2 students sue over use of Taser, arrests by Atlanta police during protests

Taniyah Pilgrim and Messiah Young are suing the City of Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the individual officers involved in their arrest last summer.

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS / ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

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Taniyah Pilgrim and Messiah Young are suing the City of Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the individual officers involved in their arrest last summer.

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS / ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

Taniyah Pilgrim said she’s still in pain — both physically and emotionally — after she and another Atlanta college student were tased and arrested by a group of police officers in Atlanta last summer.

“The anxiety that night brings me every day — the nightmares that I still have to experience every single night — it’s like life took a total turn, for something that we didn’t ask to be involved with,” she said.

For Messiah Young, the pain seems to manifest in a different way. He spoke softly Thursday as he reflected on the incident that resulted in him being in handcuffs while an officer pointed a gun at him.

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Body camera footage shows the encounter between six Atlanta police officers and two college students.

“I know the pain that they go through and continue to go through, and accountability is what relieves pain and brings peace,” said attorney Mawuli Davis, who is representing Young. “And unfortunately, there has been no accountability.”

The demand for accountability, Davis said, is what has driven Pilgrim and Young to file a lawsuit against the city of Atlanta. The 21- and 23-year-old announced the lawsuit Thursday morning during a news conference with their legal teams.

Named in the suit alongside the city of Atlanta are Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the individual officers involved in the arrest, including Ivory Streeter, Mark Gardner, Lonnie Hood, Armond Jones, Willie T. Sauls and Ronald Claud.

Davis said the city has failed to take responsibility for the impact the encounter had on the two college students: chronic physical pain that Pilgrim said she now has to tend to regularly, a laceration that required nearly 20 stitches for Young, and anxiety and emotional scars borne by them both.

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The lawsuit also includes Atlanta Police Department officers Carlos Smith, Steven McKesey, Sheldon Drinkard and 10 anonymous officers deemed “John Doe Officers” who according to documents were nearby while the other officers deployed their Tasers and “despite being in a position to intervene, chose to stand by and watch without making any effort to stop the obvious use of excessive force.”

Six of the Atlanta police officers were fired and charged following the incident, which Bottoms then called a clear use of excessive force. Two have since had their terminations overturned.

Body camera footage of the incident showing the officers trying to pull Young from the car, which is stopped in the middle of the street, was widely circulated.

“For these young people to have this video out and have to live with this for the rest of their lives is unthinkable, but we are here to hold the city and all those involved accountable,” Davis said.

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Attorney L. Chris Stewart talks about the lawsuit during Thursday's news conference.

Credit: Asia Simone Burns / asia.burns@ajc.com

Attorney L. Chris Stewart talks about the lawsuit during Thursday's news conference.

Credit: Asia Simone Burns / asia.burns@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Attorney L. Chris Stewart talks about the lawsuit during Thursday's news conference.

Credit: Asia Simone Burns / asia.burns@ajc.com

Credit: Asia Simone Burns / asia.burns@ajc.com

The incident happened as people across the city were protesting the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Floyd’s death renewed anger about the treatment of African Americans by police and spurred demonstrations throughout the nation.

While most of the demonstrations were peaceful in Atlanta, a May 29 protest devolved into chaos and mayhem. Looters burned police cars, smashed their way into stores and left shattered glass in their wake. The visitors center in Centennial Olympic Park was left torched and the CNN Center was defaced. The following day, Bottoms put a curfew in place to prevent additional violence or property damage.

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Protests continued the next day, and for the second night in a row violence broke out at Centennial Park.

Pilgrim, a student at Spelman College, and Young, who attends Morehouse College, were driving near the park as the demonstration was taking place, according to attorney L. Chris Stewart. The young couple had been out on a date looking to grab a bite to eat when they became stuck in the traffic of police diverting drivers and pedestrians from the park, the attorney previously said.

Traffic was at a standstill when Hood approached the couple’s car and told Young to get out of the area, the complaint said.

“Upon observing that there were no pedestrians in front of him and that the vehicle ahead of him had moved forward a few yards, Young complied with Hood’s commands and moved his vehicle forward a few yards to close the small gap between the vehicle in front of him, but due to heavy traffic, was again forced to stop,” the lawsuit said.

When the 2017 Mazda came to a stop, the six officers surrounded it on both sides and began yelling at Pilgrim and Young, according to the complaint. Pilgrim “frantically” complied when Hood commanded her to open her car door, the document said.

As Hood told Pilgrim to get out, Gardner deployed his Taser on her, according to the complaint. As she convulsed, Hood pulled out his own Taser and deployed it on her, it said.

Claud shattered the driver’s-side window with a window punch while Street shot his Taser at Young through the shattered glass, according to the complaint. At some point, Jones began trying to pull Young out of the driver’s-side of the car, while Hood was trying to remove the Morehouse student through the passenger side, the attorneys claimed.

During what Stewart called the “tug-of-war” between officers over Young’s body, another officer yelled out that the man had a gun. Jones then pulled out his service weapon and pointed it at Young.

“There was no gun. There was no weapon. There wasn’t even mace. There was nothing,” Stewart said. “Yet, he screamed multiple times from a distance ‘he’s got a gun,’ which could’ve gotten these kids killed.”

Both Pilgrim and Young were taken into custody. Young was accused of several charges, including eluding police. All of the charges were dropped the following day.

“Pilgrim was held against her will for four hours without a mask in a police van with others during the height of COVID,” said Stewart, who is representing her. “She was never charged with a crime.”

The complaint said that in enacting the curfew, Bottoms gave Atlanta police officers free rein to “use excessive force against citizens who were committing no crime on May 30, 2020, so long as doing so was ‘incidental.’”

The lawsuit also claims the curfew was unconstitutional, calling it “overbroad” and “unenforceable” and stating that it was applied to all people in the city limits without regard of if they were part of a large gathering of people.

“(It) failed to provide fair notice to APD officers or citizens regarding the scope of the curfew and its prohibitions, including but not limited to the particular locations where the curfew applied and whether the curfew prohibited citizens from traveling through the city in a vehicle.”

The lawsuit asks for punitive damages for both students and for their legal fees to be covered. It also asks that the officers be tried before a jury.

“You would think there would be some sort of reform or change at this point,” Young said, adding that every day reminds him of something from that night last year.

In a statement, the city said it has “not been served with any such lawsuit, therefore we are unable to comment on any potential pending litigation.”

Atlanta police declined to comment on the lawsuit.