Victims of excessive police force at one of the most violent flashpoints of the Occupy protests have received a $1m compensation settlement.
The US district court in San Francisco made the award to a group of 12 protesters who complained of brutality during in confrontations with police in Oakland, California, in 2011.
The payouts come in the wake of criticism from independent experts who said the police department was under-resourced and ill-prepared to deal with the protests.
The lawsuits detailed how police reacted to the protesters when they tried to reclaim a camp which had been cleared earlier that day. Suzi Spangenberg and Sukay Sow said they were injured by flashbang grenades thrown by officers. Spangenberg, a 52-year-old seminarian was awarded $500,000 in compensation, while Sow, who suffered chemical burns to her foot, received $210,000.
Spangenberg said: “I was in the middle of telling OPD I loved them when they threw explosives at me. The loud explosion caused permanent hearing loss and unrelenting ringing in my ears. As a result, I can only sleep 2 hours at a time which has had a serious impact on my life, including adversely impacting my graduate school studies, when I graduate, and when I will be ordained. It is my hope that there will never be cause for this type of lawsuit again, and the city can instead focus its resources on supporting the marginalized and those most in need of resources, which is what we were protesting for.”
He received $150,000. Other plaintiffs will receive between $20,000 and $75,000.
The protesters were represented by San Francisco attorney Rachel Lederman who said she was “pleased with the result”.
She added: “This is really a good decision by the city and the Police Department to take some responsibility for the fiasco of their ill-planned response to Occupy Oakland and to take responsibility by compensating some of the people who were the most seriously injured.”
Brooke Anderson, 33, was awarded $20,000. She recounted her ordeal saying: “I was there on October 25 to support the protest and we were there for several hours singing and chanting. It was a really peaceful protest. Towards the end of the evening the police officers moved towards us with metal barriers and I was knocked to the ground. I tried to get up and leave but I was held by police officers who twisted my arm behind my back in a very painful position. I was crying and screaming and my friends asked police to let go and several of them were hit and arrested.”
Supporters of the protesters created this video, which contains footage of Anderson’s arrest:
Anderson was held for about 15 hours in a cell with 40 other women and one toilet. “It was so crowded we had to take turns sitting down,” she said.
Rachel Lederman was the lead attorney for the plaintiffs. She said the purpose of the lawsuit was to stop the Oakland police department’s “dangerous and illegal repression of political protest and the city government’s tolerance of repeated, pervasive police misconduct.”
“The same officers shot longshoremen and protesters with so-called less lethal munitions during a peaceful antiwar picket at the Port of Oakland in 2003,” she said.
“At that time, the city and police also agreed to stop those practices and adopt a model policy for constitutional policing of demonstrations, but OPD chose to scrap all that and repeat the same mistakes as soon as they were faced with large protests.”
Anderson said her brief experience of incarceration prompted her to donate part of her $20,000 payout to a charity that promotes prisoners’ rights. She added: “I felt strongly the Occupy movement was a movement of the 99% who saw their families lose their jobs, their homes, healthcare and rights. You shouldn’t get attacked and jailed for exercising your democratic right to protest. I have been back at the protests and I will continue to speak out but we fear these police actions are intended to deter us from exercising our right to protest.”
Oakland police has come in for severe criticism in recent years. Former Baltimore police commissioner Thomas Frazier completed a report on their handling of the Occupy protests that painted a picture of an under-resourced department in disarray.
He was later appointed by a judge as a consultant to push through police reforms after it was revealed officers had framed and beaten drug suspects in one of the city’s most impoverished neighbourhoods. After several years the court-mandated reforms had not been carried out so Frazier was given the task of overhauling the department.
“These settlements are an important victory for democracy,” said Bobbie Stein, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys. “We are hopeful that with these settlements, and the reform process under the watch of the new compliance director, we will achieve a culture shift in the Oakland Police Department and end the brutalization and wrongful arrests of activists and people of color in Oakland. While we remain optimistic, we are mindful of the 10-year history of broken promises, and we will be watching carefully and ready to take further action if necessary.”
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