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Jayland Walker protesters file lawsuit against city of Akron claiming unlawful arrests

Jayland Walker demonstrators carry a Black Lives Matter flag as they march down Akron's Main Street.
Kabir Bhatia
Ideastream Public Media
Jayland Walker demonstrators march down Akron's Main Street on July 5, 2022. Several protesters are suing the city, Mayor Dan Horrigan and Akron police officers claiming violation of constitutional rights.

Protesters have filed a lawsuit against the city of Akron, Mayor Dan Horrigan and Akron police officers over mass arrests following last July’s protest of the police killing of Jayland Walker. Plaintiffs include people who weren’t even protesting.

"The response from Akron was frankly striking in how oppressive their response was to these protests," said Sarah Gelsomino, a partner with the law firm that filed the suit.

Cortez Rice, a national activist and plaintiff in the case, said although he thinks the way Akron police acted was shocking, he also expected it.

"It was bananas, but, to be honest, this is what's happening across the country," he said.

Rice said it was clear to him the police had no other intentions.

"They were out there to violate our rights, literally," Rice said.

Fellow national activist and plaintiff Michael Harris, who goes by Activists Pressure, said he'd never experienced brutality like what Akron police officers did.

"I've never encountered being aggressively attacked by the officers like we got attacked that day," Harris said.

He agreed with Rice that the officers did not intend to peacefully disperse the crowd.

"My encounter with them, they were very disrespectful. They wasn't respectful," Harris said. "They wasn't being serving and protecting us. They were being violent and the agitators of it all."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 24 plaintiffs and alleges infringement on protesters' rights by Akron police officers between July 3 and 7 of last year.

"At the core, this is a civil rights lawsuit about false arrest, malicious prosecution and unlawful uses of force against these protesters and also a violation of their First Amendment right," Gelsomino said.

The unlawful use of force pertains to the use of pepper spray and other violence by police officers, Gelsomino said.

"Many of these people were subjected to pepper spray and other kinds of chemical weapons without any legal justification when they didn't present any kind of threat — when there was no legitimate purpose or justification to use them," she said. "some of our plaintiffs were actually beaten by police."

Rice said he was maced by Akron police and witnessed officers brutalize fellow activists Harris and Jacob Blake Sr.

"I get close, and I see Michael Harris getting punched on by an officer," Rice recalled. "Then they slammed Jacob Black Sr. to the ground."

Harris said he was also punched by an Akron police officer. Then he said he spent three days in jail and was not given food or medical attention for 24 hours before being found not guilty of misdemeanor rioting and disorderly conduct.

“It was crazy. My life flashed before my eyes that night," Harris said. "I don’t compare myself as a Rodney King, but I look at it as similar.”

King was beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991. The officers’ subsequent acquittal sparked the Los Angeles riots the following year.

Several of the plaintiffs in the recently filed case were protesting the killing of Jayland Walker, who was shot just days before the demonstrations by eight Akron police officers. But many people who were arrested just happened to be Downtown, Gelsomino said.

“One of our plaintiffs is a student who was doing a summer program at the University of Akron, trying to get back to her dorm. She was arrested," Gelsomino said. "People who were going out to dinner were arrested, and then other people who were engaged in protest activity, in protected free speech and expression, were also arrested.”

Many protesters were trying to leave the area when they were arrested, Gelsomino said.

“A lot of people actually were trying to get to their cars, and police officers and police vehicles had blocked their cars in," Gelsomino said. "So they couldn’t get out.”

Harris said he believes the police were planning mass arrests.

"They did not come in full tactical gear. They did not come with the tear guns they had," Harris said. "They came with zip ties and cuffs. They came to arrest everybody."

Additionally, the suit claims the police reports and the charges brought against the protesters were riddled with inaccuracies.

"They say that individuals were arrested at times and places where they actually were not arrested by officers who were not there," Gelsomino said.

The suit further alleges that the curfew the city instituted and was used to justify the mass arrests was unlawful.

"Thirteen minutes after it was signed, it apparently went into effect," Gelsomino said, "and people were just rounded up off the streets without any warning or any opportunity to disperse."

The curfew was also too broad and therefore unconstitutional, Gelsomino said.

Many protesters who were arrested were held for several days, she said, adding that this is a tactic to stop protests.

"Police keep individuals in custody longer in order to prevent them from coming back out into the streets and also to chill other people's First Amendment free speech rights," Gelsomino said.

The lawsuit is seeking an injunction against the police department’s alleged unlawful practices.

Rice hopes it will bring change to the police department’s policies.

“We want something done and changed in that city and that state, where they cannot just run up on peaceful protesters... macing people and zip tying people and riding around with people in the vans and jumping into people’s vehicles," Rice said.

The plaintiffs are seeking monetary damages to be determined by a court or a jury, Gelsomino added.

No money can undo the trauma and pain the Akron police caused, Harris said.

"What it can do is hopefully prevent this from happening to somebody else," Harris said.

The nation's problem with policing is killing Black and brown people, Rice said.

"We're dying by the hands of police because they want to be the judge, the jury and the executioner," Rice said.

Community leaders say 85% of criminal charges against protesters were either dropped or ended in acquittal.

"Really they were going to be wasting taxpayer dollars," Rice said. "This is absurd."

The Walker family filed a separate lawsuit against the city and police department earlier this month.

In a statement, the city said it doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.