On the evening of June 2, 2020, Sabrina Zurkuhlen joined a protest march on the West Side Highway that was spurred by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis eight days earlier.
When protesters were confronted by a line of police officers that stretched across the freeway near Vesey Street, Ms. Zurkuhlen, 33, began walking backwards while recording on her phone, according to a class-action lawsuit in which she was a plaintiff. An officer pointed at her, the lawsuit said, attacked her, knocked the phone out of her hands and began beating her with a baton as he tackled her.
The lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan, said other officers beat and kicked Ms. Zurkuhlen and that she was handcuffed and held in custody for about eight and a half hours before being issued a summons for violating curfew. That call was later rejected, the suit said, adding that she never recovered her phone.
On Wednesday, the City of New York agreed to pay about $13.7 million to settle the class-action lawsuit that said illegal police tactics violated the rights of protesters over several days in late May and early June 2020. A settlement term filed in an electronic a filing just before midnight stated that the city would pay $9,950 apiece to up to about 1,380 people who “were arrested and/or subjected to force by NYPD officers” at 18 specific locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers – who are associated with the National Lawyers Guild, a left-wing group – said the $13.7 million sum was the largest ever paid to protesters.
In 2013 the city agreed to settle hundreds of claims from people who said they were wrongly arrested during the 2004 Republican National Convention in Manhattan, paying $10.3 million to those who were taken into custody and $7.6 million in attorneys’ fees.
“The NYPD’s suppression of dissent has continued through many mayoral administrations,” Wylie Stecklow, one of the class attorneys, said in a statement.
The city’s Law Department and Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The settlement agreement said the defendants denied liability and denied having any pattern or practice that deprived anyone of their rights.
The settlement resolves one of the more significant cases among several to emerge from the protests in New York, which have seen mass arrests, the use of pepper spray and property damage and looting.
The killing of Mr. Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis sparked a nationwide outcry over police brutality and a broader reckoning about race, power and accountability. People across the country chanted “Black Lives Matter” as they took part in marches that filled streets, highways and bridges.
Most of the marches in New York were peaceful, but police said more than a dozen of their vehicles were burned. And looting occurred in various neighborhoods, most prominently in SoHo, where on consecutive nights people who often seemed to have little involvement with the protests entered and looted upscale stores.
Mayor Bill de Blasio imposed a curfew, the city’s first in 75 years. As the looting subsided, police officers dispersed or arrested people who marched outside the prescribed hours. According to the New York State attorney general’s office, police made just over 2,000 protest-related arrests between May 28 and June 7, 2020.
New York Times reporters covering the protests saw officers repeatedly charge protesters outside after curfew with little apparent provocation, shoving people onto sidewalks and beating them with batons.
Some of the people who stand to receive payments under the class-action settlement have been arrested. Others were not taken into custody but, the suit alleged, were subject to police conduct intended to impede and discourage their ability to exercise First Amendment rights.
The protesters’ lawyers said that this behavior included the indiscriminate use of pepper spray or batons and crowd control tactics such as “kettleling”, which herded protesters between police lines and prevented them from leaving.
In March, the city settled a lawsuit over that approach, agreeing to pay at least $21,500 to each of about 320 protesters who said they were surrounded on June 4, 2020, in the Mott Haven area of the Bronx by police officers who then ran at them by waving sticks and using pepper spray.
The protesters’ lawyers attributed that kind of response largely to what they described as decades of misguided police training, which they said viewed many forms of protest as civil unrest, emphasizing the use of force to disperse and demoralize protesters over the protection of civilians. freedoms .
“Since at least the 1990s,” the class-action lawsuit said, “the NYPD has failed to adequately train its officers in the proper use of First Amendment warrants.”
Lawyers for the city denied in court papers that the police had a history of unconstitutionally handling protests. While they acknowledged that many of the 2020 protests were peaceful, they portrayed the police as battling a powerful storm of anger interspersed with serious criminal activity, all taking place against the backdrop of a pandemic.
“Some protests devolved into looting and rioting,” those lawyers wrote. “Demonstrators set fire to police cars; vandalized police houses; threw stones, bricks, bottles at officers; stabbed, punched, bit officers; and threw Molotov cocktails at officers.”
Both sides used visual evidence to bolster their arguments. In one court filing, lawyers for the city included photos of four bloodied police officers who they said were injured by protesters.
The protesters’ lawyers, for their part, drew from what they said were thousands of police body camera and helicopter videos to compile records of officers brandishing batons, using pepper spray or shoving protesters.
One video from outside Barclays Center in Brooklyn on May 29, 2020, shows several police officers, including a commander, aiming overhand baton blows at a figure on the ground. Another video shows a group of officers following protesters down a sidewalk in East Flatbush on May 30 and knocking some on the sidewalk.
Long before the city produced that material, video of protests circulated almost simultaneously on social media.
One video, filmed in Brooklyn, showed two police SUVs ramming a crowd of people standing in a street. Another showed an officer in Lower Manhattan crossing Broadway brandishing a pistol as people screamed and fled.