Pearl River Justice may be blind, but when race is involved, perhaps it is deliberately so. Two recent court decisions, one in Baton Rouge and the other in Denver, that rose from protests around Black Lives Matter and, more specifically, George Floyd’s killing by police, offer stark differences.
Jurors in Colorado ordered the city and county of Denver to pay $14 million in damages to 12 plaintiffs after finding that police officers used excessive force against them during demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd in 2020. Who knows the splits once the lawyers are paid? If this were New Orleans, these dozen protestors might have to wait for years to see the money, but Denver might not be as broke-ass and scofflaw about paying settlements once they lose a case, especially with police or traffic. Nonetheless, this word needs to get out there. A million bucks per protestor might just help swell the crowds at your next demonstration.
Except then there are the judges in New Orleans, lord save us. Maybe the jury made the difference in Denver, but judicial panel is clearly a crapshoot. This decision goes back to 2016 after Alton Sterling was fatally shot by police. An officer, only identified as John Doe, sued claiming injuries while trying to remove protestors who were blocking Airline Highway, one of the primary routes into Baton Rouge. The policeman claimed that Black Lives Matter organizer DeRay Mckesson was personally responsible as the key protest organizer. He claimed that Mckesson somehow incited the activity that led to his injuries.
Don’t get me wrong, any injuries at a protest are regrettable, whether in Denver or Baton Rouge, whether to protestors or police, but holding one person, as an organizer, responsible even though he or she did not inflict any injury to anyone, seems bizarre. A federal judge, hearing the case, ruled accordingly, and dismissed the case. Officer Doe appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, undoubtedly the most conservative in the country and the venue of choice for almost every hyper-right case. The Fifth Circuit ruled that the case should go to trial. The US Supreme Court refused to hear that appeal saying that the Louisiana Supreme Court needed weigh in on this matter.
Now it gets even more complicated. One of the justices opined that Mckesson was liable because the street-blocking was “intentional lawlessness” that was “likely to provoke a confrontation between police and the mass of demonstrators…” Furthermore, this judge, joined by another, claimed that Mckesson “ignored the foreseeable danger to officers, bystanders, and demonstrators, and notwithstanding, did so anyway.” Having organized many demonstrations and marches where we “took the streets,” as we called it, that smarts, when I read it. There is nothing “foreseeable” in such actions. There’s a lot of bend and give, depending on the response of the target and the authorities. These judges plainly just don’t believe in protests period, and likely were even more offended since race was involved. One of the panel, Judge Piper Griffin, dissented arguing that protests were protected collective action with a “high moral value” in society. Griffin argued that “a balance must be struck between the freedom to express a political opinion in a peaceful manner and a respect for the rule of law.” Agreed.
It’s not over yet in Baton Rouge, even while protestors in Denver will be lining up to collect there. All this decision by the Louisiana justices really means is that Officer Doe’s case against Black Lives Matter’s organizer, Mckesson, can now go to trial. Although it never should have gone this far, hopefully the “balance” and “moral value” will prevail. Making one individual personally responsible for a mass action would be a perverse miscarriage of justice, despite the terrible consequences of an injury having occurred.
Unquestionably, race is part of this equation. None of the ringleaders of the January 6th Capitol takeover are being held personally liable for multiple injuries to officers there, but that was more a white-on-white situation. People there are only being charged for what they did or where they went that was not allowed. Yes, protests have consequences, and win or lose, they should have consequences, because that’s the point of protest. But, personal liability for political protest by “third parties” as the Louisiana court was considering, is personal ideology and bias, masking as a legal decision.