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Oakland Anti-war Demonstrators Lawsuit Results in New and Comprehensive Police Policy
Wednesday Nov 10th, 2004 10:36 AM
OAKLAND- The Oakland Police Department (OPD) has agreed to implement sweeping reforms to end the use of less lethal weapons against demonstrators, a practice that led to dozens of injuries last year at an anti-war protest at the Port of Oakland. The ACLU-NC, the National Lawyers Guild, and a team of prominent civil rights attorneys announced the unprecedented agreement today. The new OPD crowd control policy prohibits the indiscriminate use of wooden bullets, rubber bullets, tasers, bean bags, pepper spray and police motorcycles to control or disperse crowds or demonstrations.

“The new crowd control policy prohibits the use of all the less lethal but obviously dangerous weapons that were used on April 7, 2003 against nonviolent anti-war protestors,” said Alan Schlosser, Legal Director of the ACLU of Northern California. “Oakland was neither the first nor, unfortunately, the last city in this country to use these weapons for crowd control. However, by this agreement, Oakland becomes the first city in the nation where demonstrators will not have to incur the risk of serious injury from these weapons as the price of exercising their First Amendment rights to protest and assemble.”

The settlement is the result of a class action lawsuit, Local 10, ILWU vs. City of Oakland, in which 52 people claim that their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, assembly and association were violated when Oakland police opened fire on a peaceful anti-war protest on April 7, 2003.

At least 58 people, including 9 dockworkers from Local 10, ILWU, were injured with large wooden bullets, sting ball grenades and shot-filled bean bags in the most violent police response in the nation to protests against the war in Iraq. Today’s settlement does not resolve claims for monetary damages by those who were injured as a result of the police action. Federal District Court Judge Thelton Henderson has scheduled those claims for trial in January, 2006.

"The recent death of a 21-year-old college student in Boston, after a baseball game, serves as a tragic reminder of the serious injuries that can result when so-called "less than lethal" weapons are used against crowds," said National Lawyers Guild attorney Rachel Lederman. "There was no justification for the Oakland Police to use any type of force to deal with the anti-war demonstration. It is only a matter of luck that no one died on that day. Hopefully, this settlement will prevent future tragedies and will serve as a model for other police departments throughout the nation."

Among other things, the settlement agreement includes the following:

• The adoption of a new Crowd Management Policy that strictly limits the use of force, and mandates that the protection of the right to assemble and demonstrate must be a primary goal of the OPD in their planning for and management of demonstrations;
• Crowd dispersal methods that create risk of injury to crowd members and bystanders are prohibited, including skip fired wooden bullets, stinger grenades, tasers, stun guns, motorcycle bumps, and dogs;
• Indiscriminate use of bean bags, aerosol pepper spray and batons against crowds or passive resisters is prohibited;
• When crowd members break the law, OPD will attempt to negotiate with leaders, and will give clear and audible orders to the crowd, allowing time for individuals to comply before taking enforcement action;
• OPD will arrest individuals who refuse to follow valid police orders, rather than using weapons or other force to move them.

“The settlement reached is an important vindication for the plaintiffs whose civil rights were violated,” said civil rights attorney John Burris. “However, the damages part of the case remain unsolved and we are committed to seeing that our clients are reasonably compensated for the injuries and trauma they suffered on April 7, 2003.”

Willow Rosenthal, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, was shot in the back of her calf as she attempted to comply with the police order to disperse, causing severe pain and swelling. Rosenthal was later diagnosed with a serious blood clot that required multiple surgeries and a large skin graft.

“Today’s settlement will assure that what happened to me will never happen again in Oakland, ”said Willow Rosenthal, “ I think this new policy, is a first step, in protecting everyone’s First Amendment and civil rights.”

The legal team representing the plaintiffs also includes civil rights attorneys James Chanin, Bobbie Stein, Osha Neumann and Rob Remar of Leonard, Carder LLP.