Protesters Who Were Unlawfully Arrested and Jailed on May 30 Settle Lawsuit with Cleveland for $540,000

Demonstrators were peacefully exercising First Amendment rights, got pepper sprayed anyway.

click to enlarge Plaintiff Cassandra Ziemer (at mic) spent three nights in jail after getting arrested on May 30. - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
Plaintiff Cassandra Ziemer (at mic) spent three nights in jail after getting arrested on May 30.

Twelve plaintiffs who were arrested and jailed for peacefully demonstrating on May 30, 2020 have settled a lawsuit with the City of Cleveland, their attorneys announced Thursday on the steps of the Cuyahoga County Justice Center.

After nearly two years of litigation, the city will pay $540,000 to the plaintiffs, who were protesting police brutality and the murder of George Floyd alongside thousands of others.

Terry Gilbert and Sarah Gelsomino of the law firm Friedman, Gilbert and Gerhardstein, represented the plaintiffs. In remarks Thursday, Gilbert said he hoped the settlement would provide some closure to his clients.

"These were innocent, peaceful protesters who were exercising their rights under the First Amendment," Gilbert said. "A lot of the narrative in this case was about breaking windows and physical damage, but in the course of that day, these individuals were there passionately standing up for the family of George Floyd and seeking reforms with respect to the epidemic of police shootings in this country."

Gilbert said the jailings and mistreatment his clients experienced were the result of "indiscriminate and unjustified" use of force by Cleveland police officers that he believed emerged from panic and poor preparation on the department's part. Law enforcement was overwhelmed by the size of the crowd outside the Justice Center, Gilbert said, and began firing tear gas, pepper balls and flash grenades in an effort to disperse the crowd, creating chaos. (That's consistent with our first-hand reporting.) After the encounter at the justice center, the demonstration devolved into scattered riots throughout the evening, with incidents of vandalism along Euclid Avenue and elsewhere downtown.

Gilbert emphasized that the actions of the Cleveland Division of Police that day occurred under the administration of Mayor Frank Jackson and Police Chief Calvin Williams, who failed to learn lessons from the mass demonstrations after the shooting death of Tamir Rice and the acquittal of officer Michael Brelo in the #137shots case, among others.   

"We hope that this case can be a vehicle for reform," Gilbert said. "The message to the city of Cleveland is: don't do this again."

One of the plaintiffs in the case, Shainna Bernard, said that coming back to the stairs of the Justice Center, where she was Maced and brutalized, was "kind of surreal."

"But I want to say to potential protesters and activists: Do not be deterred," she said. "Keep coming back. This is just a stitch in the fabric of reform. Our goal is to combat police brutality and misconduct. This has been rough, and it was terrifying, but we have to continue. Let's redirect to the fact that we were there for each other that day. We took care of each other. We were there for a reason." 

Cassandra Ziemer was another plaintiff in the case. They said they were arrested and spent three days in jail after getting pepper sprayed on the steps of the Justice Center. As a result of the traumatic experience, they have been unable to attend another protest since. 

"I'm really glad that we pursued this case and came to an agreement," they said. "But I am not satisfied with the justice we obtained today. I'm going to keep pushing. I hope people remember what we stood up for then and now: that Black lives do matter."

Sign up for Scene's weekly newsletters to get the latest on Cleveland news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.
Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.