THE OCCUPY PORTLAND protester infamously photographed eating a blast of pepper spray during the chaotic aftermath of an anti-bank protest on November 17, 2011, has filed a lawsuit accusing the police bureau of using excessive force.
The suit by Liz Nichols, a 21-year-old Portland State student, targets two police officers: Officer Doris Paisley, who jabbed Nichols in the neck with a baton and later grabbed Nichols by the hair to arrest her, and Sergeant Jeff McDaniel, who unloaded his pepper spray canister into Nichols' mouth while she was yelling at Paisley.
Nichols, immortalized in an award-winning Oregonian photo, is asking for $155,000 in damages. She also wants the police bureau to abandon a policy that permits the use of pepper spray, under certain conditions, against protesters who aren't actively resisting police officers.
"The policies of the Portland Police Bureau allow the use of pepper spray even when a person is not physically a threat to anyone," said Kenneth A. Kreuscher, one of Nichols' attorneys, at a news conference on Friday, October 5. "This lawsuit is about attempting to change that policy."
The lawsuit is the second high-profile excessive force claim to arise from last fall's Occupy crackdown. Justin James Bridges, confined to a wheelchair since police cleared the Occupy camps last fall, sued the city and several cops this summer for more than $3 million. Bridges has accused riot cops of aggravating an old back injury with their batons, then mocking him and denying him medical care.
Kreuscher says the painfully hot oil that makes up pepper spray left Nichols with eczema immediately after the incident and that she still suffers from sleep and anxiety disorders.
The police bureau hasn't commented on the suit. But after the iconic image of Nichols brought widespread attention last fall, the bureau released a video of the incident shot from behind police lines.
The confrontation between police and protesters that led to the pepper spraying came at the end of a long day of protests throughout downtown—and the clash arguably was made worse by the cops themselves.
Mounted cops showed up to clear the sidewalks around an occupied Chase Bank branch at SW 6th and Yamhill. Then the riot cops and their PA van showed up. While the van was telling protesters to stay on the sidewalk and off streets and nearby MAX tracks, the riot cops were confusedly pushing protesters like Nichols off those same sidewalks.
"Liz Nichols was obeying the only order she ever heard from the police. She took care to stay on the sidewalk," said another of Nichols' attorneys, Benjamin Haile. "All she was doing was shouting at police. Her hands were down at her side."
Nichols was charged with three misdemeanors that later were filed as traffic violations to avoid having to try Nichols in front of a jury. Her criminal case is in limbo while prosecutors sort out the effect of an appellate ruling that could require a jury trial not only for Nichols but also for dozens of other Occupy protesters.
The city promised to tighten its pepper-spray policies 10 years ago after a lawsuit cost it hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. The excessive use of less-lethal weapons like pepper spray and Tasers against passive resisters was also cited in a recent federal report ripping the police bureau for its treatment of the mentally ill.
Says Kreuscher: "This is one of the events the department of justice was looking at."