The City of Pittsburgh and a number of public officials face a proposed class action lawsuit that alleges police needlessly escalated a peaceful protest in the East Liberty neighborhood into “a scene of pandemonium, panic, violence and bloodshed” when they deployed chemical agents and less-lethal munitions against roughly 150 protestors.
According to the 42-page lawsuit, demonstrators gathered in East Liberty on June 1 to add their voices to nationwide protests against systemic racism and police misconduct in the wake of George Floyd’s death on May 25 in Minneapolis. The case says thousands of residents of Pittsburgh and surrounding areas, the vast majority of whom engaged in no property damage or violence, gathered in the city’s downtown on May 30.
In response to some reports of property damage, the defendants—who include Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto, Director of Public Safety Wendell Hissrich, Chief of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Scott Schubert, Commander of Zone 5 Stephen Vinansky, Commander of Narcotics and Vice Jason Lando and a John Doe tactical commander—ordered hundreds of police officers to attack protestors with tear gas and ammunition known to seriously wound and sometimes kill targets, the lawsuit alleges, claiming Pittsburgh police drove ambulances past injured protestors without stopping to help.
As the lawsuit tells it, the Pittsburgh police force’s actions on May 30 put the defendants on notice that officers “would use overwhelming and excessive force against peaceful protestors with little or no provocation.
On June 1, thousands of Pittsburgh residents again gathered to protest, this time in the East Liberty neighborhood, from approximately 3:30 p.m. until roughly 6:30 p.m., the suit continues. While many protestors congregated at the Target store at the corner of Penn Avenue and Centre Avenue either remained at that location or left the area at roughly 6:30 p.m., a smaller group of 100 to 150 demonstrators continued to march down Centre Avenue toward Negley Avenue, making it a little more than a half mile before being met by 50 to 100 armed and armored Pittsburgh police officers, the lawsuit says.
According to the complaint, the peaceful protestors’ behavior “was not materially different from the behavior of the larger group” from earlier in the day, a group the Pittsburgh police “openly approved and supported.”
“The Protestors did not damage public or private property. The Protestors did not throw bricks or rocks at the PBP officers,” the lawsuit says. “The Protestors did not engage in any activity that could have given rise to a reasonable belief that they were likely to cause substantial harm or serious inconvenience, annoyance or alarm."
Nevertheless, the defendants “made the decision to declare the Protestors’ assembly unlawful” and ordered the demonstrators to disperse despite the lack of any destruction or violence by those participating, the plaintiffs say. Included in the complaint are numerous links to videos purporting to show the Pittsburgh police utilizing flashbangs, rubber bullets, tear gas, smoke bombs and pepper spray against protestors at close range.
Despite ordering the protestors to leave the area, Pittsburgh police, riot police and mounted patrols blocked their path and then arrested dozens of demonstrators for their failure to disperse, the complaint says, stressing that those detained were confined in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The suit reiterates the Pittsburgh police “made no effort to ensure that EMTs or other trained medical professionals were available” to treat injured protestors.
“The [Pittsburgh Bureau of Police] ordered tactical officers dressed in paramilitary garb to patrol a residential neighborhood in armored vehicles and arbitrarily throw canisters of chemical gas at and/or arrest anyone they encountered,” the lawsuit reads.
The plaintiffs go on to claim that while demonstrators gathered in East Liberty to protest the “routine covering up of police misconduct and abuse,” the defendants thereafter “disseminated flagrant lies to conceal and/or justify” the Pittsburgh police force’s “shameless use of force.” The defendants accused protestors of throwing rocks and volleying bricks against police officers while strongly denying the use of tear gas, the lawsuit says.
“Numerous videos demonstrate that these statements were patently false,” the six plaintiffs, described in the case as peaceful protestors subject to police violence, contest.