May 25 marked two years since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin. Though not the last Black man killed by militarized police, the outrage and heartbreak that flowed from his death spurred an uprising that continues today.
Hundreds of communities around the world took to public spaces to protest systemic racism and state violence. Emboldened by the regime of former President Donald Trump, racists and fascists also took to those spaces to violently intimidate and suppress viewpoints they don’t share. Many Americans finally learned the realities of modern racist policing in America.
By July 2020, more than 14,000 people had been arrested in the U.S. for protesting in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Despite most protests being largely peaceful, more than 200 cities imposed curfews and nearly 100,000 National and State Guard troops were mobilized, the largest non-war military operation in U.S. history. By November 2020, 25 people had died in the uprisings, with many more blinded or otherwise seriously injured.
Locally, significant erosions to our civil and human rights occurred in 2020 — May 31 in Eugene and July 29 in Springfield’s Thurston neighborhood. (We will report back soon about our lawsuit regarding the Thurston events.)
On May 30 and 31, Eugene City Manager Sarah Medary signed orders issuing curfews, making it a crime to leave your home or be outside, but she deferred completely to Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner — not surprising since her background is in landscape architecture and city planning, with no training in First Amendment or other constitutional issues.
On May 31, while shouting through loudspeakers and ordering people to go home, marauding militias ambushed peaceful civilians with impact and chemical weapons. Shortly before the curfew went into effect, a young woman was shot point blank with a 40mm “foam” launcher round by EPD Sgt. William Solesbee, while holding up her hands saying “don’t shoot.” Solesbee has been the subject of several previous excessive force lawsuits, yet continues on the force and, in fact, is one of EPD’s primary trainers. Chief Skinner excused Solesbee’s use of force, saying he had been “inadequately trained.”
After the downtown curfew began, most protesters moved to just outside the curfew zone. While kneeling in remembrance of Floyd, they were given three minutes’ notice that the curfew was expanding citywide. They dispersed in small groups, walking on the sidewalk. Even so, EPD arrested several people of color, while white-appearing people were allowed to continue on their way. A woman doing jail support was arrested for simply asking arrestees’ names and contact information as she left the area.
As people continued to leave downtown, the city brought out tank-like BearCat vehicles, tossing tear gas canisters into the crowd and shooting PepperBalls. A reporter for Eugene Weekly received a direct hit from a tear gas canister after repeatedly telling officers he was press. Solesbee even shot 40mm rounds at people on the porch of a residence.
Of the many people arrested and charged on May 31, 2020 that we are aware of, the majority of the cases were dismissed.
In response to the city’s trampling on the Constitution to quell righteous protest, Civil Liberties Defense Center first filed a lawsuit on behalf of the reporter, which the city quickly settled. We filed a second lawsuit on behalf of the woman shot by Solesbee, two people who were at home when Solesbee shot at the porch and three people arrested while leaving downtown. The city again settled quickly, but only with the person who was shot.
We have completed discovery, which is the exchange of evidence between the litigants prior to trial, and are looking forward to the next round in the case, where we will present our evidence to the court and ask for a ruling. The city’s attorney attempted to use intimidation and privacy invasions in discovery, but our clients bravely stuck it out.
What our clients want from this lawsuit is not just reparations for harm (although that’s an important element of justice), but also change, even if incremental, in the way Eugene operates in the future.
The community can support these goals — for example, through donations to cover the astounding costs of depositions. But more importantly, we encourage people to continue to push harder, through outreach, media and other non-litigation techniques, to help ensure such overreach never happens again.
We can also all learn how to better protect people’s rights.
For protesters and media: Videotaping can be helpful when we sue the police, but the government also uses live streams to identify people to charge. Think before you stream! Focus on the bad behavior of the cops/counter-protesters.
For municipalities and cops: Change is gonna come despite your intransigence. When defending against lawsuits, consider not just the current expense, but the need to change behavior. Civil rights plaintiffs are demanding significant changes to protect their rights and their communities
Lauren Regan is the executive director and senior attorney at the Civil Liberties Defense Center. She is a trial lawyer and national expert in the defense of political activists, particularly those engaged in climate, racial, environmental and Indigenous justice advocacy.