LGBTQ activists sue Georgia Capitol police over arrests

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Two LGBTQ activists joined a state senator and others in a federal lawsuit over their arrests during a protest at the Georgia State Capitol.

The lawsuit against a dozen officers from the Georgia Department of Public Safety alleged that the law used to arrest 15 people during the 2018 protest is unconstitutional. The activists also claimed that jailers mistreated them.

Mary Hooks, Devin-Barrington-Ward, state Sen. Nikema Williams and seven others filed the suit in September in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

Barrington-Ward, a queer HIV activist and founder of the Black Futurists Group, said the officers worked in conjunction with Gov. Brian Kemp “to suppress the voices” of the protesters at the 2018 event. The demonstration urged the Georgia Secretary of State’s office to count all votes in the state’s hotly contested gubernatorial election.

“As an advocate who fights for justice in environments like the Georgia State Capitol as a former chief of staff and current community organizer, my involvement in this lawsuit is a signal to the state government that the intimidation of people like me who protest government corruption and voter suppression must stop,” Barrington-Ward told Project Q Atlanta.

“We cannot continue to allow the state police to be a tool of state leaders like Brian Kemp to suppress civil disobedience responding to their wrongdoings against our community,” he added.

Hooks, the lesbian co-director of Southerners on New Ground, said she joined the lawsuit because “fascism is on the rise.”

“An indication of this is when we see the over-policing of oppressed people in the attempt to suppress the very thing that continues to drag America to be the democracy it claims to be: dissent,” Hooks said.

“The ability of everyday people to express dissent is necessary and crucial, and when those who are sanctioned by the state to see it as a threat versus an opportunity to widen the democratic discourse, then we have no choice but to hold them accountable for forgetting that they too benefit from the legacy of resistance and dissent that has challenged this country to live up to the democracy it claims to be,” she added.

Ari Willis, a transgender former journalist, was also arrested during the protest but did not take part in the lawsuit.

The Georgia State Capitol on Washington Street in downtown Atlanta. (Photo by Matt Hennie)

‘Pain and suffering, humiliation and fear’

The officers’ actions were an “unlawful arrest without arguable probable cause and in retaliation for [plaintiffs’] protected speech activity,” according to the lawsuit.

The protesters faced a misdemeanor charge of disrupting a General Assembly session. That law violates the First Amendment because it requires no proof of intent to disrupt nor proof that disruption even took place, according to the lawsuit. Williams also faced a charge of resisting arrest.

“Any reasonable officer would have known that plaintiffs’ speech activity could not have disrupted the Georgia House of Representatives based on the layout of the Capitol, the fact that similar speech activity was routinely permitted because it did not interfere with any session, and the fact that any inquiry by the defendants of the chambers at the Georgia State Capitol would have revealed that all active sessions were in fact proceeding without incident,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit alleges that several hours in restraints injured Barrington-Ward, causing him to undergo “dozens” of chiropractic treatments. Jailers also strip-searched plaintiffs, held them for 10 hours without food or water, and subjected them to long waits without a bathroom, according to the lawsuit.

“As a result of their unlawful seizures, plaintiffs suffered deprivations of liberty, lost the ability to exercise First Amendment rights, and experienced pain and suffering, humiliation and fear,” the suit said.

Charges dropped, allegations remain

The state dismissed all charges against the group in 2019. A spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Public Safety told WABE that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Plaintiffs want to bar enforcement of the law used to arrest them. The lawsuit also seeks monetary damages and attorneys’ fees. State Rep. David Dreyer, an Atlanta Democrat, represents Williams and Barrington-Ward in the suit.

Williams represents a state Senate district that includes large portions of Atlanta. She is heavily favored to win the 5th Congressional District election in November. U.S. Rep. John Lewis held the seat until his death in July. Williams is also chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

Barrington-Ward ran in the Democratic primary for state Senate District 38 in May, placing third out of four.

This post has been updated to add comments from Mary Hooks.

This story is made possible by a grant from Google News Initiative’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.

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