In America, It Pays To Protest

Protesters in a number of cities are receiving millions of dollars in settlements from lawsuits against cities where police used force to try and quell the riots, vandalism, and looting that occurred across the country following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

AP/Noah Berger, file
Portland's social unrest and left-wing politics are leading residents on the eastern fringes of Oregon to contemplate secession. AP/Noah Berger, file

Protesters who took to the streets following George Floyd’s murder in the spring of 2020 and during similar unrest over racial issues in recent years are beginning to be rewarded for the mayhem they caused in the form of payoffs by cities that they later sued for alleged police brutality.

The latest recipients of the largesse are protesters from St. Louis, who last week began receiving checks from the city under a $4.9 million settlement with residents who were arrested during protests in 2017 over the police shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith. About 84 people covered by the settlement will receive between $28,000 and $150,000 each, and three additional people who filed lawsuits individually will receive $85,000 each from the taxpayers of St. Louis.

The protesters were riled up about a St. Louis police officer, Jason Stockley, who was acquitted of murdering Smith, who was Black, in December 2011. The protesters ignored police orders to disperse and were treated with what the plaintiffs called “excessive force” and tear-gassed. St. Louis has now paid out more than $10 million to different plaintiffs for police actions on that evening.

The St. Louis settlement follows similar ones at New York, Philadelphia, and other cities related to the protests following Floyd’s murder at Minneapolis. In March, the city of Philadelphia announced that it was settling several lawsuits by hundreds of protesters who claimed the city acted with undue harshness when it fired tear gas to break up mobs on Interstate 676 at west Philadelphia.

The lawsuits were brought by 343 different plaintiffs and claimed that police “tanks” cruised through side streets of the predominantly Black neighborhood, “chasing residents into their homes and indiscriminately firing canisters of tear gas at them.”

For their troubles, the protesters and their lawyers will receive a total of $9.25 million from taxpayers at the City of Brotherly Love. The city also agreed to set aside more than half a million dollars for mental health counseling for residents of the neighborhood. Philadelphia’s Democratic mayor, Jim Kinney, told WCAU-TV when the settlement was announced that he hoped it would “continue the healing process” needed following the pandemic, President Trump’s presidency, and due to racial injustice in general.

“We’ve been through the wringer, and if this can bring us to a point where we can continue to heal, it’s worth it,” Mr. Kinney said.

In late July, New York City settled its own class action brought by Floyd protesters to the tune of $13.7 million — a figure that lawyers representing the plaintiffs said was the largest settlement of its kind in history. The city agreed to pay some 1,380 protesters who were arrested or otherwise “subjected to force” by the New York Police Department nearly $10,000 for the harm they endured during the summer of 2020.

A separate lawsuit by some 300 protesters at the Bronx that summer netted each of the plaintiffs $21,500. The protesters complained that police put them in harm’s way because officers were unmasked at the height of the Covid pandemic and used tightly fitting zip ties to restrain them. They accused the police of “terrorizing” them following days of social unrest that saw police vehicles burned and widespread looting across the city. 

In late 2022, Portland, Oregon, also settled similar lawsuits filed following the Floyd protests at that city. Five protesters who sued over police use of flash-bang grenades and tear gas will each receive $50,000 in that settlement, plus legal fees. The director of an advocacy group who joined the lawsuits called the settlement “a win for organizers and antifascist activists everywhere.”

“Our freedom of expression is the foundation of how we make social change possible,” the director of Don’t Shoot Portland, Teressa Raiford, told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “Black lives still matter. Stay in the streets.” 

Police departments at a number of American cities, ranging from San Jose and San Diego, California, to Jacksonville, Florida, and Charlotte, North Carolina, were sued over police actions during summer 2020, many of which have since been settled. Some cities are still being sued. Washington, D.C., was hit with a new federal lawsuit as recently as February.


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