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After the 2020 police lynching of George Floyd in broad daylight inspired the nation’s largest social uprising ever recorded, states like Oklahoma retaliated by criminalizing free speech and intimidating protesters. On Friday, protesters and advocacy groups pushed back, filing two lawsuits to restore the constitutional right to free assembly.
For example, U.S. Marshalls were sent to the homes of peaceful protesters amid an alleged effort to clamp down and silence Black and brown community leaders, Staff Attorney for the National Center for Law and Economic Justice Ranit Patel explained at a virtual press conference on Friday. Not only were some protesters erroneously charged, with some charges later dropped, but attempts to continue protesting the abusive actions of OCPD officers before and during the protests were met with retaliation and criminalization by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater.
It’s caused plaintiffs to limit their own First Amendment actions, according to the lawsuit, which states:
“To the extent Plaintiffs continue protesting, many no longer play leadership roles in protests. Nor do they speak from the streets, lead chants or marches, or dialogue with police officers. They avoid expressive activity that could draw attention to themselves for fear they will again face further retaliatory action based on their viewpoints. All Plaintiffs have limited their speech and changed the way they protest out of fear of arrest and further targeting.”
The Constitution, a founding document that conservatives often cite as fundamental, clearly defines the right to assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances. Yet, conservative politicians in Oklahoma quickly responded to Black and Brown protesters after the summer of 2020 by passing laws that chilled free speech and criminalized the very act of protesting. The lawsuits also claim protesters were harassed and surveilled for an unspecified amount of time.
“Once we saw the video of George Floyd’s murder, we started to protest. Police violence happens in Oklahoma too, but it tends to get swept under the rug,” said Sincere Terry, lead plaintiff in both lawsuits. “That is why we protested at 23rd and Classen. There, the police showed us that they think nothing needs to change. Our generation is not going to stand for that.”
ACLU, other groups sue Oklahoma leaders for anti-protest actions, intimidation
According to a press release:
The ACLU of Oklahoma Foundation, National Law Center for Economic Justice, and Herbert Smith Freehills filed a lawsuit on behalf of plaintiffs Sincere Terry, Mia Hogsett, Tyreke Baker, Preston Nabors,Trevour Webb, and Austin Mack against [Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, Thomas VanNort,] the City of Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County for their policies and practices of violating the constitutional rights of racial justice protesters. These violations include, but are not limited to, excessive force, surveillance, harassment, and criminal charges brought without probable cause. Both the City of Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County worked in coordination to silence and criminalize these protesters for using their voice.
Notably, Oklahoma police remain one of the deadliest in the nation and the state with the most cases of underreported police killings, according to a study from the Lancet.
During Friday’s press conference, Austin Mack, a Black plaintiff in the lawsuits, said he’s been belittled in Oklahoma for fighting for Black lives.
“It’s very traumatizing as a young, Black man,” Mack said, who now fears for his life after his name was “slandered on the news like I’m some kind of criminal.”
Sincere Terry, another Black plaintiff, said her activist journey kicked off in May 2020 after watching the video of George Floyd’s death.
“The first few nights, attending protests, I saw citizens get ran over,” as police teargassed and fired bean bag rounds at peaceful protesters. “After being incarcerated my life changed forever,” Terry said, fearful of the state’s retaliation. Following the filing of the lawsuit, Terry said she’s now ready to fight for her constitutional rights.
Oklahoma criminalizes protest, free speech after George Floyd protests
The lawsuit cites the petitioners’ First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments were violated.
“Rather than critically address systemic white supremacy and police brutality, Oklahoma rejected demands for accountability and targeted racial justice protesters,” said Megan Lambert, Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma Foundation. “The Oklahoma legislature passed anti-protest laws, the Oklahoma City Police Department harassed and arrested protesters for exercising their First Amendment rights, and the Oklahoma County District Attorney weaponized Oklahoma’s riot statute to charge racial justice protesters with felonies without probable cause. The systematic and targeted assault of racial justice protesters by the State of Oklahoma, Oklahoma County, and Oklahoma City will not go unanswered.”
The ACLU of Oklahoma Foundation and Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic also filed a separate lawsuit on behalf of the same plaintiffs. The second suit challenges the Oklahoma Riot Statute’s definition of “riot” as unconstitutionally overbroad and vague.
For instance, HB 1674 created added barriers to protest, granted immunity to drivers who hit or killed protesters while “fleeing” and imposed fines of up to $50,000 on groups and organizations that aid protesters.
“The Oklahoma Riot Statute is rotten to its core, significantly burdening Oklahomans who are guilty of nothing more than exercising that timeless right enshrined in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution – the Freedom of Speech,” said Jared Carter, an attorney with the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic. “As it stands, this law is antithetical to First Amendment values and must be enjoined so as to protect the fundamental rights of all Oklahomans.”
The Black Wall Street Times has reached out to Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, the City of Oklahoma City and Oklahoma County for comment.
A Public Information Officer for the City of Oklahoma City said the city doesn’t comment on pending litigation.