A Muslim woman is suing the city of Chicago and six Chicago police officers for tackling her on the stairs of a subway station, stripping her of her headscarf and violating her civil rights on the Fourth of July last year.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group, on Thursday announced the federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Chicago resident Itemid Al Matar, a 32-year-old Saudi student.
Al Matar, who covers her full body, head and face in the conservative Saudi style of dress, was on her way home on July 4, 2015, and was running up the stairs to catch a train, when a group of police officers ran up behind her, “grabbed [her] and threw her down upon the stair landing,” according to the lawsuit.
“They ripped off the face covering and the head covering, as well as pulled up her shirt, exposing her midriff, and pulled down her pants,” said Ahmed Rehab, the executive director of CAIR’s Chicago office. “She made the choice to cover her body, and someone came along and exposed her in this violent manner. It was humiliating.”
Al Matar, who had come to the United States about a year prior to study English, was frightened and shocked, according to Rehab. “At first she thought they were robbers, and when she saw that they were in uniform, she couldn’t believe her eyes.”
The lawsuit alleges that the police acted with prejudice and “with malice.”
Al Matar was arrested and eventually charged with resisting arrest and reckless behavior — charges that she was cleared of in June, and which Rehab said amounted to a “an attempt at a cover up” by a police department that “knew they had done something that was unprovoked and unwarranted.”
The Justice Department is currently investigating the police department’s conduct in the incident, he said. A Justice Department spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The Chicago Police Department declined to comment on the case due to the pending lawsuit, but police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi wrote in an email that the department’s officers “strive to treat all individuals with the highest levels of dignity of respect.”
As a direct result of the incident, the lawsuit says, Al Matar has “suffered violations of her constitutional rights, emotional anxiety, fear, humiliation, monetary loss, embarrassment, fear, pain and suffering and future pain and suffering.”
At the police station following her arrest, Al Matar was ordered by a female officer to strip naked in a room where the door was left open and Al Matar could see male police peering in and laughing, Rehab said.
The lawsuit charges that Al Matar was subject to the use of excessive force, false arrest, unlawful search, a violation of the freedom of religious expression as defined by the First and Fourth constitutional amendments, and malicious prosecution.
The police incident report filed at the time that Al Matar was tackled says that the officers in question “were on high alert for terrorist activity” when they saw Al Matar “exiting the station with her entire face concealed by a scarf, hat and sunglasses.” She was “clutching a backpack with her right arm to her chest and walking at a brisk pace in a determined manner,” the incident report continues. Police pursued her because of this “suspicious behavior,” the report said.
According to police, Al Matar was ordered to stop, and did not — causing the police to believe that she “might be a lone wolf suicide bomber.” The report says that Al Matar “pulled away” and ignored verbal instruction before they tackled her.
A partial video of the incident shows Al Matar walking up the stairs with four officers coming up behind her. She does not turn around, nor does anyone else on the stairs — something that Rehab said shows that the police made no verbal attempt to stop her.
Once on the ground, the police incident report describes Al Matar as “furiously clutching her backpack and appeared to be trying to reach for something.” Al Matar appeared to have “possible incindiary devices strapped around her ankles.”
As police searched her, Al Matar was screaming and crying, the report said — something that caused “considerable alarm to CTA patrons.”
Her backpack turned out to contain food to break her Ramadan fast. She was walking with ankle weights.
“They ask me why I put my food inside bag, why I’m Muslim, why I’m fasting, why I wear this clothes, why I cover my body,” Al Matar told CBS Chicago.
On June 30, a Chicago judge dismissed one charge and found her not guilty of all charges.
“As far as we’re concerned, policing ought to be concerned with criminal behavior and violations of the law, not with the way people dress or the color of their skin,” said Rehab.
Al Matar has asked that the case be tried before a jury.