Constitutional Baggage

Protesters are suing Tacoma for banning bags in far-flung "free speech zones."

Nearly six years after six activists were arrested during a series of demonstrations at the Port of Tacoma protesting the shipment of Stryker vehicles to Iraq, a lawsuit claiming their constitutional rights were violated has reached the courtroom.

With the ACLU of Washington providing legal counsel, the lawsuit, McCarthy v. Barrett, argues that the City of Tacoma and specific members of its police force violated protesters' rights to free speech and assembly by unlawfully arresting protesters, instituting restrictions on bags in "designated protest zones," using excessive force, video-recording protesters' faces, and running checks on license-plate numbers—all in a concerted effort to dissuade protesters from raising hell. The civil trial began on Monday.

The lawsuit zeroes in on the blanket no-bag policy that police enforced, which the ACLU said prohibited anyone from carrying backpacks or large bags into "designated protest zones."

On Sunday the ACLU released a media statement, written by legal director Sarah Dunne, saying that the protesters believe the policy was meant to "discourage protesters from exercising their free-speech rights. The location of the protests was an industrial area, far removed from stores that could provide protesters with supplies such as food and water needed during the hours-long protests . . . The right to protest peacefully is a time-honored right in our democratic society. Tacoma police sought to stop peaceful demonstrations at the Port and interfered with people's rights to dissent from the actions of government."

The defendants in the case—17 specific members of the Tacoma police department, including Chief Don Ramsdell—disagree. In court documents, the defendants paint a picture of the protests far different from the one described by plaintiffs. The City argues that the restriction on bags was instituted as a safety measure for all involved, and no civil rights were violated in the process.

According to the ACLU of Washington, the case is expected to last at least two weeks.

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