By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a breaking story that will be updated throughout the day.
Mayor Bill Peduto and the city of Pittsburgh escalated “a peaceful protest into a scene of pandemonium, panic, violence and bloodshed” and then “disseminated flagrant lies to conceal and/or justify the PBP’s shameless use of force against peaceful protesters” during a June 1 protest in East Liberty against police brutality, according to a class-action lawsuit filed this morning.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania on behalf of five named plaintiffs who say the city’s actions violated their First Amendment rights by Pittsburgh civil rights attorney Timothy O’Brien the lawyers from the Abolitionist Law Center. The lawsuit’s class includes other protesters there that day also affected by the city’s actions. It officially names Peduto, Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert, public Safety director Wendell Hissrich and police commanders Stephen Vinansky and Jason Lando.
According to the lawsuit, hundreds of police officers were dispatched to deal with protesters. The attendees were protesting violence by police against people of color in the wake of the recent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police.
“As the assembled protesters held their hands in the air and chanted, ‘This is not a riot,’ and ‘Hands up – Don’t shoot,’ PBP ordered its officers to attack them with explosives, chemical agents and ammunition which is known to seriously wound and sometimes kill its targets,” the lawsuit alleges. “PBP officers drove ambulances past injured protesters without stopping. After ordering peaceful protesters to leave the area, PBP officers blocked their escape with chemical gas, riot police and mounted patrols. PBP then arrested several protestors for failing to disperse, subjecting them to confinement in the midst of a global COVID-19 pandemic. The PBP ordered tactical officers dressed in paramilitary garb to patrol a residential neighborhood in armored vehicles and arbitrarily throw canisters of chemical gas at and/or arrest anyone they encountered.
“ In response, City of Pittsburgh officials, including the Mayor, Public Safety Director and Chief of Police, disseminated flagrant lies to conceal and/or justify the PBP’s shameless use of force against peaceful protesters. These officials accused protesters of hurling rocks and “volleys of bricks” at PBP officers, and vehemently denied using chemical agents. Numerous videos demonstrate that these statements were patently false. The full complaint can be found at the end of this story.
“Plaintiffs allege that the Defendants’ conduct violated their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly, their Fourth Amendment rights to be free from excessive force and false arrest and their Fourteenth Amendment right not to be subject to official governmental policies which violate their constitutional rights.”
The lawsuit names five plaintiffs and their allegations:
- Nicole Rulli and Charles Bryant brought Ms. Rulli’s thirteen-year-old son, named only as A.F. “to the protest to teach him about his First Amendment rights. The police gassed his family and taught him to fear political protests.” The family fled the protest once tear gas was fired. The family was eventually able to get onto Centre Avenue to return to their vehicle. As they did, they were fired upon with tear gas. As Nicole and Charles were incapacitated by the gas, Nicole told her son to run, causing them to be separated for some time. When Bryant asked an officer if he had seen a 13-year-old boy, he was allegedly told, “that’s on you.”
- Simon Phillips, a dance instructor who was arrested near his East Liberty apartment after he complied with the PBP’s order to leave. He was left cuffed in zip ties on the street for 90 minutes. The ties caused lacerations on the wrist that had to be closed with stitches.
- Donovan Hayden, who works for a local nonprofit, was “gassed” and chased by police at gunpoint as he left the protest.
- Jennifer “Jay” Yoder. “Police gassed and pushed Yoder and arrested them as they attempted to return to their car after the protest. Yoder was there as an observer and to “assist protesters.” Yoder tried to disperse and told officers that she was trying to go to her car when she was taken to the ground and arrested.
- Christopher Wilson Juring was “shot in the back as he fled a cloud of tear gas and smoke.” He was hit four times in the back and legs.
According to the lawsuit, following a May 30 protest in Downtown Pittsburgh, city officials were “put on notice” that police officers would use force against protesters because of the tactics used in the downtown protest. “The vast majority of the attendees did not engage in any property damage or violence. However, following some reports of property damage, PBP officers used chemical gas, rubber bullets and other projectiles, pepper spray, flashbang grenades and other riot control agents indiscriminately against everyone present, including peaceful protesters and nonviolent bystanders. Numerous protesters were seriously injured. The PBP arrested 46 people at the protests for “failure to disperse.” The Allegheny County District Attorney refused to pursue charges against at least 39 of these arrestees because the PBP’s evidence was insufficient to support the charges,” according to the lawsuit.
Those actions, the lawsuit says, made it clear to the city that equal or greater force would be used during future protests. Thousands gathered in East Liberty on June 1 at about 3:30 p.m. and demonstrated uninterrupted by police. At about 6:30 p.m., a group of about 150 protesters marched down Centre Avenue for about a half mile when they were met by a line of about 150 police officers dressed in riot gear and/or camouflage outfits, gas masks and had weapons including batons and firearms as well as several police dogs. According to the lawsuit, the later march consisted of the same “behavior of the larger group of protesters earlier in the day, which the PBP openly approved and supported.”
At 7:17 p.m., demonstrators were given an order by police to disperse and that the protest has been labeled an “unlawful assembly.” Centre Avenue was then blocked by police officers and vehicles. “Police warned the Protesters not to “advance” on their line. However, nearly all of the Protesters were at least 30 feet away from the officers. At no time did any Protester “advance” on the officers,” according to the lawsuit. “
The lawsuit says the protesters did not pose “an imminent threat to public safety, peace and order,” yet the gathering was deemed an “unlawful assembly” without explanation.” Over the next several minutes, officers allegedly “discharged a firearm into the crowd,” and used a crowd dispersal tool known as an LRAD, which emits loud noises that can cause loss of hearing. Tear gas and “flashbang” grenades were also used on the crowd as well as rubber bullets, beanbag rounds and “sponge grenades.”
According to the filing: “Rubber bullets” are large rubber-coated metal cylinders that can be fired from standard firearms or dedicated “riot guns.” “Beanbag rounds” are cloth bags filled with lead shot which are fired from a 12-gauge shotgun. “Sponge grenades” are large plastic or metal bullets with dense foam rubber tips. They are typically fired from a 40mm grenade launcher.
“Although these items are often referred to as “less lethal” munitions, they are fired with the force of a gun or grenade launcher and have the capability to cause serious injury and/or death, particularly when fired at close range or when fired at vulnerable areas of the body,” according to the lawsuit. The myriad explosions, tear gas and projectiles caused some protesters to flee down side streets only to be shot by projectiles fired “indiscriminately” at protesters by police.
In one instance, a protester was shot in the face with an “unknown munition” and knocked unconscious. According to the lawsuit: “Other Protesters dragged him out of the street and attempted to render medical aid. As they did so a SWAT officer threw a chemical grenade at them.”
In another incident, two protesters on their knees with their hands in the air were sprayed in the face with OC spray. The two got up and ran only to have a tear gas canister thrown at them by another officer. In another, a group of four protesters with hands raised are backed up by lines of officers and a female protester was shot in the chest with a tear gas canister from 10 feet away. Also, according to the filing, as police officers were telling protesters disperse, they also cut off routes for them to do so. The lawsuit also claims that injured protesters were prevented from seeking medical care.
In all 22 people were arrested and charged. On June 18, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala dismissed all charges due to lack of evidence.
In the aftermath of the protest, Peduto, Hissrich and Schubert “praised the actions of PBP toward the protesters that evening.
“. . . it was then that the officers escalated to the point of being able to break the crowd up, and that finally succeeded. What we did not see is East Liberty is not on fire tonight. People from East Liberty are not harmed. Two protestors were taken for evaluation, and they should be absolutely fine. Nine officers were hurt by protestors,” Peduto said.
Hissrich said: “And I just want to mention that the work that was done by the officers . . . tonight should be commended . . . I think we prevented businesses from being looted and possibly set afire. So I just want to commend all the public safety, the different law enforcement agencies that were out there tonight, and I think the public, they should be thanking the police officers for the work that they have done.”
THe lawsuit claims that false accusations were made by officials to justify the actions of police. Among them:
That Protesters vandalized buildings and broke glass windows;
That Protesters engaged in acts of violence and destruction;
That Protesters attacked a KDKA television news crew;
That Protesters attacked Defendant Vinansky in his police vehicle.
That Protesters were trying to or intended to “burn East Liberty down;”
That Protesters were “only there to cause damage and to try to hurt police officers.”
That the PBP’s use of force was precipitated by Protesters throwing rocks, bricks and water bottles at police officers;
That that Protesters injured nine PBP officers by throwing rocks and bricks at their heads, chests, pelvis areas, knees and shoulders;
That PBP used force against the Protesters only after the Protesters threw multiple “volleys of bricks” at officers.
In addition, officials also made several claims about officers use of force that evening:
The only force PBP used against the Protesters was “smoke;”
PBP did not use chemical gas against Protesters;
PBP did not use, “crowd munitions” against Protesters
PBP did not use “rubber bullets” against Protesters;
Only two protesters were injured by PBP use of force;
No Protesters were seriously injured by PBP use of force;
City of Pittsburgh personnel treated all injured Protesters at the scene and transported them to hospitals.
In contrast, the lawsuit also points out the uneven handling of a protest on April 20 in which protesters, mostly white, protested against Gov. Tom Wolf’s order to close down businesses to stop the spread of COVID-19. At that protest, a number of protesters showed up armed with assault rifles and other firearms. However no SWAT units or armored vehicles were dispatched, nor was there ever an order to disperse.
“The unarmed and peaceful June 1, 2020 protesters posed less of a threat of “substantial harm or serious inconvenience, annoyance or alarm” to the residents of the City of Pittsburgh than the heavily armed April 20 protesters,” the lawsuit says.
Protester Donovan Hayden said in a statement released to the press: “The group that continued the protests after 6:30pm was not a “splinter group” of agitators from out-of-town. We were a peaceful and multiracial group of hundreds of Pittsburghers that only wanted to continue freely walking our streets in solidarity with the other cities protesting the murder of George Floyd and police brutality. As a black man, I have spent my whole life watching police dominate our streets and intimidate me in my own neighborhood. That night, I intended to reclaim the streets with my neighbors and friends. I was disheartened by the reports/news conferences from Mayor Bill Peduto, Pittsburgh Public Safety Department, and Pittsburgh Bureau of Police after the protests in East Liberty. With my eyes still burning and the taste of tear gas still in my shirt, I could not believe their fabricated narrative that demonized protesters and defended police brutality.”2020-06-29- Complaint - final-filed