CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) — The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia is investigating authorities’ alleged treatment of several peaceful protesters at recent demonstrations in Martinsburg on behalf of the Berkeley County Unity Coalition.
ACLU-WV says at least 11 protesters were arrested during demonstrations May 30-31, 2020, and a request has been submitted to the Martinsburg City Attorney’s Office and the Martinsburg Police Department for records under the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
The organization is requesting law enforcement’s bodycam and dashcam footage from those evenings, names and badge numbers of officers involved, official law enforcement policies and procedures for interacting with community members at protests, and use-of-force policies.
According to the ACLU-WV, many of the protesters were allegedly made to sit in jail with high bails for “exercising their First Amendment rights.” The organization says it is also concerned these people were placed in jail amid the current pandemic. ACLU-WV also alleges video recordings appear to show police “using excessive force and escalating tensions.”
Damon Wright, president of the Berkeley County Schools Diversity Council, said the incident shows a need for de-escalation training for officers.
“This situation could have been handled in a way that deescalated the situation and afforded a learning opportunity for both sides,” he said. “Some of the young people were school-aged and these incidents could further traumatize them to think twice about the role of police in helping.”
Dr. Zakee McGill, president of the Berkeley County NAACP, called for transparency from authorities. Berkeley County NAACP is a member of the unity coalition.
“City officials and the MPD should be on notice that we will be ever vigilant and we will not stop pursuing justice for all,” he said. “Black lives matter, and the First Amendment rights of citizens are sacred.”
Coalition members recently met the county’s prosecutor regarding the arrests to ask that all charges against protesters be dropped, according to the ACLU-WV.
The organization says the Unity Coalition is a newly formed coalition of civil and human rights organizations, educators, faith leaders, business owners and other concerned citizens.