September 21, 2010

PITTSBURGH - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of 25 people who were swept up in a mass arrest of demonstrators, observers, and passersby in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh hours after the G-20 Summit ended on September 25, 2009. The ACLU argues that police illegally disrupted a peaceful gathering and arrested people who were trying to obey a police order to disperse. The lawsuit alleges police used excessive force during the arrests, gratuitously squirting people with pepper spray and shooting them with pepper-ball bullets. Those arrested were held overnight in tight handcuffs, with some forced to sit outside for hours in the cold and rain in the prison courtyard.

"Police declarations that peaceful anti-government demonstrations are illegal and arrest of participants in the assembly are a hallmark of totalitarian regimes, a practice the U.S. rightfully decries when it happens in Iran or Russia," said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "Unfortunately, the same practice occurred in this country during last year's G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, and now occurs regularly at demonstrations involving national security events, like political conventions and international trade meetings," Walczak continued.

That evening the city of Pittsburgh deployed hundreds of police officers to Schenley Plaza, a public park in the middle of the University of Pittsburgh campus, after learning of plans for a demonstration in the plaza to protest the police's use of arrests, tear gas and rubber bullets in Oakland the night before. Without justification, the police ordered people assembled on the plaza to disperse and then funneled them onto the lawn of the Cathedral of Learning, where police surrounded about 100 people and then arrested them for failure to disperse and disorderly conduct. Among those corralled on the Cathedral lawn were 18 of the plaintiffs, including Casey Brander, who called 911 in a panic after she found herself encircled by police.

"The situation was very disorienting and scary," Brander said. "I didn't understand why the police were surrounding us without providing a way out."

Other plaintiffs were arrested for failure to disperse even though they were blocks away from the plaza. John Salgeuro was sitting on a planter on De Soto Street composing a text message when a police officer, without provocation, sprayed him in the face with pepper spray and arrested him. Kyle Kramer was walking home from a restaurant in South Oakland when police grabbed him, handcuffed him, and forced him to kneel in front of the squadron for a "trophy photo." Emily Harper and Max Kantar were tackled by police and arrested on Parkman Street, half a mile away from the plaza. Jason Munley was pelted with pepper balls that left enormous welts on his back and arrested on 5th Avenue for giving the middle finger to the police.

After their arrests, the plaintiffs, who include 11 undergraduates at the University of Pittsburgh and two at Carnegie Mellon University, were taken to SCI-Pittsburgh, where they were held overnight in handcuffs. Many of them were held on buses at the prison for up to five hours and denied access to bathroom facilities. Ben Tabas, who has diabetes, was denied access to his medication, requiring emergency treatment. John Salguero, who had been pepper-sprayed in the face and was in pain, was allowed to shower at the prison, but only while being videotaped by police. When he objected, he was threatened with being pepper-sprayed again. Several plaintiffs had personal possessions confiscated that were never returned.
Criminal charges against all of the plaintiffs were ultimately withdrawn or dismissed.

"For police to order people to disperse, physically prevent them from doing so, and then arrest them for failing to leave is an intolerable abuse of authority," said said Glen Downey of Healey & Hornack, P.C., who is also representing the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs are Galen Armstrong, Tim Barthelmes, Matt Bartko, Casey Brander, Anthony Brino, Shane Dunlap, Nicholas Halbert-Brooks, Emily Harper, Melissa Hill, Michael Jehn, Tom Judd, Max Kantar, Kyle Kramer, Gianni Label, Jason Munley, Joanne Ong, Jocelyn Petyak, Julie Pittman, Jordan Romanus, John Salguero, Tim Sallinger, Peter Shell, Maureen Smith, Ben Tabas, and William Tuttle.

They are represented by Mike Healey and Downey of the law firm Healey & Hornack; Jon Pushinsky; Jules Lobel of the Center for Constitutional Rights; and Walczak and Sara Rose of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. The case is Armstrong v. City of Pittsburgh and was filed this morning in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

More information, including profiles and photos of the ACLU's clients, can be found at: