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Pershing Park Plaintiffs Speak Out on Settlement

Reprinted from Washington City Paper

On September 27, 2002, D.C. Police surrounded some 400 individuals in Pershing Park. Those individuals were rounded up without warning, arrested, and transferred to the police academy where they were hogtied for hours [See our Boss Hogtie cover story on the incident].

Sally Norton, a nurse in town for a conference at the nearby Marriott, had decided to check out the activity in the park on her walk back from breakfast with a colleague.

“It all looked very peaceful,” she tells City Desk today. “We had about 10 minutes before the conference started. We went to leave…by then they had formed a perimeter and they wouldn’t let us leave. We pointed out that we are right here at the Marriott;  it didn’t matter. We tried about six or seven other places. Please let us leave. They either said we couldn’t leave or they didn’t speak to us.”

Norton would be arrested and detained for 12 hours. John Passacantando, 48, says on that morning he had wandered into the park to perhaps catch a speaker or listen to some music. He ended up being arrested and hogtied—cuffed right wrist to left ankle—on a gym mat for 17 hours.

“This was literally for being in the park,” Passacantando recalls. “I swore to myself that when I got out of there I would find the best lawyers in the land and do everything I could to make sure this didn’t happen to anyone else…. It was my duty to fight back.”

Passacantando, Norton, and hundreds of other citizens sought out the Partnership for Civil Justice, a local law firm that specializes in civil rights cases. Today, after more than seven years of  litigation, the plaintiffs announced a settlement which includes an $8.25 million District payout and a series of stipulations concerning evidence storage that the Office of Attorney General must follow.

Norton and Passcantando say they are pleased with their case’s resolution.

“I think good police officers see this all over the country and say, ‘yeah we get it,'” Passacantando says. “D.C. made a big mistake that day.”

Even in the moments after the arrest order was given, police officers questioned whether they were lawful. In a subsequent police investigation, U.S. Park Police Captain Rick Murphy stated that he told one police official “that he would not arrest the protesters in the park as their conduct did not meet the criteria for mass arrests.”

After the arrests, District lawyers refused to prosecute a single case stemming from Pershing Park.

Within the next two years, the D.C. Council investigated Pershing Park and released their own scathing assessment. The Council concluded that then-Chief Charles Ramsey had lied, and police officials had engaged in a cover-up of the incident [PDF].

Eventually, the case became all about the cover up. A federal judge would slam the the Office of the Attorney General and the D.C. Police Department’s general counsel for withholding thousands of pages of discovery documents. The police department’s running resume, a moment-by-moment chronicling of police activity on Sept. 27, went missing. Radio dispatches turned over to plaintiffs contained mysterious gaps.

Through it all, the plaintiffs say they remained committed to seeing the case to a favorable conclusion.

“I wanted to know… that we extracted as much change as possible, that there really was going to be a price to pay for a police force to ever do this again,” Passacantando says. “I feel like that’s what we accomplished.”

Norton, who is an associate professor of nursing at the University of Rochester, monitored the case online. She says the department’s conduct in the case shocked her. “How do you systematically destroy all the running resumes? How do they all get lost? For them to sort of say first there was no record and then oh, we lost it, there’s no explanation for that,” Norton says.

Those questions remain active and may be resolved with the one remaining Pershing Park case still active in federal court.

Looking back on the seven years since Pershing Park, Norton says the has experienced changed her.

“I have a lot less naivete about the process,” Norton says. “I always gave the police the benefit of the doubt and I still do, but it’s not unquestioned anymore because of my experience in Washington, DC. It’s a sorry-ass day when you can’t walk across D.C. from a restaurant without being arrested and hogtied and detained illegally.”