It is a sad day in this country when a federal judge has to order a police department not to inflict pain on nonviolent protesters as a means “to punish or deter” them, but that is exactly what an Ohio judge had to do after Columbus police went on a months-long rampage against demonstrators. Judge Algenon Marbley of the Southern District of Ohio ordered the Columbus Police Department on Friday to stop using tear gas, police batons, flash grenades, pepper spray, and the like on nonviolent protesters, according to an order earlier featured on NPR. In the introduction to his 88-page opinion, Marbley quoted a reference from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: “But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights.”
Marbley called the principle a “bedrock” of American democracy. “Unfortunately, some of the members of the Columbus Police Department (CPD) had no regard for the rights secured by this bedrock principle of American democracy,” the judge wrote. “This case is the sad tale of police officers, clothed with the awesome power of the state, run amok.”
Marbley listed that the police department is banned from using “non-lethal force, including tear gas, pepper spray, flash-bang grenades, rubber bullets, wooden pellets, batons, body slams, pushing or pulling, or kettling, on nonviolent protestors to enforce dispersal orders, traffic laws, such as clearing the streets or sidewalks, and/or misdemeanors, that were not committed with actual or imminently threatened physical harm or property destruction.”
The judge’s order follows repeated protests calling for justice after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man whom former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered when he kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. “Multiple witnesses testified to their physical and emotional injuries suffered at the hands of CPD officers while exercising their fundamental rights to assemble and protest,” Marbley wrote. The case involved 26 plaintiffs, who said apart from “assembling, chanting, or holding signs in the middle of streets or other locations that Columbus police officers wanted them to abandon” they “were not violating any laws, threatening violence, destroying any property, or hampering traffic.”
Marbley wrote: “Rather than responding appropriately to an isolated incident—such as a protestor throwing a water bottle—Plaintiffs allege that officers engaged in collective punishment by indiscriminately pepper-spraying, tear-gassing, or shooting wooden bullets at a group of obviously different protestors who had not engaged in any such conduct; and, what is more, sometimes failed to give audible warnings or adequate time to disperse before resorting to less-lethal force.”
In one case NPR highlighted, a demonstrator’s knee was shattered “into many little pieces” and he was immobilized for five months when police lodged a projectile at him at the same time they gave a dispersal order shown on video. He can “no longer can walk more than a half-mile without significant pain,” Marbley wrote.
Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther penned a letter WBNS-TV obtained asking the Justice Department to investigate the police department on Tuesday. “This is not about one particular officer, policy, or incident; rather, this is about reforming the entire institution of policing in Columbus,” Ginther and City Attorney Zach Klein said in the letter. “Simply put: We need to change the culture of the Columbus Division of Police.”
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