At least two protesters with Georgia ties are among hundreds eligible for more than $20 million in settlements from two New York City police misconduct class action lawsuits – a legal strategy that has yet to be used here despite some similarities with “Cop City” and Black Lives Matter cases.
One of the class-action protesters is Jim “Fergie” Chambers Jr., the Cox scion who recently broke from his family over their support of the Atlanta public safety training center. He may add a $21,500 settlement to a fortune of over $200 million he says he is devoting to radical causes, including the “Vote to Stop Cop City” effort.
The New York settlements, announced in February and July, drew headlines for their size and evidence of coordinated police misconduct against 2020 protests about the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd. As in Atlanta cases involving Black Lives Matter and “Cop City” protests, the allegations involved police retaliation against speech the officers did not like, political framing of protesters as “outside agitators” worthy of an aggressive response, and a context of a long pattern of police misconduct going back many years.
New York isn’t the only city seeing such class-action suits. In March, the city of Philadelphia agreed to a $9.25 million payout to 343 protesters and residents allegedly targeted by a police assault during 2020’s George Floyd demonstrations there.
However, class-action suits are a tactic requiring special circumstances and lots of resources, according to attorneys involved in the New York and local protest cases. Drago Cepar Jr. is the attorney representing 19 plaintiffs in what may be the largest pending local case alleging retaliatory arrests of protesters. That case — also dating to 2020’s Black Lives Matter movement — has consolidated a series of separate complaints. That’s different from a class action, where attorneys represent an entire “class” or group of people rather than individuals.
Cepar says a class-action approach in police misconduct cases is tough because it requires “more of a ‘cookie-cutter’ fact pattern” where virtually the same exact thing happened to every complainant. Another reason that the approach may not be used in Atlanta currently, he says, is that “it takes quite some manpower and funding to be able to scour through thousands of videos [of protests], which would be a building block for this type of litigation.”
Exactly that kind of work, conducted by a private investigative firm, is what attorneys in one of the New York cases touted as historic in scale and key to the settlement. That case, Sow v. City of New York, has a class of approximately 1,380 protesters involved in 18 separate protests across the city over a week in 2020. Several attorneys teamed up in a “task force” to sue the City and brought on the research arm of an “unconventional architecture practice” called SITU to analyze more than 6,000 videos from civilian and police sources to show what they say is a pattern of brutality and other misconduct.
“Far from being a case of a few bad apples, the widespread nature of the misconduct, coupled with the lack of meaningful investigation or discipline, paints the picture of a police department in need of deep operational and cultural reform,” said the attorneys in a joint press release July 20 announcing a settlement agreement. Under the terms – which are pending court approval – each class member would receive $9,950, while the City would not admit wrongdoing. The attorneys claim the total payout “will be the largest amount paid to protesters in a class action in this nation’s history.”
Elena L. Cohen of Cohen&Green, one of the attorneys on the team, said she cannot identify individual class members because they all had their cases dismissed and sealed. However, she said she believes there is one member from Georgia.
A large amount of video evidence was important in the other major class action, Sierra v. City of New York, which focused on the treatment of more than 300 people at a 2020 protest in the Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood. Allegations were based on the police “kettling” or entrapping protesters who were then “brutally assaulted,” according to class attorneys. One of those attorneys, Ali Frick of Kaufman Lieb Lebowitz & Frick, told SaportaReport that the police department used “outside agitator” rhetoric in its public defense of officers’ actions.
Frick did not yet have information on whether any class members are from Georgia. However, Chambers identified himself on social media as a class member and provided SaportaReport with a copy of his settlement notification letter. While active in local political organizing and a member of the Cox family, whose Cox Enterprises and such subsidiaries as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution are Atlanta-based, Chambers currently lives in New Hampshire.
Chambers told SaportaReport he was among protesters who were entrapped by police officers and compressed in a kettle maneuver to the point that there was “lots of suffocating,” and he had to borrow someone else’s inhaler. “Cops were swinging batons indiscriminately. I saw one swinging down on the crowd [while] standing on top of a police cruiser,” he said, adding he saw a woman with a broken leg. The kettling was followed by mass arrests where arrestees were left standing outside in the rain for hours without food, water, restrooms or phone calls, he said.
Pending court approval, the Mott Haven settlement will pay each protester $21,500 with some gaining an additional $2,500. Their attorneys say they believe it would be the “highest per-person settlement in a mass arrest class action lawsuit in New York City history.”
Frick told SaportaReport that an “overwhelming amount of video evidence” was important to the success of the protesters’ class action, including police body camera footage. She noted the very existence of body cameras is rooted in the demands of the original Black Lives Matter protests of 2014.
While processing huge amounts of video can be challenging for protester lawsuits, so can the lack of it. That’s an issue in one of the biggest “Cop City” controversies – the killing of the protester known as Tortuguita by Georgia State Patrol troopers who were not wearing body cameras at the time and do not do so routinely. Frick says the Tortuguita killing “seems to be a very good poster child” for the legal importance of camera footage.
That’s just the tip of the “Cop City” iceberg and its controversies over domestic terrorism charges and a growing list of legal complaints – filed or threatened – from protesters and journalists who claim to be targeted by police retaliation.
Frick says the class-action approach is suitable for situations where “essentially the same thing happened to everybody” in a large group – like in Mott Haven, with “a pre-planned and coordinated assault by police on protesters that happened at one intersection, and it involved hundreds of people.” As in Atlanta, other legal tactics are used on behalf of protesters. As WNBC reported earlier this year, those tactics in cases rooted in 2020’s protests include a lawsuit from the state’s own attorney general seeking federal monitoring of New York City police and more than 600 individual misconduct claims, of which roughly half had been settled for a total of nearly $12 million.
In a press release announcing the Sow settlement, another attorney on the team emphasized the scale of the payout and number of protesters involved, rather than the class-action tactic per se, as a “red flag” about the police department’s long history of protest suppression. Attorney Wylie Stecklow paraphrased Atlanta’s own Martin Luther King Jr.: “While the arc of the moral universe is indeed long, sometimes it needs reform to bend towards justice.”