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Lawsuit accuses B.R. councilman of violating activists’ 1st Amendment rights

11th December 2017   ·   0 Comments

A federal lawsuit filed Monday, Dec. 4, accuses Baton Rouge Metro Councilman Scott Wilson of violating the First Amendment rights of several Black community activists by having them forcibly removed from a public meeting earlier this year about the officer-involved killing of 37-year-old Alton Sterling which occurred on July 5, 2016.

Wilson reportedly ordered police to remove the activists when they tried to speak at the May 10 meeting, sparking outrage from the audience and adding to the Black community’s distrust of the Baton Rouge Police Department in the wake of the shooting.

Sterling, the father of five, was shot at point-blank range by a Baton Rouge cop after he was wrestled to the ground by the officer and his partner. The shooting victim was selling mixtape CDs outside a convenience store owned by his friend in South Baton Rouge when he was approached by the two cops and eventually killed.

In the wake of the Alton Sterling shooting and another officer-involved killing of Philando Castille near Minneapolis a day later, national protests were held and five law enforcement officers were killed in Dallas, Texas and three others were slain in Baton Rouge.

An estimated 200 people were arrested during the Baton Rouge protests during which cops donned riot gear and aggressively rounded up those who participated. Although police based their gear and tactics on reports of an impending attack on law enforcement, those tactics ultimately led to a class-action settlement of claims that cops violated the protesters’ civil rights and used excessive force.

The lawsuit filed last week contends that Baton Rouge has a long history of suppressing “Black voices” that was evident at the May 10 meeting, which took place after the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would not file federal charges against the two officers involved in the Alton Sterling killing.

The Associated Press reported that one of the three plaintiffs, Gary Chambers, was arrested on charges of disturbing the peace and resisting arrest.

William Most, Chambers’ attorney, said his client was handcuffed, taken into custody and released the same day but the criminal charges against him remain unresolved.

“The message to Baton Rouge’s Black community is clear. If you speak out on the streets, you will be removed and arrested. If you speak out on private property, you will be removed and arrested. And if you speak out in the Metro Council chamber, you will be removed and arrested,” the lawsuit says.

Wilson, who serves as president of the Baton Rouge Metro Council, didn’t immediately respond to a phone call and email seeking comment, The Associated Press reported.

The AP reported that Wilson had invited public comments on a settlement over damage from a sewer backup when Michael McClanahan, president of the NAACP’s Baton Rouge branch, approached a podium to speak. Wilson ordered police officers to remove McClanahan from the meeting immediately after he mentioned Sterling’s name, the suit says.

McClanahan and Eugene Collins are the other plaintiffs suing Wilson and the city of Baton Rouge over their removal. Three others were removed as well.

“These six citizens were not loud. They were not disruptive. But they all had something in common – they were there to talk about the police killing of Alton Sterling and their criticism of the Baton Rouge Police Department,” the suit says.

The suit is asking the court to rule that Wilson violated the First Amendment in ordering their removal, and seeks a “reasonable” award for attorneys’ fees and costs.

After the U.S. Department of Justice indicated that it would not file federal charges against the two officers involved in the shooting, East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore recused himself from the case because of a connection to one of the officers. The case then fell to Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office, which has been reviewing evidence to determine whether any state criminal charges are warranted.

Lawyers for the family of Alton Sterling have asked the state AG to allow them and members of the family to view the video footage handed over to the State Attorney General’s Office from DOJ officials earlier this year so that they could move forward with several wrongful-death civil lawsuits against the City of Baton Rouge but those requests have fallen on deaf ears.

Abdullah Muflahi, the owner of the Triple S Food Mart where the shooting took place, has also filed a civil lawsuit against the BRPD. Muflahi alleges that Baton Rouge police arrested him without a warrant and detained him for six hours, forced him to sit in a hot police car in July, forced him to urinate on the side of his store rather than allow him inside to use the restroom, illegally confiscated his complete security camera system and illegally confiscated his cellphone.

This article originally published in the December 11, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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