BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The ACLU of Louisiana and other local groups filed a lawsuit against the Baton Rouge Police Department and other local law enforcement agencies Wednesday.
The lawsuit claims that police violated the First Amendment rights of the demonstrators who were peacefully protesting. Several protests were held across Baton Rouge following the death of Alton Sterling.
In the lawsuit, it alleges that officers used excessive force, wrongful arrests, and both physical and verbal abuse to break up the protests.
"People were injured by police officers and some of them denied medical care as a result of these arrests and it all came from the police showing up at what was the conclusion of a very peaceful event in riot gear really looking like they were ready to pick a fight," said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana.
The groups have reportedly collected eyewitness accounts that describes the actions of police in full riot gear with assault rifles. The reports claim that the police lunged and grabbed at protesters, throwing them down to the ground.
"[The police response] made me afraid to protest. 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. A peaceful demonstration should never be like that," expressed Crystal Williams, local resident and organizer with North Baton Rouge Matters. "I feel like speech is my most powerful tool to ensure my community and my family are safe. But now I feel totally silenced."
Alison Renee McCrary, the president of the Louisiana Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, state in a release that she witnessed the demonstrators being attacked and arrested firsthand. She said that she saw "assault weapons pointed at [the protestors] with fingers on the triggers, some dragged across the cement, their clothes ripped off of them."
"What I saw happening was an immediate threat to life," McCrary said in the release. "My and other demonstrators' speech was chilled because of this event."
The lawyers for the plaintiffs in the suit filed for a temporary restraining order against the defendants, which includes the city of Baton Rouge, BRPD, Louisiana State Police, the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office, and several law enforcement officials.
The temporary restraining order would prevent those parties from interfering with demonstrators' constitutionally protected right to peacefully protest in the future.
Esman believes police went too far.
"They were there so fast when nothing had occurred that they were obviously preparing for something that hadn't happened, and police refused to negotiate. They just went on the attack," Esman said.
Col. Mike Edmonson has stood by the actions of law enforcement, saying a local pawn shop burglary was linked to a threat against officers. He said the department took the threat seriously and that is what prompted the show of force.
"We've been receiving information. We follow up on every single one of them. Here's an actual incident where an individual said that these guns were aimed at killing Baton Rouge police officers and when I say Baton Rouge, any police officers in the Baton Rouge area," Edmonson said Tuesday at a news conference.
9News has video that shows one protester throwing a trashcan at officers. It is that kind of violence, EBR Sheriff Sid Gautreaux said, police simply will not tolerate.
"Look what happened in Dallas," Gautreaux said. "A very peaceful protest and then some crazy madman did what he did. So I think the threat speaks for itself. We can't take anything for granted anymore."
Esman said the distrust between law enforcement and the community comes from the public's perception of the departments and she believes it is up to police to reduce the existing tension.
"They need to take the first step to heal the damage and they're not going to do that by showing up in riot gear picking a fight with people at the end of a protest," she added.
Esman stated that Baton Rouge police failed to do their job again with the protests.
"They are bound to protect us from harm, to keep us safe, to do everything possible before throwing someone to the ground or pulling the trigger," Esman said. "Yet Alton Sterling is on the long list of Black people killed needlessly by our nation's police, and protests in his honor have turned into circuses of violence where the First Amendment is tossed aside."
Esman hopes the lawsuit will change how officers handle peaceful demonstrations going forward.
"We can't bring Alton Sterling back but at minimum, the police can stop blocking our right to protest in his name," Esman said.
Read a copy of the full lawsuit filed below: