A 68-year-old woman has lost a case against the City of Portland for the injuries—both physical and emotional—sustained by a Portland police officer during a February 20, 2017 protest.
"I'm deeply disappointed by today's verdict," said plaintiff Peggy Zebroski. "Not so much for myself, but we need to hold the police department accountable for their tactics."
Zebroski was participating in a peaceful protest against the officer shooting of Quanice Hayes on February 20 when officers on bikes ordered protesters to move out of SW Third Ave, where a number of people—including Zebroski—held a banner reading "Don't Shoot Portland." When they didn't, officers called in Portland Police Bureau's (PPB) "hard squad," a team of cops dressed in all-black body armor often called in to break up violent protests.
Officer Adi Ramic said he believed Zebroski, a petite woman, was trying to pull an armored officer off a male protester to stop him from getting arrested. Zebroski, however, said she was only trying to help her elderly friend who had fallen down in the midst of the melee. Ramic pulled Zebroski out of the crowd and made her lie facedown on the street, using his knee to hold her head down on the cement.
It's that pressure that Zebroski said jammed her glasses into her face, breaking her nose in the process. She left the protest covered in bruises and bleeding from her face. Zebroski sued the city for the physical and emotional suffering incurred by the incident, asking for $200,000 in damages.
On Friday, a 12-person jury denied that request.
"Today's verdict is a loss for Peggy, the public's right to assemble, and our constitutional right to peacefully protest," said Mat dos Santos, legal director for the ACLU of Oregon, at a press conference following the verdict. "When Portland police use excessive force against the public gathered in protest...this harms the very cornerstones of our democracy. In short, the use of force by PPB on peaceful protesters in Portland is retaliatory, unnecessary, and has had a chilling effect on free speech and assembly in our city and in our state."
Dos Santos said he believed the murkiness of the question jurors ultimately considered could have contributed to their verdict.
The jury was tasked with deciding whether Officer Ramic "intentionally caused a harmful or offensive contact with Ms. Zebroski."
"I think there's confusion about what intent meant in that particular instance," dos Santos said. "'Intent' didn't mean 'Intent to hurt,' it meant 'Did you intend to touch that person and was that touching unwanted?'"
He said the city intentionally centered their case around that point of confusion.
In his closing arguments Thursday, city attorney J Scott Moede focused on the fact that Ramic never intended to hurt Zebroski.
“He didn’t punch her, he didn’t give her an extra elbow, there was not an extra shove,” said Moede. “It was an accident.”
He underscored that Zebroski’s glasses broke her nose, not Ramic himself (although it’s assumed her glasses wouldn’t have injured her if Ramic wasn’t pressing her face into the cement). Moede said Ramic’s demeanor in court—“soft spoken” and “he didn’t lose his cool”—proved that he’s a well-meaning officer.
“He’s not a wild maniac,” said Moede, “that’s not a crazed police officer.”
During questioning, Ramic explained that the stressful nature of protests put him more on edge, and made him more suspicious of protesters.
“Unfortunately during protests people are really mean, people try to hurt your feelings,” Ramic said. “In the city of Portland, it’s something we have to deal with as the police. It’s an unnerving situation.”
Ramic described many of the February 20 protesters as “anarchists”—men and women dressed in all black (often called “black bloc”) with bandanas covering their faces.
“From my experience, a lot of black bloc anarchists are violent to officers, and commit crimes during demonstrations,” Ramic said. However, he clarified: “I didn’t believe Ms. Zebroski was an anarchist.”
During his closing agreements Michael Willes, one of Zebroski's attorneys, said this generalization curtailed protesters’ First Amendment rights. “The Portland Police don’t see people, or protesters. They see threats,” said Willes.
Like dos Santos, Willes said it shouldn’t matter that Ramic didn’t mean to hurt Zebroski—the fact he did still violates her civil rights.
At the February protest, Zebroski was marching as a member of Don't Shoot PDX, an activist group that challenges cases of police brutality and discrimination. After the Friday press conference, Don't Shoot PDX's founder Teressa Raiford said she wasn't surprised by the outcome of Zebroski's case.
"Everybody who's showed up for our events who has been arrested or assaulted [by police] has not received justice," said Raiford.
But the fact that Zebroski's case wasn't dismissed before trial was still a sign of progress, Raiford said.
"Getting it into the courtroom is part of the process that we need to see happen—because then, it's documented, her story is on the record, and we have an opportunity to appeal," she said. "For people with no privilege of legal support, it's not a loss. To have these big firms fighting the cases for people we represent in our activism, that's a gain."
It's unknown whether the ACLU will appeal this decision. Dos Santos said that Zebroski's case was just one of six protester cases that the ACLU is actively involved in. Regardless, the case's conclusion could have a profound impact on the way future protests play out in Portland.
"I worry about the repercussion for the public when officers hear time and time again, 'It is okay what you do, there are no consequences,'" said dos Santos. "A government is rightly judged by how it responds to the speech and expression of its people, even more so when that speech is critical of the government."
After the verdict was announced Friday, Zebroski said she hugged Ramic, accepted his apology, and made plans to get coffee.
"He's just a man," she said. "My concern is mostly with the command room that told him to charge into a crowd."
Asked if she'll continue participating in protests and demonstrations, Zebroski didn't hesitate: "I won't ever stop."