Professor Tabatha Abu El-Haj was quoted in a Dec. 13 Washington Post article about a lawsuit that has shocked First Amendment scholars and activists around the country.
A Louisiana police officer who was injured during a 2016 protest of the killing of Alton Sterling sued well-known Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson. Mckesson organized and led the demonstration but did not throw the rock that struck the officer in the head; an unknown assailant did. Initially, the case was tossed by a federal judge, citing a Supreme Court decision generally interpreted to protect protesters sued for damages they didn’t directly cause. However, in August a three-judge panel with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that the case should proceed, stating that “Officer Doe adequately alleged that Mckesson is liable in negligence for organizing and leading the Baton Rouge demonstration to illegally occupy a highway.”
Professor Abu El-Haj told The Washington Post, “The vast majority of people in the aggregate are peaceful at protests, but there is always a risk of violence.” She continued: “If the masses really come out in force, there’s a risk of revolution. And that risk is what is supposed to drive governmental responsiveness to concerns raised at these demonstrations. . . . That risk of violence is actually critical to why people pay attention.”
Legal experts and civil rights organizations fear that if the Supreme Court allows the case to move forward a new precedent will be set that would stifle political movements in the U.S., with activists facing crippling legal costs from similar lawsuits.