Protesters to be awarded $1 million settlement in mass arrest lawsuit

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A scene from the Nov. 5, 2010 protest where OPD mass arrested 150 protesters in a residential neighborhood
PHOTO BY RAMSEY EL-QARE

A federal judge has granted preliminary approval for a settlement of more than $1 million to a group of 150 activists who were mass arrested in Oakland three years ago. The National Lawyers Guild filed the federal class action civil-rights suit on behalf of the protesters, who in some cases were held for more than 24 hours despite never facing formal charges.

The mass arrest took place on Nov. 5, 2010, when activists marched in opposition to the light sentence handed down to Johannes Mehserle, the former BART officer who was tried for murder after he shot and killed unarmed BART passenger Oscar Grant.

After winding through the streets in downtown Oakland, protesters took a turn toward Fruitvale Station, where Grant was fatally shot. But instead, police in riot gear forced them into a residential neighborhood where they were kettled in and mass-arrested for unlawful assembly.

There’s a process for making mass arrests that is clearly laid out in OPD’s crowd control policy, “to comply with California law and the U.S. constitution. That would involve giving a warning, and then allowing people to disperse,” Rachel Lederman of the NLG points out. “This was a perfectly legal demonstration,” and with the exception of one or two individuals who vandalized bus windows during the march, the vast majority of protesters did not engage in illegal activity.

Instead of being cited and released, or simply allowed to disperse once police declared the march to be "unlawful," the 150 demonstrators who were penned in by police were sent through a long and uncomfortable booking process, Lederman said. They were left sitting on the street, then loaded onto buses and vans where they were made to wait, still handcuffed, for up to 6 hours in some cases. (Note: This reporter was kettled in along with protesters initially but then allowed to leave when police created an exit for members of the media. From there, all reporters were sent to an area cordoned off by police tape, where it was difficult to observe the arrests. So reporters were essentially given the choice between being sent to jail, which would have made it difficult to file a timely story, or being roped off in an area far from where police activity could be observed. But that's a different story.)

The Alameda County Sheriff's Department then sent demonstrators through a lengthy jail booking process, even though in similar circumstances, arrestees have typically been cited and released. They were placed in overcrowded, temporary holding cells with no beds and no chairs. “People needed medical attention that they didn’t get,” Lederman said. “No food was provided for more than twelve hours after our initial detention,” noted plaintiff Katie Loncke. “There was no room to lie down. I sat up against a wall for the entire night."

Lederman said she expects protesters who were part of the class action suit to receive somewhere around $4,500 each in settlement payments. In addition to the monetary payment, the settlement agreement reaffirms and reincorporates OPD's crowd control policy for up to seven years.

That policy dates back to 2004, when the NLG and the American Civil Liberties Union jointly drafted the regulations in the wake of an anti-war demonstration where police fired rubber bullets into the crowd, resulting in serious injuries and intense scrutiny on the police department's practices.

While OPD complied with the crowd control policy in the first years after it was implemented, Lederman said, there were relatively few mass mobilizations in the streets of Oakland until those mounted in response to the Oscar Grant shooting. Those street demonstrations were followed by 2011 mass marches organized in conjunction with the Occupy movement.

“Our primary goal, and our clients’ primary goal, was to stop” unlawful police practices that violated OPD's crowd control policy, Lederman said, “so that people can be freer to organize on the streets.”