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Santa Rosa police sued by protesters injured in Black Lives Matter demonstration

Two protesters injured by Santa Rosa police during local Black Lives Matter demonstrations filed a class action lawsuit against the Police Department and city Tuesday, arguing the officers used excessive force and illegal tactics to discourage free speech.

Plaintiffs Marqus Martinez, 33, and Michaela Staggs, 20, both of Santa Rosa, were each hit in the face with crowd-control projectiles fired by police on May 31 and June 1, respectively, during protests in downtown Santa Rosa following the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, according to the complaint.

Martinez and Staggs are asking the U.S. District Court in San Francisco to bar the police department from using these devices and tactics against demonstrators in the future. They are also asking a federal judge to allow them to advance a class action lawsuit so they may represent all protesters who were injured with projectiles, subjected to tear gas or targeted while trying to take video of the police.

“In response to protests that police are too violent, the police respond with more violence,” said their attorney, Sebastopol-based civil rights lawyer Izaak Schwaiger. “They crossed a bright line. They could have killed people. They were aiming at people’s heads or, at best, they were firing indiscriminately at crowds.”

The city defended its officers and denied the claim that police acted to disregard First Amendment rights of marchers.

“The Santa Rosa Police Department officers are trained to act with restraint and did in fact act with restraint, using only such non-lethal force as was required after the peaceful demonstrations waned and some chose to become violent and engage in destructive behavior,” Assistant City Attorney Rob Jackson said in a statement. “The suggestion that peaceful protesters were targeted with violence or that the Santa Rosa Police Department acted with the intent to discourage the exercise of freedom of expression or peaceful assembly is simply not true.”

Read the complaint here:

200623 protester class action Staggs Martinez complaint.pdf

Both of those nights, after hours of peaceful demonstrations, the police had declared the marchers were engaged in an “unlawful assembly” and took steps to disperse the crowd.

Martinez, who two years ago settled a brutality claim against the Sonoma County Jail, and Staggs claim they were protesting peacefully and filming police.

The plaintiffs argue that police “unjustifiably declared these lawful protests ’unlawful assemblies’ so as to deter further civilian participation in the protests and to set the stage for their illegal use of force,” the complaint states, aware of constitutional protections for people speaking out against the government.

Martinez had been kneeling before a line of officers on Mendocino Avenue just before he was hit with a sting ball grenade that “ripped his face open,” breaking several jaw bones and teeth and driving one tooth through his tongue, according to the complaint.

The next night, Staggs was hit in the forehead with a chalk grenade, a device she claims is not approved for crowd-control applications. She had headaches, dizziness and nausea for days and may be permanently scarred, the filing states.

According to the complaint, the officers “shifted almost immediately to the use of violent riot control tactics without regard for the safety and constitutional rights of those assembled,” acting under Navarro’s direction.

At least three protesters, including Martinez and Staggs, reported being struck in the face with projectiles during demonstrations. Navarro has previously said his officers are trained to fire these so-called “less-lethal” crowd control projectiles away from people’s heads. Navarro said his department would investigate each known protest injury to determine whether the officers followed department policies.

Thousands took to the streets of Santa Rosa during about two weeks of protests that started during the day and lasted into the night.

The demonstrations were mostly peaceful, although police reported some problems after nightfall. On one night of the two-week protests, May 30, demonstrators marched onto Highway 101, stalling traffic. Several downtown businesses reported graffiti and broken windows.

Police Chief Ray Navarro said some protesters threw rocks, bricks, bottles and at least one trash can at officers. Officers were struck by fireworks and one suffered terrible ringing in an ear after someone shot a firework far too close, according to the chief.

Schwaiger said reports of vandalism or other aggression were minimal and didn’t involve his clients.

Martinez said he believes public demonstrations against police brutality are essential and must be protected because society has failed to hold law enforcement officers accountable for their actions.

“You can’t just shoot somebody in the face with a sting ball grenade — that’s not OK,” Martinez said. “I didn’t deserve that, nobody deserves that. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wasn’t looting. I was invoking my right to freedom of speech.”

Two years ago, Martinez and five other plaintiffs settled a federal civil rights case against the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, a complaint that described inmates being led one-by-one out of their cells, put face down on the ground and verbally degraded while their arms and legs were pulled behind their backs. Then-Sheriff Rob Giordano called the behavior, captured on video, “unacceptable.”

The county settled the suit for $1.7 million, agreeing to retrain jail staff, install surveillance cameras and require body-worn cameras.

Martinez said that traumatic experience confirmed his belief that people must call for major changes to policing. He joined protests over the death of Floyd, who was killed by an officer kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes, to speak out so that others might not have to endure that type of abuse.

“The world we live in today is so corrupt. It doesn’t want to allow us the right to voice our opinions to say even, ’This is wrong,’ or ’You’re hurting me,’” Martinez said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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