Dozens of Philly Protesters Just Sued the City Over the Use of Tear Gas on I-676

Meanwhile, a separate suit was simultaneously filed by residents and protesters in West Philly surrounding police activity at a protest there.

philadelphia police tear gas lawsuit protesters

The Philadelphia Police Department using tear gas against protesters along I-676 on June 1st. (Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

The City of Philadelphia and scores of Philly police officers are defendants in two simultaneously filed federal lawsuits over the use of tear gas and rubber bullets in the city during the George Floyd protests. A third lawsuit is expected to be filed soon.

The one suit is centered around the incident that received the most publicity: the protest on I-676 on June 1st. On that day, the Philadelphia Police Department deployed tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters who had marched onto the roadway. Forty-one of those protesters have filed suit against the city and as-yet-unidentified cops, who were listed as “John Does” pending identification.

“Through their use of tear gas and other harmful devices, and their positioning of personnel, officers closed off exit points, pinning hundreds of demonstrators onto a steep grassy, fenced-in embankment on the north side of the highway,” reads the suit. “As demonstrators were trapped on that embankment, officers continued to fire tear gas canisters and other harmful munitions at them, leaving them trapped in a suffocating cloud of smoke and gas. Video recordings made by people at the scene were rapidly posted to social media platforms showing protesters overcome by the gas, screaming — in a disturbing echo of George Floyd’s last words — ‘I can’t breathe.'”

The suit cites the scathing New York Times investigation into the I-676 incident, which determined that police used tear gas on protesters who were behaving peacefully.

The plaintiffs in that suit range in age from 18 to 41 years old and all live in the Philadelphia region.

“This is my fault and this is your fault, white people,” 41-year-old plaintiff Beth Eisenberg told Philly Mag when reached for comment about the suit. “I used my privilege to opt out of this fight against racism and police brutality because it’s not happening to me. For that, I have been complicit. I believe things can and will change … The power of the people is more potent than the people in power. Fuck this shit. I’d get tear gassed every fucking day if it meant that the police would be defunded and our communities would be funded.”

The plaintiffs accuse the city and cops of unreasonable use of force and retaliation against free expression, among other civil rights violations. The suit, filed by Center City attorneys David Rudovsky, Paul Messing, Jonathan Feinberg, and Susan Lin, seeks unspecified damages.

The other suit in question surrounds the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on 52nd Street in West Philadelphia the day before the I-676 incident. On May 31st, protesters took to the streets in that neighborhood, and there were also isolated reports of looting in the area.

“The PPD arrived en masse in armored vehicles, in response to limited reports of isolated looting, and without provocation repeatedly unleashed a variety of dangerous military style munitions, including rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray, against protesters, residents and bystanders throughout the neighborhood,” reads the complaint. “This dangerous force was not limited to the stores, or even the street, where the looting had allegedly occurred. Rather, PPD officers, outfitted in full body armor, went up and down residential streets in the neighborhood, launching tear gas canisters and firing rubber bullets at residents and passersby who were doing nothing more than sitting on their porches or walking home from work, causing residents — including elderly residents and children — to seek shelter at home or wherever they could nearby. Many residents were seriously injured, requiring medical treatment and in some cases hospitalization. Some residents had to evacuate their own homes due to the impact of tear gas entering through windows or under doorways.”

The 13 plaintiffs in the suit include both protesters and residents in the neighborhood who were not involved in the protest.

One of those plaintiffs, 32-year-old Shahidah Mubarak-Hadi, says she was sitting in her home on 52nd Street that day with her two sons, who are three and six years old.

“Some of the windows of the home were open,” the suit states. “Suddenly, her youngest son began crying, and her older son said to her that there was something in his eyes. Ms. Mubarak-Hadi noticed that there was tear gas coming through the windows. An asthmatic, she had trouble breathing. Days later, she still had a persistent burning sensation in her chest, nostrils, and throat. She and her sons are deeply traumatized by the harm they experienced from police without warning and while they sat in the safety of their own home.”

Bedjy Jeanty, a 32-year-old resident of the neighborhood, says he was participating in a peaceful protest on 52nd Street that day when he heard police officers repeatedly refer to the Black people at the protest as “monkeys” and other racial slurs. He says that when he raised his fist in the air “to represent Black power,” he was shot with rubber bullets. Later, he says he was overcome by tear gas and also shot with pepper spray.

The suit accuses the city of violating various civil rights of the protesters and residents and seeks unspecified damages. The lawsuit was filed by the attorneys from the I-676 lawsuit in partnership with lawyers from both the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Abolitionist Law Center.

The city and the Philadelphia Police Department do not comment on pending litigation.