Two women who say Minneapolis police officers hit them with nightsticks during a Nov. 18 clash between protesters and law enforcement at the Fourth Precinct police station are suing the city, alleging excessive use of force and violation of their free speech rights.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court last week, is the first to come out of protests that followed the death of Jamar Clark, who was shot by police Nov. 15. The lawsuit details a confrontation on one of the most tense nights of the 18-day encampment at the Fourth Precinct. Earlier that day, police had moved protesters who were camped in the police station entrance, and hundreds of demonstrators rallied outside the building.
One of the plaintiffs, Carrie Athanasselis, went to the precinct that night out of concern for her daughter’s safety, according to the complaint. She and her daughter, Camille Williams, were standing with about 10 protesters in an alley near the side entrance to the police station — away from the majority of protesters gathered at the main entrance.
Officers, who are not named in the lawsuit, asked them to move back, apparently so a van could pass, the complaint said. The van then stopped in the middle of the alley and officers began forcefully moving protesters, allegedly hitting Williams and Athanasselis in the face with nightsticks. The lawsuit also claims an officer grabbed a phone Williams was using to record the incident, threw it on the ground and hit it with a nightstick.
The lawsuit says the plaintiffs complied with orders to move, but the city responded in a subsequent legal filing that they did not. Joshua Williams, an attorney for Williams and Athanasselis, said the video recorded on the phone ends as the police force begins.
“The officers in this case said, ‘We need you to move,’ ” said Williams, who is not related to Camille Williams. “And my clients and the group were compliant. And for whatever reason, the cops decided that they weren’t moving fast enough, and decided to start pushing and beating them.”
Williams added: “From our perspective and we think from a constitutional standpoint as well, using any kind of force in this situation simply wasn’t justified. Let alone hitting my clients in the face with nightsticks and breaking their phone.”
City’s legal response
A spokesman for the Minneapolis Police Department, John Elder, said the department does not comment on ongoing litigation.
The city wrote in its initial legal response that it “denies that protesters complied with officers’ orders” and also denies an allegation that the van was purposefully positioned to block the view of the incident from other protesters and the media. The response also rejected the lawsuit’s assertion that the alley protest was peaceful, but did not elaborate.
“Plaintiffs’ injuries, if any, are caused by Plaintiffs’ unlawful, unreasonable, or illegal acts,” the city’s response said.
Clashes between protesters and police occurred elsewhere at the precinct that night. Police Chief Janeé Harteau said the following day that, while most protesters were peaceful, several threw bottles, rocks and large bricks. Police responded by firing special chalk rounds to mark suspects and deploying a chemical irritant.
Williams said his clients’ injuries were not very serious.
“The case really isn’t about the physical injuries here,” he said. “It’s about police officers thinking that they can use excessive force with impunity.”
In addition to excessive force and battery, the lawsuit claims the officers violated First Amendment rights by retaliating against political speech. The suit seeks damages in excess of $50,000 — a standard clause in civil complaints.