Five protesters who attended a June 1 protest where Richmond police officers deployed tear gas at the Robert E. Lee monument are suing the officers for their actions.
The class action lawsuit, filed in federal court Tuesday afternoon, seeks undisclosed monetary damages for violating the protesters’ First Amendment, Fourth Amendment and 14th Amendment rights and for assault, battery and gross negligence.
The plaintiffs are Richmond residents Jarrod and Megan Blackwood, Ryan Tagg, Christopher Gayler and Keenan Angel. They are being represented by Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, a law firm that handles personal injury and civil rights claims. The plaintiffs are suing individually and “on behalf of a class of similarly situated individuals,” meaning anyone who was at the June 1 protest.
The defendants are the police officers, who have not yet been identified, who participated in, encouraged or authorized the attack on protesters.
“We have not specified an amount that we’re asking for. We believe it’s more appropriate to focus on the wrongful nature of the conduct rather than just the number we would list in the complaint,” said Andrew T. Bodoh, one of the firm’s attorneys, in an interview Tuesday.
The police department on Wednesday said the agency does not respond to questions about active lawsuits.
On June 1, Richmond police officers tear-gassed kneeling demonstrators at the foot of the Lee statue 20 minutes ahead of the-then 8 p.m. city curfew. The police department tweeted an apology nearly two hours later that called the gassing “unwarranted action.”
Mayor Levar Stoney and Police Chief William Smith, who was forced to resign Tuesday, apologized the next day and promised to discipline the officers.
“It should not have happened,” Stoney told an angry crowd that had gathered at City Hall on June 2.
The suit claims police tried to encourage violence by peaceful protesters when they formed a “skirmish line” around Lee Circle and “assumed aggressive shooting stances, and trained their rifles or sidearms in the assembly, causing many in the peaceful assembly that witnessed this to fear these armed individuals were about to fire upon them.”
“At no time prior to the ambush was the assembly at the Lee Circle violent, there was no property destruction or any attempts to deface, destroy, damage the memorial or other public or private property,” the suit states.
Three plaintiffs — Tagg, Gayler and Angel — were tear-gassed, while the Blackwoods, who are married, were not, the suit alleges. The Blackwoods represent other protesters who may have left unscathed but witnessed police pointing guns and deploying tear gas.
Tagg, who also was pepper-sprayed, stumbled across the street to get away from the officers, the suit alleges.
Before being pepper-sprayed at close range, Tagg’s eyes and mouth began to burn from the tear gas, resulting in him saying to nearby officers “I am leaving. Don’t shoot me,” the suit states. An officer then jogged toward Tagg and sprayed pepper spray in his face at close range, the suit claims.
Next steps include identifying the unnamed officers, as the suit is directed at the individual officers and not the police department as a whole, Bodoh said.
If Richmond police do not provide the names willingly, the law firm will ask the court to issue subpoenas and possibly dispositions to identify the officers, Bodoh said.
“We want to hear the officers’ side of the story,” he said. “Why they think they were justified for the conduct that they did.”
Earlier in June, Thomas H. Roberts & Associates filed a civil lawsuit against unidentified officers on behalf of Jonathan Arthur, an attorney with the firm. Arthur, who attended the June 1 protest, was tear-gassed twice, according to the civil suit.
At this time, the two cases remain separate, but they may be joined together, Bodoh said.
Stoney announced Tuesday that he had asked for the police chief’s resignation, three days after another incident at the Lee monument in which an officer driving a department SUV struck protesters blocking his path.
Police deployed tear gas again Sunday and Monday nights at protesters who were gathered at police department headquarters. Police said they were attacked before using the tear gas, a claim disputed by protesters.
This story has been updated to include a response from the Richmond Police Department.