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$1.6 MIllion to Go to Protesters at 2017 Inauguration

May 3, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
Demonstrators march near a inaugural security checkpoint entrance, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017 in Washington, ahead of President-elect Donald Trump's inauguration. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

WASHINGTON – The District of Columbia government this week agreed to pay $1.6 million to settle two lawsuits by protesters during the January 2017 presidential inauguration of Donald Trump.

In one of the lawsuits, six demonstrators represented by the ACLU of the District of Columbia will split $605,000 after D.C. police rounded them up during a sweep to stop vandals near the site of the inauguration ceremony.

Their lawsuit alleged violations of the First, Fourth and Fifth amendments by the indiscriminate way protesters were selected for arrest. The persons arrested included a photojournalist and a legal observer, both of whom were doing their jobs, not protesting.

The D.C. government agreed to pay $995,000 to settle a class action lawsuit for about 200 others who say they were falsely arrested. Police held them for as much as 16 hours without food, water or restroom access, according to their lawsuit.

The class action settlement awaits a federal judge’s approval.

Police arrested a total of 234 people during the Inauguration Day protests near Franklin Square at 12th and L streets NW. The U.S. Attorney for District of Columbia called the inauguration protests a “violent riot.”

In addition to breaking windows, the protesters set fires and tried to interrupt Trump’s oath. The damage was estimated at $100,000 over a 16-block area.

The only convictions were 21 defendants who pleaded guilty before trial. Charges against all the others were dropped after prosecutors were unable to definitively link most defendants to specific acts of vandalism.

As part of the settlements, police agreed to modify their mass arrest policies. The new policies require police to assign identification numbers on wristbands for each detainee, put their personal possessions in bags and take photos of each defendant along with the arresting officers.

They also must provide arrestees with water and restroom access.

Another part of the settlement would limit police to rolling stingballs on the ground instead of throwing them in the air, except in extreme circumstances. Stingballs release smoke, rubber pellets and chemical irritants.

“MPD’s unconstitutional guilt-by-association policing and excessive force, including the use of chemical weapons, not only injured our clients physically but also chilled their speech and the speech of countless others who wished to exercise their First Amendment rights but feared an unwarranted assault by D.C. police,” ACLU-DC Legal Director Scott Michelman said in a statement.

City officials declined to comment on the lawsuit other than a brief statement by Mayor Muriel Bowser at a regular press conference.

“We settled the matter,” Bowser said.

The D.C. attorney general’s office agreed as part of the settlements to allow expungement of the plaintiffs’ arrest records.

The D.C. attorneys said they wanted to be included in any law enforcement joint command centers for future mass demonstrations to reduce risks of civil rights violations.

The ACLU statement included a description of the Jan. 20, 2017, violence by North Carolina resident Gwen Frisbie-Fulton, a plaintiff in the case.

“I came with my son, then 10 years old, to the nation’s capital on Inauguration Day 2017 to exercise my constitutional rights and teach him about the power of protest,” she said. “Because of the wanton and brutal conduct of the D.C. police, we ended up fleeing through a cloud of pepper spray for doing nothing but chanting and holding signs. So the real lesson in how our Constitution works had to be this lawsuit, showing that there can be consequences when law enforcement abuses its power.”

She said police pepper-sprayed protesters with “super soakers” and knocked her son to the ground.

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