A JJIE reporter who was arrested covering the protests in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana last summer is one of 15 people suing the city and several law enforcement agencies for what court documents call “massive violation of constitutional rights.”
Karen Savage, a reporter for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, was on assignment covering the role young people were playing in the protests when she was handcuffed, thrown into a police van and forced to spend the night in prison. She was arrested along with another reporter and protesters who were swept up in what court documents describe as a militaristic crackdown.
“Officers swept in en masse violently grabbing people and throwing them to the ground,” according to the court documents. “In their frenzy, the officers arrested a mix of protesters, reporters, and legal observers.”
“I went to cover a protest and it turned into a militarized police attack on peaceful protesters, some as young as 17,” Savage said. “This lawsuit is important because this police department has a long history of violating the rights of the citizens it’s supposed to protect. And they need to be held accountable, and this police violence needs to end.”
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana on behalf of 13 protesters and two reporters.
“Armed officers in riot gear and gas masks, flanked by an armored vehicle and a military-grade acoustic weapon, descended on peaceful protestors who were standing on private property,” said William Most, an attorney for the plaintiffs, in a press release. “The police arresting you for speaking out against the police is the very thing the First Amendment is supposed to prevent.”
“Even though the peaceful protesters complied with law enforcement orders to clear the streets and sidewalks, officers crossed private property lines to tackle, ziptie, and wrongfully arrest them,” said John Adcock, another attorney for the plaintiffs. “This was an orchestrated attempt to suppress public speech through violence and misconduct.”
To Savage, the case is not about money, it’s about ending violent police tactics against Baton Rouge residents.
“For me as a reporter it was just one day. But the people of Baton Rouge shouldn’t have to live in fear of the police department that should be protecting them,” she said. “What is important is that the police are held accountable and never repeat the egregious display of violence that they unleashed on peaceful citizens. If money is the only way to do that, then fine. But this isn’t about money. It’s about no peaceful protester or journalist citizen have their rights violated like that again.”
Savage said the case is also an important challenge to an increased assault on the free press from the White House to local enforcement.
“The police were targeting people with cameras and people who were peacefully documenting what was happening,” she said. “During this era of Trump and the assault on a free press it is more important than ever that we stand up and protect our First Amendment rights. It is important that these officers are held accountable. They targeted people with cameras, and it is fundamental that they understand they can’t do this.”