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City Officials Sued In Federal Court Over June 1 East Liberty Protest

A frame from a video taken by a June 1 protester, and used as evidence in a federal class-action suit against the City of Pittsburgh

A half-dozen people involved in a June 1 East Liberty protest have filed a federal lawsuit against city of Pittsburgh officials, alleging that police violated their civil rights and “escalat[ed] a peaceful protest into a scene of pandemonium, panic, violence and bloodshed.”

“I just want to see the police have accountability,” Charles Bryant, one of the plaintiffs, told WESA once the suit was filed. The suit alleges that he, fiancée Nicole Rulli and their son were gassed by police after trying to leave the protest. “I would like for my neighbors to open their eyes up and see that police met peace with brutality.”

The lawsuit names Mayor Bill Peduto, Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich, Police Chief Scott Schubert and other command staff. It says police targeted protesters “with explosives, chemical agents and ammunition which is known to seriously wound and sometimes kill”— including rubber bullets and tear gas. It charges that police “arbitrarily” deployed tear gas in some cases, and in others trapped protesters with chemical gas and then arrested them for failing to disperse, putting protesters at risk for the coronavirus. And it accuses Peduto and others not only of sanctioning those tactics but, in a press conference afterward, “disseminat[ing] flagrant lies to conceal and/or justify the PBP’s shameless use of force against peaceful protesters.”

A spokesman for the city declined comment on the litigation.

The suit seeks class-action status, meaning that others who were arrested or subjected to force could join it. It asks the court for punitive damages for those subjected to force or arrest on June 1, and to prohibit police from using less-lethal munitions against protesters not engaged in violent acts, and from ordering protesters to disperse unless they “present an imminent threat to public safety.”

The plaintiffs themselves allege they were exposed to tear gas or wrongfully arrested – in some cases while they were on their way home and well away from the site of the protest itself. All say that, despite police claims that some protesters began throwing projectiles at officers, they neither did so themselves nor saw anyone else doing so.

“The only acts of violence I and the people  I know saw committed, were committed by the police,” plaintiff Christopher Juring told WESA.

By all accounts, including that in the lawsuit, the East Liberty protest began quietly, with police clearing traffic for and communicating with demonstrators as they marched through the area. Sometime after 6:30 p.m., though, a smaller group of between 100 and 150 protesters continued to march. Although their “behavior was not materially different from the behavior of the larger group of protesters earlier in the day,” the suit alleges, they were met with between 50 and 100 officers in riot-control gear, some in military camouflage, deployed in the street.

Plaintiff Donovan Hayden was there. After a peaceful march, he said, “Just to see the guys in black with sticks – I couldn’t believe it.” He remained even after police gave repeated warnings that the assembly was unlawful. “The first thing [I thought] was ‘Why is this unlawful? There is no violence.’ We’re saying, ‘Stop being so aggressive, we cannot respect your authority because you misuse your authority.’ And it seems ridiculous for them to say, ‘We hear you, we hear you. Now listen to our authority. We’ve shown up in armor, with sticks, listen to us.’”

The complaint acknowledges that police gave multiple warnings to disperse, and that the protesters did not do so. But it asserts they also did not throw anything or “commit acts of violence or vandalism.” Nor did police “communicate to the Protesters why the assembly was declared unlawful.”

Instead, it charges, after detonating a “flashbang grenade,” police began firing rubber bullets, beanbag rounds and other “less lethal” munitions.

The suit says that city police fired crowd-control munitions through clouds of smoke, such that they couldn’t see who they are targeting, and that police violated policies that bar firing the weapons from a distance of less than 20 feet. It also says that police used weaponry, including rubber bullets, that it has no policies for using.

“I couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see me, but they were just shooting and tossing gas,’” said Hayden. “You could hear the pop-pop-pop-pop.”

Simon Phillips said even demonstrators who followed the dispersal order were arrested. He himself was taken into custody near his home after leaving the event.

“It’s just crazy to think that even not being part of the protest any more, and trying to do what I thought was the right thing at the time – I was still being punished for that. We were told to disperse, and the people who dispersed and went home, they got us anyway.”

The use of tear gas meant “[p]rotesters were forced to choose between approaching a line of officers or retreating into clouds of chemical gas,” the suit says, and then “arrested trapped Protesters and falsely charged them with failure to disperse and disorderly conduct.” Charges against 22 arrestees were dropped, but by then they had been “confined for hours” in the county jail, where they faced “an increased risk of contracting COVID-19.”

That was the experience of Charles Bryant and Nicole Rulli.

“We definitely were not prepared for what happened to us that day,” Rulli said. While they knew Saturday’s protest had resulted in clashes with police and a mass arrest, a follow-up march on Sunday had been quieter. And for the first couple hours, police in East Liberty communicated with marchers and rerouting traffic to allow the march to proceed. “We had the chance to see on the news that it was peaceful before we arrived,” Rulli said. “And Sunday’s protest being peaceful and beautiful, I had no reason to think there was going to be any wild, crazy acts.”

But after the confrontation began, the lawsuit says, the family found every avenue of escape blocked off and took refuge for a time in a parking lot. They eventually got about half a mile from the scene – where the complaint says they were hit with three gas grenades. “I was literally gasping for air,” said Rulli. Her son was separated from them in the confusion, and police offered no help locating him: “That’s on you,” the lawsuit recounts an officer saying.

Even four weeks later, Rulli says, the experience has scarred her son: “We are all a little on edge with some things – loud noises, dogs barking.”

At a late-night press conference following the demonstration, Peduto and other leaders defended police, blaming the escalation on a small group of people who threw rocks at officers and engaged in vandalism. Officials also said officers only used smoke grenades, rather than chemical agents, to disperse protesters – a claim that proved to be false. After criticism mounted, Peduto ordered a review of police actions which is still pending.

But Jay Yoder, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, says it’s already clear that the police response was brutal. Yoder, who uses non-gender-specific pronouns, is a longtime activist who has been involved in protests as far away as Colombia and Kurdish areas of the Middle East. But the scene in East Liberty, they said, “was honestly more disturbing than anything I’ve seen around the world because these are my neighbors and community members.”

Yoder was among those arrested, shortly after telling police – in a moment captured on video – that they were seeking to return to their car and leave. Like others, they were placed in a police vehicle with other un-masked arrestees and spent the night in jail.

“My thought sitting in that cell was ‘I’ve got COVID, and I just need to accept it right now.’ I was really scared.”

Yoder and other plaintiffs said they had been tested for the disease but had not contracted it.

Juring was able to get home on June 1, though he said he lost a week of work after being hit by projectiles. He said he found Peduto’s press conference “disturbing”: “I’m listening to public officials make these claims that they just used smoke. And I and so many others are still coughing up a lung from the tear gas.”

Bryant also was stunned by the press conference. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is occurring during broad daylight. There’s hundreds of witnesses [and] video footage, but … they’ve been doing it for years – getting away with saying whatever they want to.”

Allegations in the complaint are documented with video evidence, including some footage taken by one of the plaintiffs. Pittsburgh officials have said that their police do not use rubber bullets; whether tear gas was deployed by city police in June is among the questions being investigated. Other police agencies, including the Pennsylvania State Police, are said to have been present at the scene of the protest.

The lawsuit notes that police took a much less confrontational approach to an April 20 demonstration Downtown, in which armed men protested state shutdown orders intended to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The June protest “posed less of a threat … than the heavily harmed April 20 protesters,” the suit alleges, but police “did not deploy SWAT units, armored vehicles, riot police and/or snipers” nor “order the protesters to disperse and/or use force to disperse them.”

By contrast, a police-brutality protest two days before the East Liberty demonstration was met with arrests and crowd-control munitions, which the suit alleges were used “indiscriminately against everyone present, including peaceful protesters and nonviolent bystanders.” The suit says that city leaders “made no effort to ensure that such indiscriminate use of force did not occur at future protests,” even though the May 30 response put them “on notice that PBP officers would use overwhelming and excessive force against peaceful protesters with little or no provocation,” and that police “would arrest and jail peaceful protesters with little or no evidence to support criminal charges.”

“I think the police showed themselves to everyone in the way that they’ve been showing themselves just in some select communities,” Yoder said. “They aren’t here to protect and serve: They are here to control and put down people that they see as threats.”

* This story was updated at 9:03 a.m. on June 30, 2020 to include accounts by plaintiffs invovled in the suit.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.