Five protesters who say they’ve taken part in several Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Seattle are suing the city, claiming that the Seattle Police Department’s aggressive crowd control measures have forced them to purchase expensive protective gear, essentially “pricing” them out of exercising their First Amendment rights.
The suit, filed Monday, is the latest in a series of lawsuits directed at Seattle city government and Seattle Police Department over how law enforcement officials handle BLM and other associated demonstrations. The ACLU of Washington filed suit in early June alleging that Seattle police exceeded their authority when they used tear gas, flashbang grenades, and rubber bullets to handle ongoing protests that, at the time, were threatening to become riots.
Several lawsuits are pending against the city of Seattle for tolerating the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, an “autonomous zone” that cropped up inside the city around a police precinct. Residents and business owners have alleged that the city failed to enforce the law when they allowed the demonstration to remain in place for more than two weeks; the parent of a black teen killed on the perimeter of the protest is also suing, alleging that Seattle’s failure to enforce its own laws contributed to her son’s death.
Monday’s lawsuit focuses on police tactics as well but from a different angle, according to the Seattle Times.
“The five plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege that the purchase of helmets, gas masks, protective clothing, goggles, gloves, boots, umbrellas and other gear they say are needed to fend off police pepper spray, less-lethal projectiles and other crowd-dispersal tools has impinged on their civil right to peacefully protest,” the outlet noted.
The five women were involved in protests in the Capitol Hill zone, and they “claim that repeated use of force by SPD during more than six weeks of civil unrest over systemic racism and police brutality against people of color has made it impossible to exercise their right to gather and protest without personal protective gear, which isn’t cheap.”
“Because protesters now must purchase expensive equipment to be assured that they will be able to protest safely, the indiscriminate use of weapons by SPD implicates equal protection,” the women allege in their complaint.
Government entities cannot place restrictions on First Amendment activity, within certain parameters of the law as set forth by the Supreme Court, but Monday’s lawsuit is a novel approach to “free speech” litigation, contending that the government, by its actions, placed an undue burden on those exercising their rights.
The plaintiffs’ attorney likened the situation to governments placing a “tax” on protesters: “the government effect is to establish a de facto protest tax: individual protesters subjected to SPD’s unabated and indiscriminate violence now must purchase cost-prohibitive gear to withstand munitions — even when peacefully protesting — as a condition to exercising their right to free speech and peaceable assembly,” she said.
Seattle says it has yet to look into the plaintiffs’ claims but plans to defend itself.
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