by Chris Potter
This morning, the ACLU announced a $400,000 settlement in a case involving 13 people swept up in a mass arrest in Oakland, hours after the G-20 summit ended here in 2009. As is typical in such cases, the city is admitting no wrongdoing.
Is Pittsburgh any freer as a result? It's not clear.
"This settlement marks an end to the lawsuits filed by people arrested or harassed during the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh," ACLU of PA Executive Director Reggie Shuford said in a statement announcing the settlement.
"I hope that this settlement sends the message that there are consequences when a city uses police state tactics," the statement quotes plaintiff Melissa Hill saying. Hill was covering the conference for Twin Cities Indymedia, and was among those swept up by police on the Cathedral of Learning lawn on the night of Sept. 25, 2009.
The settlement wraps up the last of the major pieces of litigation surrounding the event. A separate $88,000 settlement, involving 11 other ACLU plaintiffs rounded up by police, was reached a year ago. Combined with settlements in other ACLU litigation, the city has paid out $800,000.
But the city was carrying $10 million in insurance to cover the cost of such suits. Cynics may suspect that what these lawsuits have shown is not the sacredness of the Constitution, but of a good insurance policy.
One of the most lasting impacts of the case, in fact, may be the steps city officials took to preserve its coverage. When the city's Citizen Police Review Board, which investigates claims of police misconduct, requested documents pertaining to the G-20, the board was stymied — apparently over concern that the material could be used by plaintiffs, jeopardizing the city's policy. The review board lost an ensuing legal battle over whether it should have access to unredacted internal police reports.
The absence of such reports "leaves us against the wall" in terms of figuring out what happened, says Beth Pittinger, the review board's executive director.
ACLU attorney Sara Rose says that her side took over 100 depositions related to G-20 matters: "We did have a chance to ask a lot of the questions," she says. "But I’m not sure that we got a lot of satisfactory answers in terms of why this happened."
"I think a lot of people will say, 'Will this change anything?'" Rose says. "But ultimately it’s important to make sure the First amendment is protected. The cities that host these events have an obligation to protect both the diplomats and the demonstrators."
What's more, she says, "We saw this case as being about making sure the plaintiffs were vindicated." Though many of those swept up by police argued they were innocent bystanders, "they spent the night in jail, many having never been arrested before. We didn't see this case as a chance for a change of policy: We've worked with the city for years in terms of crafting ordinances and practices, and we think their policies [about protecting the First Amendment] is pretty good. The problem is that during the G-20, all of that went out the window."