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Portland agrees to settle 2020 tear gas lawsuit brought by protesters for $250,000

Jonathan Levinson
Police use tear gas and impact munitions to disperse protesters in downtown Portland during 4th of July demonstrations against systemic racism and police violence.

The city of Portland has agreed to settle a lawsuit filed in the early days of the 2020 protests for $250,000 plus attorneys fees, which could increase the financial burden considerably.

The lawsuit was filed on June 5, 2020, by the local advocacy group Don’t Shoot PDX and eventually five named protesters. It was before Portland ascended into the national spotlight as a center of the country’s racial justice movement. The city would see more than 100 consecutive nights of protests, which drew the ire of the Trump administration and led to a crackdown from hundreds of federal law enforcement officers. They were deployed from around the country, and not trained to respond to crowd control events.

In some cases, political appointees even pressured career officers to violate protesters’ constitutional rights and pushed unfounded conspiracy theories about antifascists to further the Trump administration’s political agenda.

Each of the five protesters will receive $50,000 while Don’t Shoot Portland will not receive any financial compensation, according to the settlement filed in federal court Tuesday.

“This is a win for organizers and antifascist activists everywhere,” Teressa Raiford, executive director of Don’t Shoot Portland, said in a statement. “Our freedom of expression is the foundation of how we make social change possible … Black Lives Still Matter. Stay in the streets.”

The settlement requires the police bureau to follow state law and its own policies when using tear gas and other munitions during crowd control events. The agreement also applies to the use of “aerosol restraints,” such as pepper spray, long-range acoustic devices that police used to disperse crowds, and less-lethal launchers that fire projectiles meant to cause pain, but not break the skin.

Under the settlement, the Portland Police Bureau can no longer use rubber ball distraction devices, which are similar to flash bang grenades. Both create a loud bang, but rather than a loud noise followed by a flash of light, the device projects rubber balls after it explodes.

“PPB shall not deploy Rubber Ball Distraction Devices (RBDD),” the settlement agreement states. “Further, PPB shall engage in a process to decommission all remaining inventory of RBDDs.”

The Portland Police Bureau deferred to the city for comment on the settlement. In a statement Tuesday afternoon, a spokesperson from Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office said the settlement was a fair resolution.

“This mutually agreed result fairly and appropriately resolves the case to provide certainty for all parties,” said spokesperson Cody Bowman. “There have been many important changes since 2020 concerning the City’s response to demonstrations, including changes to state law and the Police Bureau’s policies, the City’s work toward body worn camera implementation, improved crowd management trainings, the discontinued use of rubber ball distraction devices, and others.”

U.S. District Court Chief Judge Marco Hernandez will oversee the injunction and retain the authority to enforce it for the next 14 months. After that, the city will have the ability to ask for the case to be dismissed.

After the lawsuit was first filed in 2020, Hernandez imposed an injunction that limited when the police bureau could use munitions and tear gas when attempting to control crowds. In December 2020, Hernandez found the city in contempt because it violated his injunction.

“Now, we’ve succeeded in getting an injunction to force PPB to follow the law, and to dismantle their flash bang arsenal,” Ashlee Albies, one of the attorneys for the protesters, said in a statement. “We will be vigilantly watching PPB over the next 14 months.”

This article may be updated.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

A protester shows an impact munition that police fired at demonstrators during a protest on April 12, 2021.
Sergio Olmos /
A protester shows an impact munition that police fired at demonstrators during a protest on April 12, 2021.