A federal judge ruled today that a class action suit against the NYPD over the mass arrest of more than 700 people on the Brooklyn Bridge October 1 can go forward.
The march over the vehicular roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge was one of the most visually dramatic events of the young Occupy Wall Street movement, and one of the earliest examples of the NYPD’s use of mass arrests to attempt to control protesters.
Police kettled the march with orange nets, preventing anyone from leaving the bridge, then arrested hundreds of marchers for blocking traffic.
But many marchers argued that they were only proceeded onto the bridge because the police gave the impression they were allowing the march to proceed over the roadway.
The police may have made a statement forbidding the march from carrying on over the vehicular portion of the bridge, protesters said, but they did it in a way in which the vast majority of marchers could never have heard it. And when police turned their backs on the march and started moving down the roadway themselves, they were effectively leading the protest, sanctioning the march onto the bridge.
Three days after the march, some of those arrested filed a class action suit against the city, the police officers, Police Chief Ray Kelly, and Mike Bloomberg, alleging their constitutional rights were violated by unlawful arrest.
The city came back with a motion to dismiss the suit, arguing the protesters fail to adequately allege a constitutional infringement, and that in any case, the officers were reasonably doing their job, and so have qualified immunity from this sort of suit.
Rakoff’s ruling on this motion to dismiss begins with a striking statement on the need for police restraint when addressing non-violent protest:
“What a huge debt this nation owes to its “troublemakers.” From Thomas Paine to Martin Luther King, Jr., they have forced us to focus on problems we would prefer to downplay or ignore. Yet it is often only with hindsight that we can distinguish those troublemakers who brought us to our senses from those who were simply troublemakers. Prudence, and respect for the constitutional rights to free speech and free association, therefore dictate that the legal system cut all non-violent protesters a fair amount of slack.”
Rakoff denies the motion to dismiss the suit against the police, finding no evidence had been presented to show there was any reason for the mass arrests.
“Because the defendants have not argued that plaintiffs posed a threat of imminent harm, they have shown neither that circumstances would have alerted demonstrators to the illegality of their conduct nor that mass arrest served some pressing law enforcement need.”
Rakoff did dismiss the suit against Bloomberg, Kelly, and the City, however, finding that the plaintiffs didn’t present adequate evidence that they were responsible, or that the arrests were part of a wider program to smother Occupy Wall Street.
“The plaintiffs cannot bridge the gap between the broad, conspiratorial policy they attribute to the City and the violations that they have plausibly alleged in this case,” Rakoff wrote.
Here’s Judge Rakoff’s full ruling: