Justice in Public Safety Project

Protecting Protest is Protecting Democracy

Through litigation, policy advocacy, and community organizing, LDF works to ensure protestors can fight for change without police violence.

The right to protest is a cornerstone of democracy that has long been essential for Black people’s struggle for racial justice in the U.S.  Since its inception, LDF has supported the use of peaceful protest to advance civil rights and racial justice for Black communities. Defending the right to protest is a central piece of LDF’s history.

LDF represented Freedom Riders, Selma foot soldiers, 1,100 Black children in Birmingham who had been expelled for taking part in street demonstrations, participants of the sit-in movement, and a conscientious objector.  LDF continues this legacy by defending protesters who faced police violence during the 2020 racial justice protests and challenging anti-protest laws.

Framework for Public Safety

Issued in January 2023 after the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, LDF’s Framework for Public Safety outlines our affirmative vision for a just public safety system. We have begun to implement this Framework by supporting Black local leaders and groups who are experimenting with alternative responders, non-carceral solutions to disputes and conduct that often become criminalized such as restorative justice processes, and investments in community resources that ensure economic security and address the root causes of violence. 


LDF has filed a number of lawsuits in cities across the country on behalf of peaceful protesters who faced militarized force and intimidation while demonstrating against police violence. Learn more about each lawsuit and our efforts to protect protestors:

Challenging Police Violence and Militarized Policing Tactics

Filed: 2020 - Philadelphia, PA

On behalf of Philadelphia residents, LDF and co-counsel filed a lawsuit in July 2020, challenging the Philadelphia Police Department’s response to protests in West Philadelphia, which included attacking peaceful demonstrators with rubber bullets and pepper balls and other uses of force, even harming demonstrators and uninvolved residents with chemical munitions. Under the 2023 settlement terms which includes three other related cases, the City of Philadelphia has agreed to pay monetary damages totaling $9,250,000 collectively to those harmed by the PPD’s conduct in the summer of 2020, one of the largest settlements of its kind in Philadelphia history.  Under the settlement, the City has committed to meet every six months with the West Philadelphia community to present data around the Department’s use of force and respond to questions and comments from the community. Finally, the City has also agreed to commit $500,000 to a fund that will provide interdisciplinary, trauma-informed counseling to victims of police violence and provide support for and promote community-led programming in the aftermath of police violence and misconduct. The funds will be distributed through a community-led grantmaking process administered by a local community organization, Bread & Roses. Additional information on the grant process can be found here.  

Challenging Police Brutality and Racial Discrimination Against Protesters

Filed: 2021 - New York City

LDF, representing Andrew Smith with Massena Law, P.C., The Vessup Law Firm, and the Initiative for a Just Society, sued the City of New York on June 1, 2021, for race discrimination, police brutality, and violating his right to free speech. Mr. Smith, who is Black, was attacked by a New York Police Department (NYPD) officer during one of the 2020 racial justice protests around New York City. The officer confronted Mr. Smith, forcibly removed Mr. Smith’s mask – which he was wearing to protect himself and others from COVID-19 – and sprayed him in the face with pepper spray. The officer did not confront or forcibly remove the masks of white protesters near Mr. Smith. Video of Mr. Smith’s assault went viral, as illustrative of the violent behavior of NYPD officers against racial justice protesters, especially Black protesters. LDF and co-counsel eventually reached a settlement of $212,500 for Mr. Smith in 2024. 

Protecting Voters and Peaceful Marchers

Filed 2020 - Alamance County, NC

This lawsuit was filed by LDF, co-counsel Covington & Burling, LLP and veteran civil rights lawyer, Geraldine Sumter of Ferguson Chambers & Sumter, P.A. on behalf of marchers and prospective voters in Alamance County, NC. The plaintiffs were pepper sprayed by law enforcement in their October 31, 2020 march to the polls and racial justice protest in Graham, North Carolina – a part of Alamance County – on the last day of early voting and voter registration in the state. Some marchers whom had intended to vote were impeded from doing so. The lawsuit brought claims under the Voting Rights Act, Section 1985(3) of the KKK Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1871, the U.S. Constitution, and other laws. LDF settled the lawsuit on behalf of clients in June 2021.  

Challenging military-type force and intimidation by Police in response to peaceful protesters

Filed 2020 - Louisville, KY

On July 30 2020, LDF, the Kentucky American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU-KY), and law firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP (ECBAWM) filed a complaint against the City of Louisville on behalf of racial justice protesters for the Louisville Metro Police Department’s (LMPD) repeated use of military-type force and intimidation in response to peaceful demonstrations against police violence. The complaint, which is filed on behalf of people who were subject to and injured by the LMPD’s violent tactics, seeks both monetary relief for individual protesters and injunctive relief barring LMPD from using militaristic force during protest activities.  

The Department of Justice launched a pattern-or-practice investigation of the LMPD in April 2021. In 2023, the Department of Justice found LMPD to have engaged in unconstitutional and unlawful conduct during the 2020 protests, and began consent decree negotiations with Louisville in February 2024.

Challenging Florida's Anti-Protest Law, HB 1

Filed 2021 - Florida

LDF and co-counsel filed suit in 2021 on behalf of Florida residents and an advocacy organization challenging Florida’s anti-protest law, H.B.1. The law, enacted in April 2021, was passed in response to national protests against police violence and targets Black organizations and protesters demanding racial justice. The lawsuit alleges racial discrimination and First Amendment violations against Governor DeSantis, Leon County Sheriff Walt McNeil, Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams, and Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony. Among other things, H.B.1 risks criminalizing peaceful protest, discourages people from protesting, and otherwise infringes on First Amendment rights. A federal trial court issued a preliminary injunction blocking Governor DeSantis and certain local officials from enforcing key provisions of the anti-protest law. This injunction was appealed by Governor DeSantis and former Duval County Sheriff Mike Williams. The Eleventh Circuit issued an order seeking assistance from the Florida Supreme Court in interpreting the law’s scope and left the injunction in place while the Florida Supreme Court takes up the question.  

Demonstrators raise their hands and chant "hands up, don't shoot" as police clear people from the street protesting the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Protestors were met with pepper spray, tear gas, and flash grenades from Ferguson Police and the National Guard throughout the duration of protests. (Photo via Getty Images)
Shan'a Mason hugs her children following a protest in Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland, CA., on Jun. 4, 2020. The family, who are from San Leandro, attended the event to honor George Floyd following his killing by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. (Yalonda M. James/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Thurgood Marshall Institute Research

Police and Protests

The Inequity of Police Responses to Racial Justice Protests

In response to police killings of Black Americans, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, millions of people took to the streets and participated in racial justice demonstrations during the summer of 2020. There were well over 7,000 public demonstrations for racial justice across the U.S., arguably the largest protest movement in the nation’s history. 

We begin this brief by describing the significance of the right to protest and how inequitable police responses to protest can undermine U.S. Constitutional rights under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments. We then present the findings from our analysis of protests in the summer of 2020, discuss the implications of these findings, and argue that police, ultimately, should not be tasked with managing protests. 

We found striking disparities in police responses to racial justice protests in the summer of 2020 compared to demonstrations unrelated to racial justice. Police responses ranged from no presence to mass arrests, indiscriminate use of projectiles, and chemical weapons (e.g., rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray), and driving police vehicles into crowds of protestors.  

Mass arrests of racial justice protestors also risk chilling the First Amendment rights of people participating in racial justice and anti-police violence movements. In the summer of 2020, hundreds of protestors, including those who had not committed any violence, were arrested on felony charges, including charges of domestic terrorism. These arrests have helped fuel a false and dangerous narrative that people protesting in support of Black lives are involved in acts of domestic terrorism. 

Cop City

A team of LDF attorneys and organizers have been heavily involved with advocacy against the development of a $90 million militarized law enforcement training facility near Atlanta, Georgia, referred to as “Cop City.” The aggressive law enforcement and prosecutorial response by officials to opponents of Cop City demonstrates the continuing backlash to racial justice protestors voicing criticism to our current failed system of public safety which relies exclusively on ineffective law enforcement. This is not only a criminal justice issue, it’s a democracy and political participation issue because it threatens to chill people’s exercise of their First Amendment rights. 

LDF testified before the Atlanta City Council on June 6, 2023, opposing Cop City in a marathon hearing that lasted until the next morning. Following the Council’s vote to fund Cop City, LDF collaborated with local community partners to support a petition for a referendum to repeal the city legislation that authorized the building of Cop City.

In December 2023, LDF, Brennan Center, CCR, and ACLU sent a letter to members of Congress expressing concern about the inappropriate use of federal counterterrorism authorities by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis (I&A) to target opposition to construction of a police training facility known as Cop City in Atlanta, Georgia. In July 2023, we sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security raising similar concerns about their surveillance of and use of the term “Domestic Violent Extremism” in reference to Cop City opponents. DHS intelligence has inappropriately characterized Stop Cop City activists as “Domestic Violent Extremists” and facilitated their targeting by Georgia law enforcement.

To help you learn more about Cop City, as well as the state of public safety in Atlanta, LDF has compiled answers to the most frequently asked questions. This resource includes information about the dangers of Cop City, the community opposition towards the project, efforts to stop it, and more.

Filed: 2023 - Atlanta, GA

On September 21, 2023, LDF filed an amicus brief in Baker v. City of Atlanta, challenging Atlanta Municipal Code Sec. 66-37(b)’s ban on non-Atlanta residents collecting referendum petition signatures. This provision restricted residents of neighboring DeKalb County from collecting and attesting to petitions regarding a referendum that seeks to place the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, widely known as Cop City, on the ballot. LDF’s brief argued that the residents of the majority-Black DeKalb County have a vested First Amendment interest in collecting petitions from their Atlanta neighbors because the Supreme Court recognizes this activity as core political speech. The construction of Cop City raises a host of environmental, health, and public safety concerns that directly impact DeKalb County residents, and they have the right to engage their neighbors about these critical issues.  

Protesters gather downtown in opposition to the construction of Cop City. (Photo via Shutterstock)
Protesters gather in New York to rally against the construction of Cop City. (Source: Shutterstock)

New York City Council Public Safety Committee

Eliminate funding for the NYPD Strategic Response Group and invest in communities

LDF submitted written testimony urging the New York City Council Public Safety Committee to eliminate funding for the NYPD Strategic Response Group (SRG) and invest funds in local communities. The SRG is known for using aggressive policing tactics, particularly against protesters exercising their First Amendment Rights, which was especially evident during the 2020 protests. In the interest of public safety, the funds that have historically been used for SRG should instead be invested in youth services, healthcare, and non-police safety initiatives in communities that have most negatively impacted by police practices in New York.

LDF is deeply concerned by the Strategic Response Group’s presence in New York City as a specialized unit that notoriously uses force, arrests, and dangerous tactical strategies such as kettling against demonstrators as they exercise their First Amendment rights. In New York and elsewhere, specialized units such as SRG have a history of discrimination, abuse of power, and a lack of accountability.  

Know Your Rights As a Protestor

The First Amendment protects your right to assemble and express your views through protest. However, police and other government officials are allowed to place certain narrow restrictions on the exercise of speech rights. Make sure you’re prepared by brushing up on your rights before heading out into the streets.

Students at colleges and universities play a vital role in shaping social movements. This guide explains your legal rights to organize, protest, and express opinions on personal and public matters while enrolled at a college or university in New York.

More on Policing and Public Safety

Thurgood Marshall Institute Brief

Research by the Thurgood Marshall Institute found striking disparities in police responses to protests in the summer of 2020. At racial justice demonstrations, police were more likely to be present, more likely to have an escalated presence, and more likely to escalate their response to include arrests, projectiles, and chemical weapons, compared to similar demonstrations unrelated to racial justice. 

LDF Original Content

In federal pattern-or-practice investigations, the Department of Justice engages in a deep dive into a police department’s history, evaluating whether the department has systematically engaged in excessive uses of force, raciallybiased policing, unreasonable stops and searches, discrimination, and more. 

LDF Report

Advancing an Alternative to Police

This brief by LDF and the Bazelon Center examines the incarceration, institutionalization, and police violence that Black people with mental illness, and all people with mental illness, face in law enforcement encounters when community-based mental health services are not available to respond to their needs.

Justice in Public Safety Project

Cop City and Public Safety in Atlanta FAQ

This resource includes information about the dangers of Cop City, the community opposition towards the project, efforts to stop it, and more. Cop City will perpetuate current failed systems of public safety in Atlanta that rely almost exclusively on law enforcement.

Criminal Justice and Policing

Qualified Immunity FAQ

For decades, qualified immunity has protected law enforcement officers and other government officials from being held accountable when they violate people’s constitutional rights. We’ve compiled answers to frequently asked questions about qualified immunity.

LDF Original Content

The myths that are used to justify qualified immunity are numerous and egregious, and its dangers are clear. It’s critical to explore both in order to raise awareness about qualified immunity’s detrimental impacts, particularly on communities of color, and why it is a danger to public safety.

Criminal Justice and Policing

National Police Funding Database

This database provides publicly available data of federal grants and military equipment transfers to more than 250 local law enforcement agencies across the nation along with demographic and police department data. It also provides, where available, information about police misconduct complaints filed by individuals, consent decrees, and settlement amounts.