CLEVELAND — A Cleveland law firm announced Tuesday that it has settled a lawsuit against the Cleveland Division of Police filed by 12 individuals who were "violated either by false arrests and prosecutions or being subjected to excessive force" during the course of the May 30, 2020 George Floyd protest Downtown.
The suit was litigated by the law firm of Friedman, Gilbert + Gerhardstein and settled for $540,000. One of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, Terry Gilbert, said the outcome "put some closure to this ordeal that our clients went through."
On the day of the protest, Gilbert said that his clients were Downtown exercising their First Amendment right peacefully.
"A lot of the narrative in this case was about breaking windows and physical damage. But in the course of that day, these individuals were there passionately standing up for the family of George Floyd and seeking reform with respect to the epidemic of police shootings in this country, particularly against young black men but also the widespread excessive force that we see almost daily [in] police departments across the country," he said.
According to Gilbert, his clients went Downtown to voice concern about police violence in the country and ended up in jail or injured due to unjustified use of force at the hands of police.
Gilbert acknowledged that what happened that day was under a different administration, both in the mayor's office and the police department. Since that time, Justin Bibb and Wayne Drummond have taken over the top positions as mayor and police chief.
The lawsuit, Gilbert said, is something he hopes can be looked at as a way to further seek reform in the department with the new administration.
"So the message to the city of Cleveland is don't do this again. Work hard to properly train the officers, properly supervise. There was so much disconnect between the police department and their members that day, where they overreacted without any guidance, without any supervision."
Gilbert said he believes police panicked that day and a situation was set off they could no longer control.
What started as a march got out of hand when officers on bicycles overreacted and didn't know what to do; Gilbert said the officers created havoc and chaos that later led to vandalism.
"This is something that needs to be said very straightforwardly—that the police were not prepared to handle the crowd and began to overreact with excessive force and with tear gas and flashbangs and that kind of thing that got out of control," Gilbert said.
PLAINTIFFS SPEAK OUT
Shainna Bernard was one of the people at the protest who Gilbert said was victimized by police that day. Despite what happened to her, Bernard said she has a message for people who seek to fight injustice by taking to the streets and protesting peacefully.
"I want you to not be deterred by what you saw on TV and by what we experienced. I'm saying keep on coming back. Keep coming back. This is just a stitch in the fabric of reform," Bernard said.
Bernard called what happened to her "rough and terrifying," but said she's not deterred and believes people should stand up against injustice.
"Keep on keeping on, because we have to continue to fight. This isn't the end. This is just a small portion of it. But let's redirect back to the fact that we were there for one another that day. We took care of one another that day, and we were there for a reason to combat police brutality. And that's what we're going up against," she said.
Cassandra Ziemer was one of the people arrested that day and spent two days in jail following their arrest.
"I am not satisfied with the justice we've attained today. I'm going to keep pushing. And I know y'all want to keep pushing for more," Ziemer said.
Two years later, Ziemer is still dealing with the trauma from that day.
"It took a long time and I've never experienced such violence at the hands of anyone else, any institution, more than (from) the police officers that day. It was extremely painful and I don't know if I'll ever fully recover. I hope people remember what we stood up for then and now and that Black lives do matter," they said.
Another plaintiff, Francesco Weiler, said he was trying to leave the protest when he and his friends were opened fire upon by police officers using pepper spray pellets. During that incident, an unknown Black person came up to Weiler and helped him shield his friends from being shot further by police. To this day, Weiler has no idea who that person was but is thankful for their help.
Weiler said he went to the protest that day to support people of color and rally against the injustice they face.
"I hope that this case does show a semblance of moving forward something that can change positively for a lot of the discrimination that we are trying to eliminate moving forward," he said.
On May 31—a day after the protest—another plaintiff named Valeri Belokon was arrested while walking down the street with a friend in front of the Justice Center.
"Nothing was going on. You know, there were no windows being broken, there was no rioting. There was none of that. And out of nowhere, two unmarked cars full of cops just pull up on us. Guys jump out, guns pointed at us, vans pull up behind us; we're thrown in jail," he said. "It was ridiculous."
Belokon later spoke to one of the officers who arrested him; he said the officer told him that he "only believes in restricting people's liberty when absolutely necessary."
It's something Belokon said he's thought about for two years since he was arrested.
"I can't see how two people walking down the street on Sunday afternoon is necessary to restrict that kind of liberty," he said. "The more this happens, the more cities are going to have to pay for it, the more police are going to have to pay for this. It's important that people keep coming out and keep putting all this pressure because that's the only way we're going to affect positive change. And at the end of the day, that's all that we want to see out of this was positive change."
A PROTEST TURNS VIOLENT
The event started around 1 p.m. on Saturday, May 30 as a protest for Floyd, a black man who died at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis a few days prior.
Within an hour, more than 1,000 people gathered Downtown by the Free Stamp in Willard Park and on Lakeside Avenue. While the protest started peacefully, the event turned violent and escalated into a full-blown riot.
Police from several jurisdictions, including Cleveland and the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office, responded in force—deploying pepper spray and smoke in an attempt to disperse crowds.
Violent participants set fire to police cars, tagged buildings with graffiti and vandalized storefronts. Cleveland officials said that in the end, rioters caused more than $6 million in damage to the city.
An after-action report released by the city in December 2020 stated that rioters attacked police and damaged property with items ranging from frozen water bottles to fireworks, and leaf-blowers to blow pepper spray and smoke back on police. Others used frozen eggs, glass bottles, rocks and bricks.
The city said in the report that rioters used several tactics to prevent police from dispersing the crowds. Those tactics included:
- Shining green lasers in officers’ eyes
- Attacking police when they attempted to put out car fires
- Using orange traffic cones to cover smoke and pepper munitions and then throwing them back at officers
- Using a line of non-violent protesters to hide behind so police could not see who was actually rioting
When the report was released, the city said more than a dozen officers had complaints filed against them that included excessive force, harassment and unprofessional conduct.
You can watch more in the player below regarding the city's after-action report and how the city had planned to move forward from the May 30 protest.
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