Mohawk Nation Office - Kahnawake Branch
Thursday March 5, 1998
SYRACUSE: Press Republican
State police invaded the Onondaga Nation territory and brutally attacked a group of peaceful protesters and religious celebrants, a group of Native Americans claimed in a $40 million civil rights lawsuit filed Tuesday. The group accused state troopers and local deputies of violating their constitutional rights to free speech and free assembly
The lawsuit named New York State Police Superintendent James W. McMahon, Onondaga County Sheriff Kevin Walsh and 46 troopers and deputies who took park in quelling the disturbance last spring on the Onondaga Nation just south of Syracuse. The 48-page complaint also sought individual punitive damages from McMahon, Walsh and the others. "The brutality and the excessive force was of such a nature that we think the federal courts is the right place for their rights to be rendered", said Elkan Abramowitz, an attorney representing some of the 91 plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit accused state police of operating "a select Indian detail .. to employ riot squad tactics against Native Americans". The troopers, unprovoked attack on the protesters was intended as "a payback" for an earlier confrontation between the state police and the Cattaraugus Senecas, the lawsuit charged.
State police were standing by their earlier conclusion that the troopers acted property, said Lt. Jamie Mills.
The lawsuit came just a day after Onondaga chiefs had four reservation smoke shops bulldozed and burned because they were illegally, operating without tribal permits.
It was the chiefs who invited state police onto the reservation May 18, 1997, when a quiet protest over a temporary tax agreement with the state turned violent and 13 Indians and five state troopers were injured. State police said they were trying to stop the protesters from blocking a nearby interstate highway. The scuffle was caught on videotape and aired on television news broadcasts across the state.
Despite the striking footage, an internal investigation by state police determined troopers acted properly. That finding only angered the Native Americans involved. Two dozen protesters were arrested.
However, a local judge, citing a lack of probable cause for the arrests, dismissed the charges against all but one of the protesters.
"I don,t think the lawsuit is high enough", said Kenneth Kappelmeier, the lone remaining defendant in that case and one of the lawsuit's plaintiffs. "I think each one of us deserves at least $25 million. I think it's about time that New York State pay for what they've been doing to us," said Kappelmeier.
His felony assault case is up Wednesday. A county judge will decide whether to dismiss it for set a trial date.
The lawsuit said state police intruded on a peaceful gathering of Onondaga people being held on private property. Abramowitz said some of those attending were there to protest the actions taken by their chiefs while others were participating in a religious ceremony and community dinner.
"Without giving any warning .. and without any explanation or justification for their actions, state police moved in on the unarmed plaintiffs and with nightsticks drawn, punched, kicked, beat and arrested many plaintiffs," the lawsuit said.
Abramowitz accused troopers of carrying out "an organized and retaliatory response" against the Onondage protesters because of the civil unrest a month earlier on the Seneca territory in Bryant. More than a dozen troopers were injured during a clash with the Senecas that closed down a 30 mile section of the New York Thruway for several days.
Like the Onondagas, some Senecas were angry over a temporary agreement with the state over taxes on gas and cigarettes sold to non-Indians. Gov. George Pataki has since proposed doing away with those tax collections.
In response to the disturbance on the Seneca Nation, the state police formed an "Indian detail" to deal with future situations involving Native American tribes, Abramowitz said.
The group was "not sufficiently trained in non-violent crowd control methods ... nor sufficiently trained in the use of force and the procedure to be used in effecting arrests," the lawsuit said.