Class-action lawsuit filed against Pittsburgh following use of force during June 1 protest

Class-action lawsuit filed against Pittsburgh following use of force during June 1 protest
click to enlarge George Floyd protesters clash with police and SWAT near the intersection of Centre and Negley avenues following a peaceful protest in East Liberty on Mon., June 1, 2020 - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM

CP photo: Jared Wickerham

George Floyd protesters clash with police and SWAT near the intersection of Centre and Negley avenues following a peaceful protest in East Liberty on Mon., June 1, 2020

On June 1, hundreds of protesters marched through East Liberty in continuation of a larger march that had occurred earlier that afternoon in honor of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The protest specifically criticized the police for brutality against Black people.

As the protesters headed down Centre Avenue from the Target in East Liberty, they were met by a police line, with officers armed with riot gear, batons, and sponge-round guns.

According to videos and first-hand accounts, Pittsburgh police fired first on the protesters, sending at least one sponge-round and then one tear-gas canister into the crowds. Then chaos erupted, with some protesters throwing water bottles at police, but most of them retreating. Video also shows the police line advancing, and then officers apparently pepper-spraying two protesters while the protesters were on their knees.

Today, six individuals who were at that protest have filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court against Pittsburgh Police and city officials, alleging the police participated in "escalating a peaceful protest into a scene of pandemonium, panic,
violence, and bloodshed."

Mayor Bill Peduto, Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich, Police Chief Scott Schubert, and other command staff are named in the lawsuit. The suit claims that protesters were targeted with chemical agents and ammunition that is "known to seriously wound and sometimes kill," as well as claiming the police used tear-gas arbitrarily."

A video obtained by Pittsburgh City Paper shows a Pittsburgh Police officer deploying a tear gas canister towards on-lookers who were witnessing some people getting arrested on June 1.

“In Pittsburgh and across the country, police officers’ use of chemical weapons such as tear gas and projectile munitions such as rubber bullets, beanbag rounds, and sponge grenades against protesters has resulted in serious and debilitating injuries. Moreover, the routine and indiscriminate use of these tactics deters would-be protesters from exercising their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble and petition the government,” said the attorneys representing the protesters in a press release.

The lawsuit also claims that the plaintiffs were wrongly arrested. There were 22 people arrested on the evening of June 1 in East Liberty, and all the charges of those 22 people were later dropped by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala.

Nicole Rulli, her fiance, and her 13-year-old son are among the plaintiffs. According to the suit, a tear-gas canister struck her on the foot, and spewed gas into her face. She was then separated from her son, who ran to a nearby Giant Eagle to rinse his face. They eventually found each other and, according to the suit, the teen was traumatized and all three were physically and emotionally hurt.

The suit also alleges that Peduto and other officials “disseminat[ed] flagrant lies to conceal and/or justify the PBP’s shameless use of force against peaceful protesters.” During a late-night press conference on June 1, Peduto and others claimed that protesters were throwing rocks and bricks at police, and also claimed that vandalism occurred. Later, Peduto admitted that the initial reports from police "were wrong," and then supported independent investigations into the June 1 events. 

Peduto spokesperson Tim McNulty told WESA that he couldn't comment on the suit.

The lawsuit seeks an order preventing Pittsburgh officials from declaring peaceful protests unlawful and from using chemical agents and projectiles against peaceful protesters, as well as seeking money damages for "protesters whose rights were violated."

The suit was filed the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania by Attorneys Margaret Coleman of O’Brien Law, Quinn Cozzens of Abolitionist Law Center, and Christine T. Elzer of Elzer Law Firm, LLC. Full complaint is shown below.