The lawsuit accuses police in Minneapolis of giving orders for protesters to disperse only moments before officers fired less-lethal ammunition, if at all.
MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — Minneapolis activists injured by police in the early days of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd are suing the city and police leadership, claiming free speech retaliation and excessive force.
Minneapolis civil rights lawyer and activist Nekima Levy Armstrong led a group of four plaintiffs in a proposed class action filed Tuesday morning in federal court. In it, Levy Armstrong, husband Marques Armstrong and fellow protesters Terry Hempfling and Rachel Clark allege that police and state troopers used less-lethal weapons on lawfully assembled protesters without giving enough notice for them to comply with orders to disperse.
The complaint, filed by attorneys from international firm Fish & Richardson and the ACLU of Minnesota, names as defendants Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo, Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington and Minnesota State Patrol Colonel Matthew Langer, alongside the city, two John Does and Bob Kroll, head of the Minneapolis police union.
Among that group, Kroll receives the most individual scrutiny in the lawsuit. As president of the Minneapolis Police Officer’s Federation, according to the complaint, Kroll is the de facto policy maker for the police department, an allegation widely levied by protesters and some city leaders.
“Kroll actively sows discord between rank-and-file officers and the command structure as a means of further amplifying his policy role and exercising an outsize influence over police culture,” the complaint states. “What Kroll casts as his ‘opinions’ as union president have the practical effect of serving as policy guidance for officers.”
That policy guidance, the activists say, led officers to deploy tear gas and less-lethal rounds on protesters, including Levy Armstrong, indiscriminately and without any warning.
Levy Armstrong, a 2018 Minneapolis mayoral candidate, has been an outspoken critic of racially biased policing since the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. She served from 2015 to 2016 as the president of the Twin Cities’ chapter of the NAACP.
She has led several marches in the months since Floyd’s death, and was among the first marchers to the department’s infamous Third Precinct on the day after Floyd’s May 25 death in police custody, she said. On May 27, as Levy Armstrong and Armstrong were preparing to leave, she said she was exposed to tear gas from as far away as two blocks from the precinct.
“I have been tear-gassed before, I was tear-gassed in Ferguson,” Levy Armstrong said in an interview, “and by far this tear gas was much stronger, from my perspective. The police dispersed it without warning– I was gagging for several minutes.”
With her frequent media appearances and recognizable purple dreadlocks, Levy Armstrong said she was also concerned about being personally targeted by police, some of whom stood on the roof of the precinct and took less-lethal pot shots at the crowd. Even two months later, she said, her throat has not returned to normal.
The complaint goes on to detail the experiences of Hempfling and Clark, each of whom said they were hit with less-lethal munitions on multiple occasions while peacefully protesting. On each of those occasions, according to the lawsuit, they were given orders to disperse only moments before police opened fire, if at all.
The lawsuit asserts claims of First Amendment retaliation, unlawful seizure and excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment, and violations of the plaintiffs’ due process rights under the 14th Amendment.
Attorney Teresa Nelson of the ACLU said these police tactics served only to escalate the protests.
“We witnessed really unprecedented levels of police brutality during the George Floyd protests,” she said. “The First Amendment protects the right to protest, it protects the right to assemble and gather, especially in spontaneous demonstrations in response to community distress.”
She added, “The answer to protests over police brutality is not more police brutality.”
Levy Armstrong agreed.
“I think that their response to people protesting, just having a heavy militarized presence, and pointing their weapons indiscriminately at people, shooting people – it heightened the tension, and people’s emotion, and it escalated the entire situation unnecessarily,” she said.
She added that she was unimpressed by police priorities during the demonstrations.
“They were so focused on protecting one building, so even as fires were burning in the close proximity of the Third Precinct, their focus was on protecting the Third Precinct, all that time,” Levy Armstrong said.
Neither Kroll or the union answered phone calls seeking comment, and both had full voicemail boxes. An MPD spokesman directed questions to the Minneapolis City Attorney’s office, which declined to comment.