2 photojournalists sue DC police, claim use of illegal chemical irritants at protest

Police and protesters in Black Lives Matter Plaza, Aug. 29, 2020. (Bryan Dozier/Courtesy ACLU of DC)
Police and protesters in Black Lives Matter Plaza, Aug. 29, 2020. (Bryan Dozier/Courtesy ACLU of DC)
Police and protesters in Black Lives Matter Plaza, Aug. 29, 2020. (Bryan Dozier/Courtesy ACLU of DC)

Two photojournalists who covered a protest at D.C.’s Black Lives Matter Plaza against police brutality last August are suing the District and eight members of the police, claiming officers used chemical irritants and stun grenades that had been banned by D.C. law.

The ACLU of DC, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of freelance photojournalists Bryan Dozier and Oyoma Asinor, said police on the night of Aug. 29, 2020, used chemical irritants against the journalists and protesters, and deployed the stun grenades, also known as sound bombs, which can temporarily blind people or cause temporary deafness.

Both tactics were banned under a D.C. law passed a month before, the lawsuit said.

“MPD (the D.C. police) flagrantly used tactics that D.C. laws explicitly ban,” said Megan Yan, a lawyer for the ACLU of the District of Columbia. “It’s especially ironic that MPD responded to these demonstrations with the kind of violence that the protestors were protesting.”

The lawsuit claims Dozier was hit by chemical irritants, causing him to tear up and have trouble breathing, and that “He tried to escape the irritants, but another officer forced Dozier to move back into the cloud of gas.”

Another MPD officer in full riot gear used chemical irritants against Asinor, causing his skin to burn and his eyes to tear up.

Both men also said they were subjected to stun grenades deployed by the police, which they say terrified them and caused disorientation.

Aisnor returned the next night, Aug. 30, to cover another protest, and that police again used the banned tactics and methods. Despite efforts to identify himself as a journalist, Asinor was pushed face down to the ground, handcuffed and detained overnight, the lawsuit claims.

Asinor said the camera he used that night, and his cellphone, were confiscated by police and weren’t returned until last week.

“He was detained overnight before being released without charges. Asinor’s belongings were confiscated from him and several of those items, including his phone and camera, were not returned to him until August 3, 2021. … MPD had no lawful basis to keep his property for nearly a year,” the ACLU of DC said.

D.C. police department said it does not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeking damages to be determined by a jury.

“In addition to the constitutional claims under the Fourth Amendment and D.C. common law claims, the lawsuit charges that MPD violated D.C.’s First Amendment Assemblies Act, which (as amended by the 2020 Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Act) prohibits the use of chemical irritants and less-lethal projectiles at First Amendment assemblies,” the lawsuit states.

The ACLU said the “attacks” by police caused severe psychological distress to both Asinor and Dozier, who continue to feel the effects today.

“They report anxiety attacks, feeling jittery around loud noises, and for Asinor, constant fear that he may be being surveilled by police after being arrested.”

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Glynis Kazanjian

Glynis Kazanjian has been a freelance writer covering Maryland politics and government on the local, state and federal levels for the last 11 years. Her work is published in Maryland Matters, the Baltimore Post Examiner, Bethesda Beat and Md. Reporter. She has also worked as a true crime researcher.

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