Unprecedented $13M Settlement Reached for Protesters in New York's 2020 Black Lives Matter Demonstrations
In a historic decision, New York City has consented to compensate over 1,300 demonstrators with more than $13 million – an average of nearly $10,000 each – for being subjected to physical force or unlawful arrests by law enforcement officers during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. Sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, these demonstrations marked a crucial point in the fight against systemic racism.
Pending judicial approval, this proposed class-action settlement is poised to become one of the most expensive payouts related to a mass arrest lawsuit in history, as per legal experts. Filed in Manhattan federal court on Wednesday, the agreement signifies a significant victory for the plaintiffs, who have contended against the city, ex-Mayor Bill de Blasio, Commissioner Dermot Shea, and a host of other police officials and officers for the past two years.
The plaintiffs' lawsuit alleged a rampant breach of constitutional rights during the protests. They argued that thousands of New Yorkers who chose to exercise their right to demonstrate were "corralled into places where they could not escape." This alleged maneuver resulted in protestors being subjected to baton strikes, pepper spray, and arrests, without any clear legal justification or fair warning, as claimed in the court documents.
Furthermore, the suit highlighted the additional risk to the plaintiffs, who were allegedly "physically restrained" and confined "in dangerously close quarters," amidst the height of the global COVID
-19 pandemic. According to the plaintiffs' lawyers, the tactics employed during these protests starkly differed from those used during other demonstrations of comparable size over different issues.
Adama Sow, one of the plaintiffs, provided an eyewitness account of the ordeal. Sow recalled how the group of marchers was allegedly cornered by police, their hands bound with zip ties until they turned purple, and kept on a sweltering bus for hours. "They seemed set on traumatizing everyone," Sow said.
The settlement will cover protestors present at 18 marches or demonstrations that took place in Brooklyn and Manhattan from May 28 through June 4, 2020. Throughout the duration of this litigation, city attorneys have defended the police tactics, claiming they were adjusted to handle the chaotic situation. They pointed out instances where some unruly protestors had thrown objects at police or set their cars ablaze.
However, the attorneys also drew attention to a "violent assault" on protestors in the Bronx’s Mott Haven section on June 4, 2020. They alleged that the incident showcased the worst of the NYPD’s unconstitutional protest policing tactics and inadequate training. The lawyers claimed that police purposely trapped volunteer medics and organizers, making it impossible for them to comply with a citywide curfew or orders to disperse before attacking them.
While the city did not formally admit fault in connection with the lawsuit, it agreed to the settlement to avoid a politically sensitive reevaluation of the events at trial. The city continues to invoke qualified immunity to shield officers from lawsuits and maintains that the NYPD's methods did not infringe upon New Yorkers' civil rights.
Georgia Pestana, an attorney for the city, stated, "There is no history — or present or future — of unconstitutional policing. There is no frequent deprivation of constitutional rights."
While the lawsuit in question did not seek to enforce changes in the NYPD's procedures, there is ongoing litigation aimed at doing just that. Notably, a suit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James demands a federal monitor to oversee the NYPD's protest policies.
These demonstrations were an outcry against police brutality against Black people, which reached fever pitch on May 26, following the release of a video showing Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for over nine minutes. Floyd, unarmed and accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes, was killed during the encounter. This event sparked widespread racial injustice protests throughout the spring and summer of 2020, with isolated incidents of looting and vandalism occurring, despite the largely peaceful nature of the demonstrations in New York City.