The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and local advocacy groups are suing the Baton Rouge Police and other local law enforcement groups, accusing them of using excessive force and verbally assaulting those gathered to protest the shooting death of Alton Sterling by police.
The federal lawsuit is accusing the Baton Rouge police of arresting protesters for peaceful, lawful protests in public spaces. Police are defending their actions after a fraught week of nationwide debate and sometimes violence following the police shooting deaths of two black men; a deadly sniper attack on officers in Dallas, Texas; and an alleged plot to harm Baton Rouge's own officers.
On Tuesday, meanwhile, some city residents came together to talk to "the other side of Florida Boulevard," as black businessman Cleve Dunn Jr. told the local paper The Advocate, referring to the historic divide between Baton Rouge's predominantly black and white neighborhoods.
"We have 400 years of history that have dictated where we are right now," Mr. Dunn told listeners, as speakers asked for "common ground."
About 200 Baton Rouge protesters were arrested over a three-day period. The protests started after a video taken from outside the convenience store where Sterling had been pinned down by officers went viral, the latest in a string of protests after the deaths of black men at the hands of police.
The ACLU also accuses the Baton Rouge police of executing the arrests with "unnecessary and excessive physical force," as Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney, wrote for the group's website.
"Law officers on the ground in Baton Rouge have done nothing to facilitate the constitutional rights to which they have each sworn an oath," she writes. "Instead, they have met words with weapons, peace with violence. They have continually escalated a nonviolent protest into a full-scale conflict between the citizens and the police."
Baton Rouge police say force is necessary due to credible threats against the officers, including a plot that was foiled this week. Police say four young men had conspired to attack officers with guns stolen from a pawn shop and posed a “substantial, credible threat” to officers.
"We have been questioned repeatedly over the last several days about our show of force and why we have the tactics that we have," Police Chief Carl Dabadie said. "Well, this is the reason, because we had credible threats against the lives of law enforcement in this city."
The lawsuit alleges that officers had given protesters conflicting and confusing orders and then arrested them when they did not follow them. Advocates also write that protesters were unjustly arrested for obstruction when they were actually using sidewalks.
In making the arrests, it accuses the officers of using "unconstitutional levels of force, including physically tackling nonviolent demonstrators and use mace, taser charges, and/or pepper spray on nonviolent protesters." It also alleges that detained protestors were maced or pepper-sprayed for singing protest songs while in jail.
The photograph of one Baton Rouge protestor's calm poise as heavily-armed officers approach to arrest her has now gone viral, symbolizing, for many, the peaceful resistance they associate with Black Lives Matters, even as others criticize the loosely-organized movement's tactics.
The suit is requesting a temporary restraining order against local and state law enforcement groups to prevent them from interfering with the protesters right to assemble peacefully as protests are expected to continue, The Advocate reported.
Local organizations including Black Youth Power 100 New Orleans, New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, and the Louisiana Chapter of the National Lawyers’ Guild are joining the ACLU in the lawsuit.
"Seeing the way the police were manhandling folks caused me to hide, scream out of fear, and finally flee for my safety. I had to run," Crystal Williams, a North Baton Rouge Matters organizer, told The Advocate. "A peaceful demonstration should never be like that."
Police allege that protestors have been inciting violence. State Police Superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson said he had personally seen protestors throwing concrete at law enforcement and officers had used "incredible restraint," The Advocate reported.
Both community leaders and Sterling's 15-year-old son, Cameron, have called for unity during the city's time of crisis.
"I feel that people in general, no matter what their race is, should come together as one united family," he said.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.