Million Dollar Settlements Bolster Bay Area Protesters’ Rights

Brad Thomson

In recent weeks, lawyers from the NLG’s San Francisco Bay Area chapter achieved two major victories for the rights of protesters faced with police brutality and unlawful repression. 

The first came when the City of Oakland settled a class action lawsuit for $1.025 million. NLG members brought the suit, Spalding v. City of Oakland, on behalf of 150 people who were falsely arrested by Oakland police and Alameda County sheriff’s deputies on November 5, 2010. Most of those arrested were in the streets in response to the light sentence given to white BART police officer Johannes Mehserle for the killing of Oscar Grant, a young, unarmed African American man.

The second victory occurred in early July when Oakland’s city council approved a settlement for $1.17 million in another lawsuit arising from police action at protests. Guild lawyers and legal workers brought this suit, Campbell v. City of Oakland, in response to police violence against Occupy Oakland protesters in October and November 2011. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 12 plaintiffs and challenged the use of less-lethal weapons such as lead-filled “beanbag” rounds fired from shotguns and grenades filled with teargas. (Read this description for more details on the arrests and injuries caused by police)

"We brought both lawsuits in order to stop the Oakland Police Department’s dangerous and illegal repression of political protest and the city government's tolerance of repeated, pervasive police misconduct," said NLG attorney Rachel Lederman, who worked on both lawsuits.

The substantial monetary compensation for those who were falsely arrested and brutalized by the police is a success in its own right, but an even more significant victory came out of the two cases. As a part of these settlements, the Oakland Police Department (OPD) is now legally obligated to follow a crowd control policy. This policy, which already exists but lacked enforcement, outlines limits on OPD officers' use of force and their ability to make mass arrests in protest situations. The settlement allows for the court to enforce this policy for up to seven years. In addition, the Oakland Police Department and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office agreed to policies and procedures which allow people arrested at demonstrations to be processed and released in a quicker manner. Both settlements mandate that plaintiffs’ and class members’ arrest records be sealed and destroyed.

In doing radical legal work, our goal is not simply to secure favorable verdicts and financial settlements. Even more important is our role in fighting to create and maintain space for dissent.

These victories and the exceptional work by the NLG San Francisco Bay Area Chapter should be an inspiration to all lawyers, legal workers, and law students engaged in mass defense and other progressive legal work. It is critical that we in the NLG and other progressive legal communities continue to use creative litigation to resist any and all law enforcement tactics aimed at suppressing movements working for radical social change.

For more information on the class action lawsuit from the Oscar Grant protest on November 5, 2010, watch this video or visit the official website for the lawsuit. If you were arrested that night on 6th Avenue between 17th and 18th streets and you were not charged with a crime, you may be a class member. In order to receive a portion of the settlement, you must submit a claim form, which can be downloaded here.

Another video of police violence at Occupy Oakland can be viewed here.  Additional videos from the case will be released in the near future.


Brad Thomson is a legal worker member of the NLG and is active on the Mass Defense Committee, the Military Law Task Force, and the Animal Rights Activism Committee. Brad works as a private investigator and paralegal at People’s Law Office, a civil rights law firm in Chicago focused on police misconduct and criminal defense, particularly for social justice activists.