muraco Kyashna-tochá, a 60-year-old who participated in Seattle protests daily between May 30 and June 6, was injured by tear gas and flash-bang grenades at a June 1 protest and required medical assistance.
Alexander Woldeab, a videographer; Alexandra Chen, a law student at Seattle University; and Nathalie Graham, a journalist with The Stranger, are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed by the Perkins Coie law firm and the Korematsu Center of the Seattle University School of Law.
A spokesperson for Durkan’s office said she and Best are “committed to a thorough and complete review and report of the Seattle Police Department’s response to the protests and have already implemented a series of changes.”
“Yesterday’s lawsuit represents another step by the community to hold the City accountable for its response to the recent events,” the spokesperson added. “It is fitting that it lifts the voices and experiences of Black Lives Matter and longtime civil rights leaders like Sharon Sakamoto. From the onset, the Mayor has been clear that she believes that people are righteously marching to fight systemic racism. The City will protect every individual’s First Amendment right to safely protest their government and demand action. The Mayor and Chief Best have acknowledged that the city can and must do better for crowd management.”