Lawyers Allege Abuses By Inaugural Security
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2001; Page A08
Civil rights lawyers yesterday charged that District and federal police agencies used unconstitutional tactics against Inauguration Day demonstrators, including detaining hundreds before they reached the parade route and using "agents provocateurs" to disrupt protesters.
The lawyers from the Partnership for Civil Justice and the National Lawyers Guild also said members of the private Presidential Inaugural Committee, which coordinated the festivities, improperly took control of a security checkpoint to delay protesters from approaching Freedom Plaza, where they had a permit to rally.
"Federal and local law enforcement are presumptively treating demonstrators as if they are criminals . . . as if by their very existence they must be breaking laws, must be repressed, must be hemmed in, must be beaten," said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a lawyer with the Partnership for Civil Justice, a District-based public interest law firm. The Lawyers Guild is a coalition of civil rights lawyers.
The lawyers were preparing an amended complaint last night as part of a federal lawsuit filed before the Jan. 20 inauguration.
At a Jan. 19 hearing on that suit, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that the police security plan was constitutional, but she insisted that protesters and supporters of President Bush be treated equally. She also forbade the D.C. police to enforce a local law that she found unconstitutional. It barred anyone from giving a speech without the permission of the police.
In the new complaint, the lawyers contend that at least one demonstrator was charged with violating that law despite Kessler's order. Police said nine demonstrators were arrested on various charges.
A police spokesman referred inquiries to the D.C. corporation counsel's office, which declined to comment because its lawyers had not seen the complaint. A representative of the inaugural committee said the group was unaware of the suit. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, which is defending federal agencies in the case, said there would be no comment until lawyers reviewed the complaint.
The alleged detention of hundreds of demonstrators took place near 14th and K streets NW. Large groups of demonstrators were making their way from a rally at Dupont Circle to Pennsylvania Avenue at the time, and a smaller band of the anarchist Black Bloc was roaming the area. The lawyers say the police corraled peaceful demonstrators who had not violated any laws and were not charged. They were allowed to proceed after about an hour, the lawyers said.
The incident involving the inaugural committee, the lawyers said, took place earlier, at the security checkpoint near Freedom Plaza. A racial justice group called the International Action Center had a permit from the National Park Service. A man who identified himself to a Washington Post reporter as John Durkin, of the inaugural committee, told police and Secret Service agents on the scene to delay the protesters despite the permit. The delay lasted nearly an hour. The man told officials there that he was acting on orders from the White House.
"This proves that the protesters' concerns from the start were justified -- these checkpoints were solely to benefit the PIC and the incoming president's political allies," said Carl Messineo, of the Partnership for Civil Justice.
About three men the lawyers said were agents provocateurs were seen by witnesses and captured on demonstrators' video cameras operating near the Navy Memorial, the lawyers said. The men were dressed in street clothes. One allegedly punched a protester and more than one allegedly fired pepper spray at close range in the faces of peaceful demonstrators. When demonstrators complained to uniformed officers guarding the parade route, they "playfully wrestled" with the men, pulled them behind police lines and set them free, the lawyers said.
The lawyers said they would ask the court to prevent the police from using such tactics again. Verheyden-Hilliard said the suit is also meant to send a message to law enforcement agencies across the country, which she said have taken similar action against demonstrators in the global justice movement ever since the protests in Seattle in late 1999.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company