Eugene, OR — In light of the shocking assault on the U.S. Capitol and the election certification process by white nationalists on January 6, a group of people suing the City of Eugene and Eugene Police Department for violating their Constitutional rights are calling on the defendants to take immediate action to align the City’s policing policies and accountability with their collective civil rights. The disparate levels of police enforcement taken across the nation were seen in (1) Violent – and even lethal – crack downs on those protesting State violence against BIPOC and (2) Virtual immunity – possibly even explicit approval – for white supremacist insurrection violence and destruction. This institutionalized racism in policing once again underscores why our local community must pressure elected leaders and police to make substantial and immediate changes to business as usual—and must provide the victims of police brutality with more than just a settlement check.
On May 31, 2020, amidst growing protests for Black lives after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers, the City of Eugene authorized the Eugene Police Department to implement a brutal crackdown on those calling for racial justice and police accountability. Cops used indiscriminate, malicious, and excessive force against protestors, journalists, and even people on their porches and in their homes. They shot rubber bullets and teargas from the turrets of militarized vehicles (Lenco Bearcats) as they marauded through the city streets, using a series of draconian and unconstitutional curfews to justify this use of force and arrest several people. Many people were injured, and many more had their Constitutional rights violated.
In the days afterward, a small group of us came together to challenge the injustices we all suffered. Several months ago, we filed a federal civil rights suit against the City of Eugene and members of the Eugene Police Department (EPD) for violating our rights. We did this not for ourselves, but for all of those who were brutalized or have had their rights violated by the police state—or may in the future—but cannot or do not feel safe enough to come forward and sue the cops. We also do this on behalf of our community at-large, in the hope that such violent oppression will not deter future change-makers from engaging in protesting unjust systems. Not all of us were protesters; our plaintiff group includes people who were indeed exercising their constitutional rights to protest, people who were providing legal support to community members, others who were attempting to leave the curfew zones as directed, and residents of a housing cooperative who experienced assaults on their homes by overzealous armed attack-cops looking for an excuse to shoot at humans. Harms by EPD range from serious physical injuries from impact munitions and chemical weapons, to unwarranted arrests, imprisonment during a pandemic, and physical property destruction.
“The police attacked us – there’s no other way to say it. First they attacked us in the streets, with pepper spray and tear gas, when we were peacefully practicing our First Amendment rights, with children in the crowd. Then after we had made it home, they shot projectiles directly at us, hitting our porch, front door and windows, and injuring our friend who was running to our door for shelter. We weren’t breaking any laws, and they attacked us, brutally, with weapons and with malice. They simply wanted to hurt us,” said Kirtis Rain, a member of the Campbell Club housing cooperative.
The excessive force and unconstitutional curfew of May 31 were not isolated incidences. Police departments – and EPD SWAT teams in particular – have long been known for using such tactics when people of color and low-income communities push back against state oppression. Thus, we are insisting that the City of Eugene do more than write us checks for our suffering – we want the City to quit writing blank checks to the EPD. Specifically, we are calling on the Eugene City Manager and Council to:
- Defund EPD – The essentially secret budget for SWAT (it’s buried in the $32 million police patrol budget) needs to end. Redirect those funds to programs and organizations that will help solve the devastating problems we face in this city and raise quality of life for groups of people that are historically excluded and marginalized here.
- Demilitarize EPD – It’s time for police departments to stop acting like they are enforcing a military occupation of hostile territory. We are calling for prohibitions on chemical and impact munitions for crowd control and significant community oversight regarding what is an appropriate use of force during nonviolent protests.
- Stop ordering unconstitutional curfews – The city’s curfew law was written to deal with things like natural disasters and other crises that might make being outside unsafe – and even in such instances a city-wide curfew would be questionable. To permit an unelected, unqualified City Manager to invoke blanket curfews to quell the exercise of free speech is not only a violation of protester’s rights; it is also a violation of the rights of everyone who lives in the city.
“We want to see transparency in the police patrol budget and we know that SWAT should only be used in hostage or armed conflicts. SWAT deployment for protests is causing actual harm in our community. The money spent on bullets and tanks should be put towards housing, community health and service projects that serve the BIPOC, poor and working-class communities that live here. The City needs to stop using stalling strategies such as inaction, ignoring and repressing protest movements, and forming toothless committees for the purpose of ‘listening.’ Money talks, and we want to see money reallocated away from police and towards positive change” said Erin Grady, a long-time Eugene resident who provides legal and social support for protesters and at-risk community members.
Eugene decisionmakers like City Manager Medary and Police Chief Skinner have made placating statements about police reform and respecting the rights of their residents, but we have yet to see tangible action to fix the problem of decades of police violence against people of color, progressive activists, and low-income communities. The City and EPD’s repeated violations of our rights cannot go unaddressed.
“We, as a collective community, want to hold the city and its decision-makers accountable for the unjust and unlawful tactics used by police officers,” said plaintiff Kelsie Leith-Bowden.
“For far too long, liberal-leaning cities like Eugene have allowed their police departments free reign to terrorize residents – particularly BIPOC people. It’s time for Eugene to align its ethics with what its leadership says they are, and that means defunding the police and instead supporting real community safety nets like Cahoots instead of militarized oppression of all but the wealthy and powerful,” said plaintiff Tyler Hendry.
This is a press release of the Civil Liberties Defense Center – firstname.lastname@example.org