On the Eve of May Day, a Raft of Suits Against the NYPD Over Treatment of Protesters


There are fewer than 24 hours to go before Occupy Wall Street activists, unions, and immigrant groups launch a day-long series of protests that may well constitute some of the largest demonstrations in the city’s recent history.

All indications are that the police are getting ready too: large groups of officers were seen drilling in riot gear on Randall’s Island on Thursday, and sources have told the Voice’s Graham Rayman that officers assigned to police the May Day protests have been ordered to bring “hats and bats.”

Mayor Bloomberg had little to say when the Voice asked him about police tactics yesterday, but a swarm of new lawsuits is explicitly challenging the way the NYPD handles protesters.

A class action suit, Berg v. NYPD, filed this morning in federal court specifically addresses the NYPD’s use of barricades to kettle protesters, as happened on November 30 when Occupy Wall Street demonstrators planned to protest outside an event at which President Obama was speaking.

Police surrounded the group with metal barricades, effectively kettling between 70 and 120 demonstrators and journalists for more than two hours, allowing no one to enter or leave the fenced pen.

This use of barricades looks like a direct violation of a settlement order issued by a federal judge in 2008 in a lawsuit stemming from the NYPD’s abuse of metal barricades during the Republican National Convention.

Mark Taylor, a lawyer representing the class of plaintiffs, said the timing of the suit isn’t an accident. “We hope that our filing, coming just before May Day, will remind them that they have already been under scrutiny by the federal courts, and encourage them to be mindful in how they use barricades going forward,” he said.

Another federal suit filed this morning by a group of plaintiffs including City Council members Ydanis Rodriguez, Jumaane WIlliams, Letitia James, and Melissa Mark-Viverito, asserts a broader pattern of first amendment abuses by the NYPD. Other plaintiffs in the suit include journalists like John Knefel, who was arrested last winter while trying to cover a protest in the Winter Garden; and Occupy Wall Street protesters like Jeffery McClain, an Iraq veteran who was punched and clubbed by police on November 15, suffering a split lip, loosened teeth, two broken ribs, and a bruised diaphragm.

The suit also names JP Morgan, Brookfield Properties, and Mitsui as defendants, alleging that these corporations have conspired with the NYPD to deprive protesters of their rights. Noting that JP Morgan gave the New York Police Foundation $4.6 million in October, just as police harassment of protesters was intensifying, the suit argues that “The City, the Mayor and the police force have conspired with the defendant private corporations and other governmental entities to effectively impose a corporate monopoly on political speech.”

“We’re looking for the appointment of an independent monitor of the NYPD by the federal courts,” said Wylie Stecklow, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. Federal courts have already ordered independent monitors for police departments in Oakland and Detroit.

A third federal suit, served last week, concerns apparent police harassment of a small group of demonstrators last June.

According to the complaint, Samantha Corbin and Robin Wilson were part of a small group planning to protest right-wing billionaire David Koch’s sponsorship of Lincoln Center June 2. When the group assembled beforehand in Central Park, they were approached by police, including Captain Christopher McCormack, then the commanding officer of the 20th Precinct in the Upper West Side.

McCormack told the group they would have to disperse or be arrested. Pretty sure that there isn’t any law against 15 people gathering in Central Park on a sunny day, the group nonetheless dispersed and regrouped at Columbus Circle, where they were once again challenged by police. They walked to Lincoln Center, sang a short satirical song about Koch, and were preparing to depart when the police arrested both Corbin and Wilson.