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Chaos erupts on Newnan Street in Jacksonville as police deploy multiple rounds of tear gas at protesters demonstrating against excessive force by police. Photo by Drew Dixon.

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Federal judge rules in favor of Jacksonville protesters, rips police conduct

“They were arrested and beaten up,” one man arrested in Jacksonville says.

In a harsh rebuke of Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office conduct during civil rights protests May 30 and 31, a federal judge ordered the law enforcement agency to pay $100,000 to four demonstrators.

The federal judge ruled the JSO has to pay the four protesters in Friday’s settlement $10,000 each and he ordered the police department to pay another $60,000 in legal fees.

Sheriff Mike Williams himself signed the agreement.

In addition to the financial settlement reached Friday, Judge Brian Davis of the U.S. District Court’s Middle District in Jacksonville challenged the JSO’s conduct during the demonstrations. Davis issued several stipulations JSO officers have to follow during future civil demonstrations and if the stipulations are violated before January, the judge indicated he’d order the JSO to pay additional financial penalties to demonstrators.

The litigation is the latest round of controversial rulings since the protests in Jacksonville spilled into sometimes violent clashes between civil rights demonstrators and police on downtown Jacksonville streets. The civil unrest followed the video recorded killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis May 25.

Jacksonville demonstrations drew thousands of people downtown to protest against police brutality.

The JSO settlement was with Delaine Smith, Briauna Bosworth, Sharrona Brightman and Elizabeth Mulraney, all who were arrested May 31. Their attorney, Matthew Kachergus, filed the lawsuit shortly after the demonstrations.

“This agreement vindicates [the] plaintiffs’ rights to peacefully assemble without fear of arrest,” Kachergus said. “The purpose of this lawsuit was to ensure that the First Amendment rights of all are protected, and they are well pleased with this settlement.”

Adding to the momentum was First Coast State Attorney Melissa Nelson’s decision to dismiss charges against 48 protesters arrested May 31. That move came within two weeks of the original demonstrations.

Nelson’s office issued a similar ruling in July, dismissing the same charges of unlawful assembly and resisting arrest without violence saying the charges had no merit for another 15 protesters who were arrested May 30.

Protesters staged an impromptu peaceful sit-in before a Jacksonville police line May 30 on Newnan Street at the intersection of Forsyth. Moments later, police deployed tear gas. Image via Drew Dixon

The federal ruling also requires JSO to revise its tactics that included street-sweeping arrests and use of tear gas and flash bang grenade canisters, especially on the night of May 30 in downtown.

Davis issued strict stipulations, including:

— Peaceful protesters cannot be disbursed unless they present a clear danger with violence and all alternative measures are attempted.

— Police must issue clear and audible verbal directions to demonstrators advising them to disburse and protesters must be told what will happen if they do not.

— Police will have restricted use of chemical agents to disburse crowds. They can only be used after alternative measures have been attempted, the agents must be used directly on those causing violence and “chemical agents are not to be deployed indiscriminately into the crowd.”

Messages sent to JSO spokespeople seeking comment related to the federal ruling were not immediately returned Friday.

The settlement is only one of many lawsuits filed against the JSO as a result of the wild scenes that unfolded in the last weekend of May.

Bernardo Santana, a freelance journalist and videographer, was one of 48 people arrested May 31 and has already filed a suit against the JSO.

He said the federal ruling against the police department is encouraging.

“It definitely gives me some encouragement,” Santana said. “With me, it’s personal. These guys [JSO] wrecked my back.”

Santana was arrested as he was video recording the demonstrations near the Duval County Courthouse on Adams Street. He was pushed to the ground by police and herniated two discs in his spine, he said.

His attorney, John Phillips, filed the lawsuit several weeks ago, about the same time Santana started undergoing medical therapy for his back after the arrest. He said he’s emboldened after the federal court ruling, especially since his injuries have caused him to miss work.

“I think it’s a great move on the judge because these guys, at least here in Jacksonville, just blatantly scooped up people,” Santana said. “Some of these kids I saw had already left the (protest) area and they were arrested and beaten up… . That was uncalled for.”

Written By

Drew Dixon is a journalist of 40 years who has reported in print and broadcast throughout Florida, starting in Ohio in the 1980s. He is also an adjunct professor of philosophy and ethics at three colleges, Jacksonville University, University of North Florida and Florida State College at Jacksonville. You can reach him at drewdixonwriting@gmail.com.

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