No Pepper Spray on Nonviolent Protesters

For immediate release  Sept. 2, 2004
Contact: Karen Pickett (510) 548-3113

Pepper Spray By Q-Tip Trial Opens Sept. 8 (new date)
Ninth Circuit, U.S. Supreme Court Send Case Back to San Francisco

San Francisco -- The question of whether direct application by Q-tip of liquid pepper spray into the eyes of passive protesters violated their Fourth Amendment rights comes to trial Sept. 8 in San Francisco. Judge Susan Illston will hear the case at the Federal Courthouse (450 Golden Gate Ave., courtroom 10, 19th floor).  Jury selection is expected to take place beginning Wednesday, Sept. 8 at 8:30 a.m., followed by opening arguments in the courtroom and a noontime rally outside.

The lawsuit put forward by eight plaintiffs charges use of excessive force by law enforcement. It was first filed seven years ago by forest activists staging sit-ins for Headwaters Forest, ancient redwoods being logged by Pacific Lumber Co. in rural northern California.   Activists had locked themselves to each other at the sit-in protests in 1997. In an unprecedented move, Humboldt County Sheriffs' deputies used Q-tips soaked in liquid pepper spray to coerce the activists to abandon their sit-ins. Police video aired on national TV showed officers force activists' heads back, pry open their eyes and smear the burning chemical directly into their eyes. 

Pepper spray was originally brought into usage as a bear repellant, certified for police use in California in 1992 and usually used to disable violently resisting suspects in custody.  Its use as a chemical weapon has always been controversial, and is on the rise, used in recent years for crowd control at mass mobilizations such as the 1999 Seattle WTO ministerial and as recently as outside the Republican Convention in New York. As of 2000, the ACLU estimates a national total of 100 deaths after being pepper sprayed in police custody.

After a hung jury ended the 1998 trial, the judge, later removed from the case for bias, dismissed the case rather than allow a new trial to determine whether the activists' rights had been violated. Since then, the case has been appealed as high as the U.S. Supreme Court. The appeals court decisions have all favored the plaintiffs, who attempted to settle the case with Humboldt County, a settlement agreement hinging on whether law enforcement would alter their policy of using chemical weapons on non-violent protesters. They refused.

Maya Portugal, Humboldt county resident and plaintiff who was 16 years old when she was subjected to the pepper spray swabbing said, "Since we filed this case, the civil rights of political activists have only eroded more-with the U.S. Patriot Act, a militarized police presence at political conventions and trade talks-and that makes it all the more important for those of us trying to have a public voice to stand up and protect our health and our rights."

The award-winning legal team that won an unprecedented victory against the FBI in the civil rights case Judi Bari vs. FBI will represent the activist plaintiffs. Prominent attorney J. Tony Serra commented when he joined the case, "I'm joining this case in smoldering anger because applying the noxious pepper spray was torture. This case will be vigorously prosecuted and it will be a political trial, and I'm proud of it."


Video images, legal documents, and other background and links available at . Video news releases and courtroom drawings by court artist K. Rudin are available through the contact phone number.


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