A federal judge on Monday denied a motion to dismiss a civil rights lawsuit brought by four people who accused three Boston police officers of using excessive force against them while clearing crowds during a 2020 protest.
The lawsuit claims that officers Michael Burke, Edward Nolan, and Michael McManus violated the protesters’ civil rights when they struck them with their batons, and ran into one man — a veteran with disabilities — with a police bike.
The incidents happened on May 31, 2020, when the protesters were headed home from a march at the Boston Common protesting the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis one week earlier. None of the protesters committed a crime or were arrested during the protest and were all acting peacefully when they were approached by the officers, according to the lawsuit. Their allegations are bolstered by police body camera footage that was posted online and included in the civil complaint.
One of the plaintiffs, Justin Ackers said he was riding his moped home from the protest down Tremont Street when Burke used both hands to hit him from behind with a wooden baton, knocking him off his vehicle, according to the complaint. Later that night, Burke also allegedly struck Jasmine Huffman with his baton near the Park Street MBTA station, even though she had put her hands up when she saw officers approaching, the complaint said.
Huffman said Burke knocked her to the ground, and several other police officers proceeded to step on her hands as they walked over her.
Another plaintiff, Caitlyn Hall, also had her hands up when she was allegedly struck in the face by Nolan’s baton, according to the complaint. Nolan also repeatedly hit another man in the head who was filming the incident, and when Hall tried to shield him from the blows with her arms, Nolan knocked her unconscious, the complaint stated. Hall woke up on the ground and tried to show Nolan her injuries, but he hit her again in the chest and then in the back as she tried to get away. Hall needed stitches on her face after the incident, court records show.
Benjamin Chambers-Maher, who described himself as a veteran with disabilities, said he was walking back to his car after the protest when McManus approached him while pointing a weapon. Chambers-Maher began backing away when McManus pepper-sprayed him in the face, called him names, and hit him with a police bike, he alleged. Chambers-Maher was temporarily blinded, according to court documents, and bruised on his head and leg.
The protesters also allege that the police commissioner at the time, William Gross, knew officers had improperly and indiscriminately used force against non-violent protesters during an earlier rally on May 29, but “did not take any steps to ensure the department would have a better, lawful plan to deal with future demonstrations.”
Gross deviated from the city’s usual response to protests and “supplied officers with long, wooden riot batons and expressly permitted officers to use batons to strike people without cause,” the complaint alleged.
A police department spokesman declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
The city and the police officers filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit that does not contest the claims of violence, but claims Burke, Nolan, and McManus were unaware the four individuals were protestors when they hit them. But in her decision, US District Judge Allison Burroughs wrote that this argument “strains credulity,” saying “the physical force used by each Officer Defendant easily clears th[e] hurdle” of infringing on their First Amendment rights.
“Courts around the country ... have agreed that the use of force against non-violent protestors [indicate] that officers meant to intimidate protestors and deter antipolice messaging,” she wrote. “Put simply, the Officer Defendants’ argument that they could not have known that the Plaintiffs participated in the protest is untenable.”
The lawsuit now enters the discovery phase, with the first trial date to be announced in the coming weeks.