In the dark of the early morning on Oct. 28, 2011, police officers and sheriff’s deputies descended on the Occupy San Diego encampment in Civic Center Plaza and used pepper spray and brute force to arrest 51 activists. The detainees—37 men and 14 women—were held on buses for hours without access to restrooms (yes, some urinated and defecated where they sat) before being hauled off to jail.
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department later acknowledged that mistakes were made in the booking process and that it would conduct a formal review with the San Diego Police Department. Months later, however, the sheriff refused to release the resulting report.
Now, six of the women arrested during the Occupy protests are suing the law enforcement agencies over a range of alleged civil-rights abuses. The women are represented by members of the San Diego chapter of the National Lawyers Guild—including Julia Yoo, Gerald Singleton and Marjorie Cohn— with the assistance of four Thomas Jefferson School of Law interns.
In one Superior Court case, 26-year-old peace activist Kari Helstern alleges that law-enforcement officers used excessive force to arrest her during the Oct. 28 raid at the Children’s Park, which served as Occupy’s off-site supply area, and again during the highly publicized coast-wide port blockade on Dec. 12. In a separate Superior Court case, Stephanie Jennings, a 51-year-old community volunteer and member of the Occupellas singing group, alleges she was falsely arrested on Jan. 7 during a performance and march outside the Civic Theater. While in jail, she says she was denied access to medication for her recent kidney transplant.
“Number one, they didn’t have the legal right to arrest them; number two, they used grossly excessive force in doing it,” Singleton, their attorney, says. “Whether it was to teach them a lesson or because they don’t like their political views, I don’t know. It’s really inexcusable. To use the kind of force against these two women, it just doesn’t have a place in civilized society.”
Four women who were arrested when the plaza was raided on Oct. 28 are suing in federal district court over the experiences on the sheriff’s buses and in detention. Yoo, their attorney, expects to add more defendants to the case as it progresses.
“The clients obviously want their voices to be heard, and they definitely want policy changes with respect to the treatment of detainees to ensure that people aren’t denied their basic dignity,” Yoo says.
The police and sheriff’s departments do not comment on pending litigation as a matter of policy.