Citing “extraordinary abuses of police power,” more than 140 Philadelphia protesters and residents sued the city Tuesday over the department’s response to the unrest that gripped the region in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.
In three separate federal lawsuits, 146 plaintiffs alleged that heavy-handed tactics deployed to disperse crowds of largely peaceful protesters and bystanders violated their constitutional rights to free expression and freedom from excessive force.
Their claims focus on two incidents that have garnered national attention — the June 1 teargassing of a crowd of demonstrators on I-676 and the police use of military-style armored vehicles, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and tear gas on protesters and neighborhood residents during efforts to quell looting and violence along 52nd Street in West Philadelphia the day before.
The plaintiffs — who range in age from 18 to 50, with most being Philadelphia residents in their 20s or 30s — describe skin rashes, difficulty breathing, and pain they suffered due to their exposure to noxious chemicals. Some required hospitalization, while others are still undergoing mental health treatment for trauma.
Their suits are believed to be the first filed in response to the unrest that roiled Philadelphia, and join a wave of litigation against police departments nationwide alleging violence and excessive force during the protests.
“City officials must be held accountable for these militaristic police actions, which are discriminatory, illegal, and completely unacceptable. Our clients deserve safety and security in their own neighborhood and to be free of fear of discrimination and police terror,” said Cara McClellan, an attorney with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, representing 13 of the West Philadelphia plaintiffs.
The city declined to comment on the lawsuits Tuesday. But in a statement, Mayor Jim Kenney said he was “highly concerned about what transpired on both I-676 and 52nd Street” and “fully regret[s] the use of tear gas and some other use of force in those incidents.”
“As a result, the City has initiated an independent after-action review to fully examine the circumstances of both events,” he said. “The investigation is still underway, but any officer found to have violated PPD policy will be held accountable.”
In both incidents, attorneys said, the department’s use of force was “grossly excessive.”
Police corralled protesters on I-676, leaving hundreds “stranded on [a] hill, unable to leave, engulfed in clouds of smoke,” as officers fired tear gas canisters and rubber bullets that left people “coughing, vomiting, crying, unable to breathe, and, in some cases, losing consciousness,” one lawsuit said.
“The city’s actions on 676 were simply stunning,” said Jonathan Feinberg, one of several attorneys representing 41 protesters caught on the Vine Street Expressway.
In West Philadelphia, what started as a police response to looting and violent skirmishes with officers drew crowds of peaceful demonstrators and onlookers who were met with the same aggressive tactics, the plaintiffs said.
Dozens described indiscriminate deployments of pepper spray, rubber bullets, and tear gas that blanketed surrounding neighborhoods, sickened children, and prompted some residents to evacuate as clouds of noxious fumes seeped through windows and under doorways.
“Residents and passersby [some of whom] were doing nothing more than sitting on their porches or walking home from work” were caught in the crossfire, “causing residents — including elderly residents and children — to seek shelter at home or wherever they could nearby,” another lawsuit states.
During a video news conference Tuesday, lawyers told the stories of a grandmother who was shot in the face with a rubber bullet while walking down the street and a 32-year-old man, protesting police brutality near 52nd Street with his children, who alleges he heard officers use anti-Black slurs while telling the protesters to go home. Police officers “repeatedly sprayed” him with pepper spray and dislocated his shoulder with a rubber bullet, his lawyers said.
While a large police presence and some military equipment may be a more common sight during demonstrations in Center City, “you don’t see this on 52nd and Arch,” said Anthony Smith, another plaintiff and a social studies teacher and activist who was arrested while protesting in his neighborhood. “All of these are on these skinny blocks in West Philly.”
Some of the attorneys described those tactics as “racially discriminatory” retaliation against Black residents exercising their right to free speech and assembly and linked it to a decades-long history of heavy-handed police response in West Philadelphia — including, most notably, the bombing of the MOVE house in 1985 that led to the loss of dozens of homes in the fire that followed.
Kevin Mincey, an attorney representing clients on both 676 and 52nd Street, said he views the litigation as an “opportunity to pursue real change in the way that Philadelphia polices its citizens.”
City officials have acknowledged they were unprepared for the size of the protests that erupted after Floyd’s death. The Inquirer has previously reported that police abandoned strategies that had previously earned them national accolades for dealing with demonstrations. Instead, they risked responding with minimal staffing and, once they became overwhelmed, escalated with heavy-handed tactics.
Earlier this month, after the New York Times published a video report on the I-676 incident, city officials apologized for teargassing protesters there, calling the use of force “unjustifiable” and admitting that they had offered incorrect and uncorroborated explanations for why officers resorted to the tactics.
Kenney also said he regretted his decision to green-light the use of tear gas in West Philadelphia but has continued to defend it as justified.
“From the armchair on Monday morning, it’s easy to criticize,” he said at another video news conference Tuesday, referring broadly to the city’s response to the first three days of protests. “People have a right to criticize if they choose. But this was real-time stuff, and life-and-death decisions that had to be made. And we did our best.”
Also Tuesday, Kenney announced that city Managing Director Brian Abernathy — under fire for his role overseeing the city’s response to the protests — will resign from his position.
Kenney, Abernathy, and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw are named as defendants in Tuesday’s lawsuits, which seek compensatory and punitive damages as well as a declaratory judgment that the Police Department’s use of force was unconstitutional and in violation of civil rights laws.
“The First Amendment is the cornerstone of our democracy, as is the struggle for racial justice,” attorney Paul J. Hetznecker said. “The city sent a paramilitary force to crush peaceful protests against racial injustice. This lawsuit amplifies their message from the street into the legal process.”