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‘Disgusting ... abuse of power.’ Marchers sue Charlotte, CMPD over ambush on 4th Street

The lawsuit accuses CMPD and members of its command staff of drawing up a plan to end the night’s protests in uptown over the death of George Floyd with “a retaliatory and punishing show of force ... to discourage future protests against police.”
Published: Aug. 4, 2021 at 8:10 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 4, 2021 at 8:15 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - On June 2, 2020, Katie Rothweiler kneeled on the pavement of Fourth Street, arms raised in surrender, as she and hundreds of marchers around her were being pummeled with chemical munitions by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police.

“We were just a huge group of people huddled together, trying to protect each other, trying to protect each other from being shot, unable to breathe, unable to find a way out,” she told the Observer a few days later.

Now the marketing agent and UNC Charlotte graduate is at the top of a new class-action lawsuit that accuses CMPD of intentionally driving up to 400 mostly peaceful demonstrators protesting police violence into a violent uptown ambush. Bystander videos of the encounter shocked much of the city and drew immediate condemnation from the mayor and City Council.

In response to an Observer request Wednesday for comment, CMPD spokesman Rob Tufano said in an email that police have not had “the opportunity to review the lawsuit. We will refrain from providing any additional comments, as the matter will likely be before the courts.”

City of Charlotte spokeswoman Sandy D’Elosua did not immediately respond to Observer emails seeking comment Wednesday.

The lawsuit accuses CMPD and members of its command staff of drawing up a plan to end the night’s protests in uptown over the death of George Floyd with “a retaliatory and punishing show of force ... to discourage future protests against police.”

According to the complaint, witness accounts and video footage shot at the time, hidden platoons of riot police closed off both ends of the block. They then blasted those trapped in between with tear gas, pepper balls and stinger grenades while officers perched on a parking deck fired down with chemical munitions from above. A bank of burning and choking clouds quickly covered the block.

Rothweiler, one of seven named plaintiffs on the lawsuit who are representing all the marchers trapped on Fourth Street that night, told the Observer that she was struck in the back of the head by a projectile. She assumes it came from police. One of her companions that night fainted and collapsed to the street, she said.

“I’m literally running away from police, begging for my life, and they’re shooting at my back,” she said. “My survival instinct was just like, ‘You need to keep running.’ "

The lawsuit accuses the City of Charlotte and a top rung of current and former CMPD leaders of a list of abuses, from negligence, assault and battery, and false imprisonment to intentional/reckless infliction of severe emotional distress.

The marchers’ legal team, which includes representatives from several of the city’s prominent trial law firms, is seeking damages that could run into the millions, given the hundreds of protesters potentially involved.

“We are seeking justice and accountability,” Charlotte attorney Tim Emry said during an 11 a.m. press conference. “This is about making right a wrong — justice for the victims who were injured and hurt, and accountability for those in power.”

A similar complaint filed over 400 arrests during a 2002 demonstration in a Washington, D.C., park was settled in 2016 for more than $13 million, according to the Washington Post. That case also initiated a slew of police reforms to better protect the constitutional rights of demonstrators.

An earlier lawsuit filed in Charlotte by the NAACP and the ACLU and other groups did not involve monetary damages but appears to have had a similar impact on CMPD policies and tactics.

It was settled late last month with CMPD having made a series of major reforms, including a ban on both the use of tear gas on marchers and the crowd-control measure known as “kettling,” in which targets are trapped between advancing police lines, as was the case last June.

“People should not be brutalized when they are exercising their right to protest,” Kristie Puckett-Williams, statewide manager of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina’s Campaign for Smart Justice, said in a July 23 statement announcing the settlement.

“This agreement is a step in the right direction, but it’s insufficient to reckon with the violence and trauma protesters endured at the hands of police across the state last year.”

‘HAMMER THEIR ASS WITH GAS’

The lawsuit names former and current CMPD chiefs Kerr Putney and Johnny Jennings along with some of their top lieutenants. Among them: Deputy Chief Coerte Voorhees; police majors Robert Dance and Nelson Bowling; Lt. Christopher Rorie, Sgt. Scott Sherwood and up to 50 officers, including members of the department’s Civil Emergency Unit, which responds to large public disturbances.

All either planned the ambush, knew about it or carried it out, the lawsuit claims.

Dance, according to the lawsuit, helped plan the maneuver with Bowling and was the on-the-ground commander when it was carried out.

Sherwood became the night’s narrator. In an eerie play-by-play captured by his body camera, the sergeant described how the trap would unfold.

“Rorie’s got a platoon on Tryon out of sight. Dance’s platoon is staged now on College, out of sight. As soon as they get up on Fourth, we got ‘em bottlenecked now. Rorie’s squad is gonna step out and hammer their ass. When they start running, Dance’s squad is gonna step out and hammer their ass with gas.

“We’re gonna f----n’ pop it up.”

As the protesters reached Fourth Street and walked by a line of bike cops chanting “Hands up, don’t shoot,” Sherwood offered a mocking epitaph. “Wave goodbye, they’re all about to get gassed.”

POLICE OPERATION ILLEGAL, LAWSUIT SAYS

How the city and CMPD defends itself remains to be seen.

A State Bureau of Investigation review of the incident found that police tactics on June 2, 2020, did not violate any laws or department policies.

Putney initially defended the operation, but later apologized for it — acknowledging that those “were not (the tactics) we wanted to see.”

Mayor Vi Lyles was even more direct.

“I hope everyone is aware that that’s not the kind of department we want to have for policing,” she said. “It’s not the kind of reputation we want to have nationally or locally.”

The new lawsuit claims the police operation was illegal, arguing that the marchers were mostly peaceful and did not pose the threat necessary to justify the use of chemical munitions. CMPD has since banned the use of tear gas against protesters.

On June 2, however, CMPD launched a “premeditated, militarized attack without provocation or legal justification” — a “‘shock and awe’ effort to shut down the protests,” and which treated the marchers, not as citizens, but “as if they were foreign enemies.”

At a Wednesday morning press conference to discuss the lawsuit, Rothweiler said she agreed to join the lawsuit due to what she described as a “really disgusting use and abuse of power” by CMPD.

“It was traumatic. It was one of the scariest things I have ever experienced,” she said. “I do not trust police at all anymore. There is no trust left over.”

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