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ACLU Sues Kansas City, Missouri, On Behalf Of Three Protesters Arrested At Plaza Demonstrations

A large crowd carrying placards and signs, some bearing the face of George Floyd, face off against a line of police officers on the Country Club Plaza during protests this summer.
Carlos Moreno
A large crowd carrying placards and signs, some bearing the face of George Floyd, face off against a line of police officers on the Country Club Plaza during protests this summer.

The lawsuit comes after the city council approved an ordinance dismissing charges against non-violent demonstrators.

The ACLU of Missouri is suing Kansas City on behalf of three protesters who were arrested last month on charges of violating city ordinances.

Hundreds of protesters took to the Country Club Plaza demanding racial justice and an end to police brutality amid nationwide demonstrations sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The ACLU says Kansas City Police arrested more than 200 nonviolent protesters in May and June for violating city ordinances that criminalize the “failure to obey” law enforcement order.

The lawsuit argues these ordinances are unconstitutional and give law enforcement unlimited license to silence speech and violate due-process rights.

“In Kansas City, people who are protesting feel like they've been subjected to exactly the kind of random, arbitrary police enforcement that they’re protesting against. One of the things that's causing that is two ordinances that are very broad and vague that criminalize ordinary activity of just standing on the street or a sidewalk,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri..

City officials announced last month they would not pursue misdemeanor charges against protesters, as long as they didn’t commit a violent crime or damage property. Many protestors, including the three plaintiffs in the ACLU’s suit, claim KCPD used city ordinances to justify making unnecessary arrests of peaceful protesters.

Councilman Brandon Ellington sponsored the measure to dismiss charges against non-violent protesters. He told the city council that the ordinance would “preserve democracy.”

“We want peaceful demonstrations in our city,” he said. “We want peaceful policing in our city. And we want respect when it comes to our citizens engaging in their constitutionally-protected rights.”

Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith insisted to the Board of Police Commissioners in June that officers only resorted to using pepper spray, tear gas, and arresting protesters after demonstrations turned violent.

He said officers were pelted with rocks, glass bottles and frozen water bottles thrown by some protesters.

“We very much wanted a peaceful demonstration. I want the board to know the gas was used as a way to disperse the crowd and to try and prevent more property damage and more injury,” said Smith.

While Rothert says the city council’s intervention wiping away some protesters’ chargers was a step in the right direction, there’s no reason to believe that the same ordinances won’t be used again in the future.

“Even if the charges would eventually be dismissed, the prospect of being arrested, spending time in jail, having to post bond, is enough to deter reasonable people from protesting. While those ordinances are still on the books, there's still an ongoing first amendment violation,” he said.

The three plaintiffs are seeking a preliminary injunction that will protect people engaging in protest activity from arrest by the Kansas City Police Department before a hearing expected in the next few weeks. The lawsuit asks that the court prohibits the city from further enforcing the “failure to obey” ordinances.

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