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Judge Rules That Black Lives Matter Cannot Be Sued


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. You might be hearing Black Lives Matter invoked in one way or another when people talk about various protest movements in the news. But our federal judge concluded this week that Black Lives Matter is not a formal entity, and that means it cannot be sued. NPR's Vanessa Romo has this report.

VANESSA ROMO, BYLINE: So what exactly is Black Lives Matter? According to U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson it's a social movement, much like the civil rights movement or even Tea Partyism. That's why Jackson, Thursday, dismissed a lawsuit filed by a Baton Rouge police officer who was injured in a deadly protest last July.

DERAY MCKESSON: I'm happy that this was dismissed and that the judge ruled that the movement can't be sued because the movement is not an entity. It wasn't started by any one, two or three people.

ROMO: That is civil rights activist and organizer DeRay McKesson, who was also being sued for allegedly being in charge of the protest and inciting violence, accusations the judge also threw out, saying McKesson was simply exercising his First Amendment rights. In fact, McKesson explains...

MCKESSON: The movement began as a call to end violence and that that call remains true today. So the only reason we were in the street in Baton Rouge, in Baltimore and Ferguson was in response to the violence of the police.

ROMO: Activists launched the Black Lives Matter hashtag about four years ago after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, but it quickly found its way into the streets, an expression of frustration and anger against police brutality and social injustice. McKesson says...

MCKESSON: There's a long tradition of people trying to use the courts or any other mechanism to silence organizers and activists. That's not new.

ROMO: In the 24-page judgment, Judge Jackson wrote that the attempt by the anonymous police officer to bring suit against a social movement and a hashtag evinces either a gross lack of understanding of the concept of capacity or bad faith. The officer said he filed a suit anonymously because he fears for his life. So he's identified in the lawsuit as Officer John Doe. He's white, in his 40s and has worked in three different departments over 18 years. He spoke to us about the ruling.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I guess the best word to sum it up is disgusted.

ROMO: The demonstration on July 9 followed the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling, a black man shot multiple times by a white officer. The demonstration lasted for days and Doe says quickly turned violent.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I was making an arrest, and while I had the suspect in my arms, I got hit in the mouth. I think it was a piece of concrete.

ROMO: That knocked out three of his teeth, broke a few others and left him with serious jaw damage. He says he filed the suit because...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Law enforcement needs to get a classification on Black Lives Matter. They have money coming in. They're organized. They have events and meetings, and they have chapters out there.

ROMO: Doe has not decided whether or not to appeal the decision. But there remain four other lawsuits pending against Black Lives Matter and McKesson personally, including two blaming him for the killings of several Dallas officers at the hands of a sniper last summer. Meanwhile, McKesson and several other protesters who were arrested in the demonstration are suing the city of Baton Rouge and local law enforcement for using excessive force and violating their constitutional rights throughout the protest. Vanessa Romo, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.