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D.C. agrees to $13.7 million settlement in 2000 mass arrest

Case has helped change police response to large-scale protests

Reprinted from The Washington Post

A federal judge gave final approval Wednesday to a $13.7 million settlement between the District and people who were picked up in a mass arrest during a 2000 protest near the World Bank and International Monetary Fund buildings.

U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman said the class-action lawsuit, which has wended its way through the court for about a decade, will benefit “future generations” who want to speak out and air their grievances. He said it sparked a 2004 D.C. law that set out policies for police to follow at demonstrations, including a prohibition against encircling protesters without probable cause to arrest them.

Under the settlement, each person arrested and found eligible for compensation will be awarded $18,000, and the record of that arrest will be expunged. It also requires additional training for police officers.

“It is an important settlement. It’s an historic settlement,” Friedman said. “This is a fair settlement to the plaintiffs and in the interest of the First Amendment.”

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the nonprofit Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, which represents the plaintiffs, said the case has helped change the way police respond to large-scale protests and demonstrations.

“This has been an ongoing effort to make the nation’s capital hospitable to cherished First Amendment activities,” Verheyden-Hilliard said.

Brian Becker, who was arrested April 15, 2000, along with his then-16-year-old son, recalled police in riot gear surrounding a group of marchers peacefully protesting problems in the U.S. prison system. Becker, a group organizer, said he was arrested, spent hours on a bus, and later had his right hand and left foot cuffed together.

“The police made a decision to arrest us not because we were doing something illegal but because we were demonstrating,” he said.

Attorneys said Becker and his son are among 464 people arrested that day who have come forward and are eligible for the award. They were in a group of about 700 protesters and bystanders arrested in the area of 20th Street NW and I and K streets. An additional 26 claims are pending.

George C. Valentine, deputy attorney general for the District, said in court that officials concluded that “settling the case in a fair manner was in the best interest of the public.” The city, he said, “is paying a very high price.”

Other lawsuits have stemmed from mass arrests in the District in recent years. Last year, the city agreed to pay $8.25 million to almost 400 protesters and bystanders to end a class-action lawsuit over mass arrests in Pershing Park during 2002 World Bank protests, according to the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, which also represents those plaintiffs. That case is awaiting final approval.

Ike Gittlen, 56, then a local official with the steelworkers union, was heading to dinner with a date in April 2000 when they decided to walk near the World Bank to see the protests. Both were swept up in the arrest.

“I was amazed,” Gittlen said. “I came from a little town where you really do believe you have right to stand up and protest and, if you are peaceful, they will let you do it. I was truly amazed that in America this could happen.”