Class Blasts Baltimore Police for Arrests at Arts Festival

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

BALTIMORE (CN) – Protesters arrested after blocking traffic on a highway that runs through downtown Baltimore last year during an arts festival filed a class-action lawsuit claiming they were detained on bogus charges and subjected to atrocious conditions.

Sixty-five protesters were arrested in Baltimore on July 16, 2016 at the “Afromation” protest, which was intended to call attention to the mistreatment of black residents by police, according to a lawsuit filed Friday in Baltimore City Circuit Court by activist group Baltimore Bloc.

Several other named plaintiffs are members of Baltimore Bloc, which is “a grassroots collective of friends, families and neighborhoods united in their effort to rebuild communities and organize for justice,” the complaint states.

The group helped organize the protest amidst the trials of six Baltimore police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died in 2015 after sustaining a spinal injury while being transported in a police van.

All the officers were ultimately cleared of the charges against them.

Officer William Porter’s case ended in a mistrial after the jury deadlocked. Officer Edward Nero was acquitted of misdemeanor charges by Judge Barry Williams following a bench trial.

Lt. Brian Rice and Caesar Goodson were also acquitted last year. Officer Garrett Miller’s charges were dropped last July, ending the case without a single conviction. Sgt. Alicia White was awaiting trial when the prosecution abandoned its efforts.

Shortly after violent riots swept through the city following Gray’s death, the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report on its investigation of systematic discrimination and constitutional rights violations in the Baltimore Police Department. Alleged abuses included widespread discrimination against poor black residents, a lack of response to reports of sexual assaults, use of excessive force and retaliation against those participating in constitutionally protected activities.

Baltimore Bloc members claim their Afromation protest held last year ended in mass arrests and detentions in harsh conditions.

The group alleges they were “kettled” at an onramp for Interstate 83 that was closed for the festival. Kettling is a police tactic that involves the formation of large cordons of officers who then move to contain a crowd within a limited area, according to the complaint.

Although only several of the protestors actually blocked traffic on the highway, all members of the protest on the closed ramp, including observers and at least 10 juveniles, were arrested, the lawsuit alleges.

“Defendants detained the individual plaintiffs and the members of the proposed class for periods ranging from six to 18 hours in deplorable and substandard conditions,” the complaint states. “On a July day with temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, defendants held plaintiffs in hot, cramped police vans for many hours. The vans were so uncomfortable that one plaintiff vomited and fainted due to the extreme heat. Plaintiffs had little to no access to water, food, toilets or necessary medication during the lengthy and unnecessary detention. Defendants handcuffed plaintiffs so tightly as to cause injury or loss of feeling in their hands, arms and shoulders.”

The protesters say all charges against them were dismissed days later.

Their lawsuit asserts 12 counts including false arrest, assault, false imprisonment, gross negligence, excessive force and malicious prosecution, among other claims.

In addition to the Baltimore Police Department, the lawsuit also names as defendants Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, Capt. Charles Thompson, unnamed officers and the state of Maryland.

The police department declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The proposed class of those arrested at the protest is seeking more than $75,000 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages.

They also want the Baltimore Police Department to be required to “issue clear and audible warnings to disperse at future demonstrations” and “provide individuals with a reasonable opportunity to comply with these warnings before carrying out arrests.”

In addition, the complaint asks for an order that the police department be barred from “subjecting individuals that are arrested for minor offenses during mass political protests to harsher and longer periods of detention” and be required to “maintain a written record detailing the period of detention, for those arrested while engaging in political activism as compared to other arrestees.”

The plaintiffs in the case are represented by Henry Liu and other attorneys from the Washington, D.C. law firm Covington Burling LLP, and by Debra Gardner of the Public Justice Center in Baltimore.

Neither Liu nor Gardner responded Tuesday to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

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