The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives citizens a fundamental right to peacefully assemble and protest. Over the past several months, scores of people have attempted to exercise this right, which has resulted in an often confusing mix of crackdowns that seem to test the limits of the Constitution.
Minnesota police reform
The death of George Floyd at the hands of police on May 25 served as a rallying point for action in Minnesota and across the country. Floyd’s death spurred a wave of protests calling for widespread police reform to combat systemic racial inequality and police brutality.
Peaceful protests were accompanied by forceful and tense standoffs between protestors and police:
- Between May 27 and 29, Minneapolis sustained hundreds of millions of dollars in damage from looting and rioting, including the destruction of one of the city’s police precincts.
- On May 28, Minnesota Governor Tim Waltz mobilized more than 7,100 soldiers in the state’s national guard, the largest deployment since World War II.
- By June 19, the violence in the Twin Cities resulted in two fatalities, over 600 arrests, and more than $500 million in damage.
Peaceful demonstrations for police reform have continued and that call was answered less than a month later.
The Minnesota legislature overwhelmingly approved a sweeping police accountability bill, which was signed into law by the governor on July 23. Among the law’s provisions are:
- Bans on warrior-style police training.
- Police arbitration reform.
- Restrictions on the use of chokeholds.
The bill also requires police to intervene and report when they witness the excessive use of force and revises the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) use-of-force policy.
In the meantime, four injured protestors proposed a class-action lawsuit on July 27, alleging that state troopers and police used less-lethal weapons on them without giving notice of an order to disperse. The lawsuit asserts claims of First Amendment retaliation as well as excessive force, unlawful seizure, and violation of due process rights.
Federal detainment in Portland
Portland, Oregon has an extensive history of protests and street activism. Even though most demonstrators remain peaceful, The Oregonian reports that the city gets national spotlight attention thanks to an overzealous few that push boundaries.
Beginning in May, daily demonstrations began in the city in response to the police killing of George Floyd. Some protests involved heated confrontations with police, and the city’s mayor declared a state of emergency on May 29, shortly after protests caused damage to the Multnomah County Justice Center.
In early July, the Department of Homeland Security sent federal law enforcement officers from more than half a dozen agencies to Portland to “protect federal property”:
- The first federal arrest took place on July 2.
- On July 11, federal agents shot a peaceful protestor in the head with a projectile. The protestor, Donavan LaBella, had to undergo facial reconstructive surgery.
- Videos and multiple reports show heavily armed and unidentified officers stepping out of unmarked vans and forcibly detaining demonstrators on the streets of Portland.
Even though federal agents have a legal right to protect federal property, federal activities taking place in Portland go well beyond this scope. In many cases, the protestors weren’t anywhere near a federal courthouse and haven’t clearly violated any laws.
No one on the local or state level requested this type of assistance. Several lawsuits have been filed challenging the right of the federal government to take a role in local police matters:
- The Oregon Attorney General is suing on behalf of the state to stop federal agents from violating the Constitutional rights of its citizens.
- Protestors are suing, focusing on the 10th Amendment, claiming that except where spelled out in the Constitution, all other powers are reserved for states and citizens.
- There have also been lawsuits filed by members of the press and medics alleging targeted attacks by federal forces.
The disbanding of CHOP in Seattle
In response to the escalating George Floyd protests, a self-declared autonomous zone for protestors was formed in Seattle in early June. Known as the Capital Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), or the Capital Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), the zone originally covered six city blocks and a park.
The mayor likened the area to a “block party,” and USA Today confirmed a festive environment in the area. But things became more charged in the following weeks as the area continued to shrink in size and take a toll on local businesses:
- A group of Capitol Hill businesses filed a class-action lawsuit against the city of Seattle in June, alleging “extensive harm” due to CHOP. The suit claims that the city closed off the neighborhood from customers as well as essential services like police, fire, and emergency medical services.
- By the end of June, there had been four shootings in CHOP, and the mayor issued an executive order to have the area disbanded on July 1. The mother of one of the shooting victims has sued the city, stating the police department had no plan for dealing with trouble in the zone.
Following the closure of the zone, protests have continued on the streets of Seattle.
In response to recent civil unrest and protests, Avvo has developed a resource page, Protest Injustice, to provide guidance to legal consumers on protestors’ rights. You’ll find answers to your questions regarding your right to protest as well as attorneys offering their services pro bono.