A woman who was struck in the face with a baton following a 2014 protest filed a federal civil rights complaint last week against the California Highway Patrol.
On the evening of Nov. 25, 2014, Rebecka Jackson-Moeser, 30, marched with a crowd of thousands from Leimert Park to L.A. City Hall to protest the decision of a Missouri grand jury to not indict the white police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson. At around 9:30 p.m., Jackson-Moeser joined a group of about 100 protesters that split off from the main rally at City Hall and managed to walk onto the 101 freeway downtown, blocking traffic in both directions.
Within minutes, officers from the California Highway Patrol arrived in riot gear and began to disperse the protesters. Jackson-Moeser was there with her younger brother, the two of them part of a group of protesters the police were forcing to exit the freeway near Grand Avenue. “There was a whole line of them,” she tells L.A. Weekly. “It felt like a military action of them just like forcing us off the highway."
Jackson-Moeser, who is from St. Louis, was a master's student in theater at the California Institute of the Arts at the time of the protest. Currently, she works as a stage manager for a theater company in L.A.
The complaint alleges the CHP violated her First Amendment right to freedom of speech and her Fourth Amendment right against the use of excessive force.
A video captures the moment Jackson-Moeser was injured. She is exiting the freeway, walking backward up the hill. After she turns her back to the skirmish line of police, an officer swings a baton with a backhand motion that strikes the left side of her face. The blow split her left earlobe and opened a gash on the side of her head, requiring 20 stitches altogether and leaving her with a concussion, the complaint states.
“Police officers are human, they get angry,” says Jorge Gonzalez, the attorney representing Jackson-Moeser in the lawsuit. “He lashed out at her for no good reason. She was running away from him.”
Jackson-Moeser says she considers her suit against the CHP an extension of her activism to hold the police accountable for their use of force. “Mostly what we’re pushing for is accountability, which rarely happens,” she says. “It’s an issue that goes beyond this individual case of trying to hold this particular officer accountable.”
A spokeswoman for the California Highway Patrol declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. On the night of the protest, the CHP tweeted: “Working with @LAPDHQ all day to facilitate a peaceful protest. Destructive/unruly protestors will not be tolerated.”
The night of the protest, the CHP reportedly made 10 arrests on the 101 freeway and cleared demonstrators from the freeway within about 20 minutes (LAPD reportedly made an additional 183 arrests over the course of the protest that night). It was the second — and most disruptive — of three consecutive nights of protest following the grand jury’s decision on Ferguson.
Jackson-Moeser addressed her injuries in video taken within an hour of the beating by police. “I'm in downtown Los Angeles now,” she says in the video, her face and her left ear smeared with blood. “I was in the protest, I was part of the group that blocked the highway today, Tuesday.
"The police started pushing us back, they were pushing girls, they were pushing really small people, they tried to grab my brother. I grabbed my brother, moving back the whole time holding him behind me. They swung around and hit me with a club in my ear. They would have taken me, too. We started running. We all got out of there.”
A voice from off-camera tells her, “You got hit hard. That cop was big.”
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said at a news conference the day after the protest that his department and the California Highway Patrol were "extremely generous in allowing the expression of First Amendment activities” within the limits of the law.
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"It's very easy to demonstrate in the city of Los Angeles and not get arrested," he said.
Jackson-Moeser says that she saw the highway blockade as an opportunity to bring attention to the issue at hand.
“To get some sort of coverage and bring attention to causes, you have to take advantage,” she says. “There is always an element of danger, but what’s more important is that others have lost their lives ... so hopefully your action will help to prevent more of those deaths.”
The complaint names two CHP officers as defendants — the officer who struck Jackson-Moeser in the video and the officer who was standing beside him, Gonzalez says, "because he failed to intervene and stop it." Gonzalez filed a state public records act request on his client’s behalf to obtain the names of the two officers involved.
“We’d like to know who these people are,” he says.