CINCINNATI — Eleven people have filed a class action lawsuit naming the city of Cincinnati, Hamilton County and several current and former officials. The lawsuit alleges the defendants named violated protesters' First Amendment rights in 2020.
In 2020, Cincinnatians flooded downtown streets to protest the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. On May 29,what started as peaceful protests during the day dissolved after dark to pockets of disruption that resulted in damaged businesses and broken windows. Police arrested 11 people that night.
In reaction, then-Mayor John Cranleyannounced a 10 p.m. curfew specifically for Downtown, Over-The-Rhine, the West End and the Banks neighborhoods on May 30.
That night, protesters again remained peaceful until late into the night, when crowds flowed up from neighborhoods that were under curfews into Clifton Heights. Front windows were broken at businesses on West McMillan Street and a Cincinnati police officer barely escaped a bullet, which hit the officer's ballistic helmet while police worked to disperse what they called a "disorderly crowd." The officer was not hurt.
The following day, May 31, Cranley announced a city-wide 9 p.m. curfew on May 31; Cranley moved the curfew up to 8 p.m. the very next day, on June 1.
In the days that followed, hundreds of people were arrested for curfew violation, despite protests remaining peaceful every day following the damage done on the first two days of protests.
"The City of Cincinnati and Hamilton County responded in a manner reflective of precisely the deeply-rooted problems that were challenged by the protesters," reads the lawsuit.
Many protesters were held in the sally port at the Hamilton County Justice Center after cells inside filled, and protesters claimed they were left outside through the night without food or water. Protesters were all also formally charged, though over the span of the year charges were dropped against nearly all of them.
The lawsuit, filed by 11 people who were all residents of Cincinnati at the time of the protests in 2020, names former Mayor John Cranley, former city manager Patrick Duhaney, former Cincinnati police chief Eliot Isaac, former Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil and several specific police officers as defendants, in addition to the city and county.
"Officers, who often wore no badges or body cameras to identify themselves or record their misconduct, engaged in indiscriminate acts of violence and uses of force, and then corralled and trapped protesters, would not let them leave, and took them into custody," reads the lawsuit.
Cranley's curfew was unconstitutional, alleges the lawsuit, and led to unlawful imprisonment of protesters exercising their First Amendment rights to peacefully protest. The suit alleges that Cranley's first emergency order establishing the 10 p.m. curfew for certain neighborhoods was "unconstitutionally vague and left people in Cincinnati to guess whether the curfew applied to them."
Cranley's order had stated the curfew did not apply to "health care professionals, essential workers and people experiencing homelessness" without defining any of those terms. The lawsuit points out that, during 2020, the word "essential" was used broadly in orders and often encompassed a broad range of activities and people.
The lawsuit goes on to allege that, while Cranley, Isaac and Duhaney publicly presented that emergency order to the city, a second internal order was circulating which added the neighborhood of Pendleton to the curfew enforcement list. Pendleton was never announced to the public as a neighborhood under curfew and the suit alleges people were arrested for curfew violation despite this.
In the days that followed the curfew announcements, officers frequently fired tear gas, bean bag rounds, flash bang grenades and 40 millimeter rounds against protesters even while protests remained peaceful. Officers' use of force resulted in injuries suffered by the plaintiffs and were indiscriminate and without appropriate individualized probable cause, the suit says.
The suit also says officers also used a process called kettling against protesters, a tactic in which officers confine a group to a designated space by surrounding them on all sides.
"Kettling leads to the unlawful seizure of people without a reasonable basis, creates panic, elevates tensions and chills speech," reads the lawsuit. "John Doe officers clad in riot gear with shields kettled protesters and blocked streets and means of departure for protesters at least 22 minutes prior to the start of the curfew period."
The suit goes on to claim officers used kettling to keep protesters from leaving the area, forcing them to violate curfew and, in some cases, detaining them before the curfew had begun.
"The city and county's ruthless misconduct and abuse chilled the speech of protesters and infringed on the rights of protesters, journalists and bystanders to be free from unreasonable seizures and use of force," the lawsuit reads.
The lawsuit alleges the city and county confined protesters who were wrongfully arrested in "abhorrent conditions" for hours on buses or outdoors in the cold, denying them access to food, blankets, shelter, medications or adequate clothing. Officers removed protesters' masks and kept them held in tight quarters during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lawsuit claims.
"During the ten days of the curfew, the city arrested more than 500 people who committed no illegal act, on the basis that they were physically present outdoors during allegedly restricted hours," the lawsuit reads.
It also alleges that, although the curfew was extended to cover the entire city of Cincinnati, arrests were still focused in neighborhoods where protests happened.
"The curfew went essentially unenforced in most of the city, while the areas that had seen protests experienced the equivalent of martial law," the lawsuit reads.
Plaintiffs in the case, as a result of being denied their constitutional rights, suffered damages "including but not limited to mental and emotional distress, physical injuries and bodily harm, pain, fear, humiliation, embarrassment, discomfort and anxiety and other damages," the lawsuit says.