Protesters at Grand Army Plaza in summer 2020. Photo: Eliana Perozo

For the second time this year, New York City and the NYPD have found themselves owing Black Lives Matter demonstrators millions amid the largest protest settlement in history. Nearly 1400 people are eligible to receive $9,950 each. If those arrested file their claims before January 22, they could receive their funds as soon as May 2024. However, according to lawyer Elena Cohen, 40% of eligible protestors still haven’t applied. 

While 811 valid claims have been submitted, there are still 597 claims within the allotted settlement budget that have yet to be filed through the Sow V. City of New York website. Originally, protesters had until Dec. 22 to file their claims, but the city agreed to a surprising 30-day extension. Claims are now due Jan. 22. All unclaimed funds will be turned back over to the city.

“I want these young people to be operating from a position of knowledge and to be able to choose whether or not they want to file a claim,” said activist Savitri D., who is also a plaintiff in this lawsuit. “What I don’t want is for hundreds of people to not know. This is a lot of money and people need to know they can apply.” She has been assisting in outreach about the settlement for years.

There are 18 protests against police violence that occurred from May 28, 2020, to June 4, 2020, that are eligible for this settlement. The Times Square protest and Mott Haven protest that occurred in 2020 have their own separate settlements and are not included in this class action lawsuit. 

“The chilling [effect] that took place that summer is real and vivid and I know many people never went back out to protest because they were arrested and mistreated and this is very frustrating,” Savitri D. added. “This settlement shows we matter and hopefully reinforces the need for control on the police.”

According to Elena Cohen and Ben Meyers, two of the 15 lawyers across four firms working on this settlement, the three main protests that have the highest number of unsubmitted claims thus far are Barclays Center on May 29, Astor Place/Union Square on June 2 and the Upper East Side protest on June 3.

While nearly 600 unclaimed settlements seem like a fairly large number, according to Cohen, a class action lawsuit is considered successful if at least 30% of people submit a claim. 

In 2004, protesters, journalists and bystanders, with the support of the ACLU, brought a lawsuit against the NYPD and won $18 million for the nearly 1800 people who had been arrested while peacefully protesting at the Republican National Convention. At the time, this was the largest protest settlement in history. While the total amount was larger than the $13 million allocated for the summer 2020 settlement, $7 million of the 2004 settlement went to legal fees alone. According to Cohen, only 30% of eligible people applied for the 2004 settlement, which set the standard for class action lawsuits.

“Anything over 30% is considered exceptional,” said Cohen, one of the leading attorneys on this settlement. Cohen also said that the $13 million being given to protestors for this settlement is 100% void of legal fees, which is in part what makes this settlement supersede the 2004 settlement in historic precedent. 

Cohen and Meyers, along with activist Savitri D., want to see even more than 60% of eligible arrested file claims. Cohen said her small team has spent hundreds of hours on outreach. 

“The people that are working on this lawsuit have been supporting this protest from the very beginning,” Cohen said. “We’ve been on the grounds supporting these protestors and organizers on the streets since 2020.” 

She and Meyers are longtime activists in New York City who have been working to stop police violence since Occupy Wall Street.

“These are attorneys who didn’t start supporting organizers in 2020, those networks go way back. They were activists before they were attorneys,” Savitri D. said. “I’ve relied on lawyers like Elena and Ben for many decades to protect our First Amendment rights,” she said.

According to Meyers, when it comes to holding the NYPD accountable, this settlement does little to get their attention given that $13 million is about 14 hours of the NYPD’s budget. However, this settlement in conjunction with the lawsuit presented by the Legal Aid Society, New York Civil Liberties Union, and State Attorney General’s Office that legally changed the NYPD’s policing practices could be successful in sending a message of accountability to the city.

“People still remember what happened to them very clearly and they carry this traumatic imprint of what happened to them,” said Meyers. “For them to get a little bit of relief from this and to be told by the city, ‘yeah, we messed up,’ it’s meaningful.” 

With only 12 days left, here’s what you need to know about how to file your claim: As someone who was arrested on June 2, 2020, I was eligible and filed my claim in under 60 seconds. Every claimant received a letter in the mail with a claimant number on it. However, I received my claim number from an email sent to me by Cohen and Meyers. If you don’t remember receiving your claimant number in the mail or lost the paper, you can reach out to Cohen and Meyers for assistance by emailing them here. Please visit the Sow V. City of New York website to file your claim. It’s important to note that people who do not submit a claim before January 22, 2024, cannot bring a separate lawsuit on their own and will be completely barred from any recovery. 

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