Several protesters who were arrested at a vigil for Alfred Olango in El Cajon, Calif., on Oct. 1 have filed a lawsuit, accusing police of violating their civil rights by wrongfully ordering them to disperse, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.
Protesters insist that the protest was peaceful and that they were only ordered to leave because the late-night vigil was inconvenient for police. The lawsuit names the city of El Cajon, the police force, the San Diego Sheriff's Department and the county as defendants.
According to the Union-Tribune, 14 people were arrested just after midnight at the site where Olango was fatally shot by police. Police jailed 12 people for refusing to leave the site—a parking lot behind Los Panchos Taco Shop on Broadway—after it was declared an unlawful assembly. Another individual was arrested on an outstanding warrant, and the last person was arrested on suspicion of public intoxication.
The San Diego branch of the NAACP is also named as a plaintiff in the suit that was filed Monday on behalf of the 14 people, including two minors who reportedly saw police arrest their mother.
“When defendants issued the order to disperse, there was no valid legal basis for declaring the assembly to be unlawful,” the lawsuit charges, according to the Union-Tribune. “The dispersal order was solely due to the inconvenience to police officers of monitoring a peaceful vigil at midnight.”
The lawsuit claims that the order to disperse violated protesters' First Amendment rights, and it accuses police of trying to make a statement to prevent future protests. The lawsuit seeks to have a judge issue an injunction against police in order to stop the alleged wrongful orders to disperse and the arrest of peaceful protesters.
Police, however, say that a fight broke out between some of the protesters and that someone left to retrieve a gun.
“Sensing this shift in the demeanor of the crowd, and out of concern for community safety, officers declared an unlawful assembly and ordered the group to disperse,” Police Lt. Rob Ransweiler said in a statement Oct. 2.
Most of the protesters left, but some stayed behind.
“Officers spoke to those who remained and they promised to leave,” Ransweiler added. “Eventually it became apparent the remaining protesters were not planning to leave.”
Jeff Provenzano, 31, who was arrested at the protests, said that the demonstration that night was one of the smallest and most quiet.
“For them to come in with such a show of force when people were just talking and praying was absolutely ridiculous,” he said the day after he was arrested, according to the Union-Tribune. “There were crazier things happening other days and the cops didn’t do anything.
“[Protesters] didn’t feel it was an unlawful protest because they didn’t feel they were doing anything that was unlawful,” Provenzano added.
As the Union-Tribune notes, the Oct. 1 protest marked the largest number of arrests in the days of gatherings—protests and vigils alike—that came after Olango's death.
According to the report, El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells declined to specifically address the lawsuit but said that the police acted appropriately in response to the protests and the orders to disperse.
“I think the police have acted exemplary through all of this," he said. “I think they've shown great compassion, great restraint. They've been very careful to prevent violence and have done a good job of protecting citizens at the same time.
“I think that it's difficult for some people to understand why police might do some things because they don't have all the information," Wells added. "They see what they see from their point without having a bird's-eye view. I’m not worried. Once all information is explained, I think all of this will be understood.”
Read more at the San Diego Union-Tribune.