SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Berkeley and Hayward police clubbed and gassed protestors and journalists during a Dec. 6, 2014, demonstration against police brutality in Berkeley, 11 people say in a federal civil rights complaint.
Curtis Johnson et al. say they joined the "March Against State Violence" protest in Berkeley three days after a New York grand jury refused to indict a white New York City police officer in the death of Eric Garner, a black man, who was illegally selling cigarettes.
"The Berkeley police responded brutally, clubbing peaceful protesters and journalists, often from behind, some in the head, indiscriminately and unnecessarily, and using profligate amounts of teargas without justification," Johnson, 30, says in the Nov. 22 lawsuit.
The demonstration started at 5 p.m. and moved north along a city street toward a "'protective bubble'" of police officers, who Johnson says "struck and pushed other protesters, ostensibly for entering an undefined, unannounced 'safety zone' around the officers."
He claims Hayward police helped Berkeley police by shooting nonlethal but "highly dangerous specialty impact munitions at non-violent demonstrators and other unlawful excessive force."
Johnson, who does marketing for Walt Disney Co. and was a staffer for the NAACP, says he was visiting the area when he saw the demonstration going on and joined it. Within minutes he was shot in the knee by nonlethal munitions.
Hayward police brought 40mm sponge rounds, lead-filled bean bags, which they fired from shotguns, and chemical agents despite state law requiring Berkeley police to remain in charge and make tactical decisions, Johnson says.
Although Berkeley police were in charge, Johnson says, they didn't supervise the Hayward officers or instruct them on local policy governing use of force by police and did nothing to control access to or use of batons, specialty munitions or chemical agents.
Among the plaintiffs, photographer Sam Wolson, 25, who was covering the event for the San Francisco Chronicle, and "multimedia journalist" Reginald James, 32, say they were clubbed while covering the event as journalists, and other plaintiffs say they were clubbed and gassed for exercising their civil rights, and several were arrested without cause and needed medical attention.
Johnson says Berkeley officials, through their "customs, policies and/or practices encouraged, tacitly authorized and/or condoned" police officers using excessive force and not reporting their use of excessive force.
City officials condoned the use of excessive force by not holding police officers accountable for violating demonstrators' civil rights and the freedom of the press to report on the event, Johnson says.
Johnson et al. seek statutory and punitive damages for civil rights violations, including violations of the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments, false arrest and imprisonment and negligence.
They also want a permanent injunction against civil rights violations by Berkeley and Hayward city officials and police departments.
Berkeley Police spokesman Byron White said the department is reviewing the complaint and has no comment.
Rachel Lederman, president of the Francisco Bay Area chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, who filed the complaint on Sunday, said it follows the recent release of data indicating a pattern of racial profiling by Berkeley police, who are far more likely to stop and search blacks and Hispanics for no reason than they are whites.
Although blacks comprise less than 8 percent of Berkeley's population, they accounted for 30.5 percent of police stops from Jan. 26 through Aug. 12 this year. Whites accounted for 36.7 percent of traffic stops, while comprising 60 percent of Berkeley's population, according to the National Lawyers Guild.
The guild says blacks accounted for 57 percent of police searches conducted during traffic stops, with whites accounting for 14 percent of searches.
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