Missouri activists applauded the ACLU on Friday for suing the city of St. Louis over how its police handled protesters in the days following the latest acquittal of an officer in the shooting death of a black man.
Former St. Louis officer Jason Stockley was found not guilty of murder on Sept. 15 in the 2011 fatal shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith.
Video evidence allegedly showing Stockley stating, “I’m going to kill this motherfucker!” during a police chase leading up to Smith’s shooting death was not enough to convince St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson that Stockley’s actions violated the law.
Outraged protesters who took to the streets after the verdict was announced on Friday were fired upon with tear gas and pepper spray, according to multiple witnesses and news reports.
Local wheelchair-bound activist and independent journalist Heather De Mian, who was in the crowd on Friday, said the air downtown was filled with pepper spray.
“I didn’t get hit directly, but I did get hit with the cloud,” De Mian said in an interview. “My eyes burned for about 10 minutes. My skin burned a lot for a couple of hours. My skin was still itching in the morning.”
On Saturday and Sunday, riot police surrounded groups of demonstrators, “kettling” them into one space and not allowing them to leave before arresting multiple people for failure to disperse, according to the ACLU.
Daniela Velazquez, director of communications for the ACLU’s Missouri chapter, said several people had their cell phones taken and videos deleted by police when they tried to record what officers were doing.
All these alleged tactics violated protesters’ First Amendment right to free speech and their Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure, according to Velazquez.
“People do have a First Amendment right to non-violent protest,” she said during a Friday afternoon phone interview. “When you make it so difficult that a reasonable person can’t comply with the law, they can’t choose whether or not they’re being civilly disobedient.”
In its complaint, the ACLU alleges police fired “chemical agents” not only on protesters, but also innocent bystanders and journalists throughout the weekend and earlier this week.
Oftentimes, according to Velazquez, the officers gave confusing instructions to people trying to leave the area.
“They’re supposed to give people warning to disperse. If you say, ‘You’ve gotta leave,’ to a group of people 45 minutes ago, how are new people you arrested a few minutes ago supposed to know?”
The St. Louis City Counselor’s office, which represents the police department, did not respond to phone calls for comment.
De Mian said the ACLU’s lawsuit is more than justified after she and other bystanders were almost hit by a police vehicle near demonstrations in the city on Sunday.
“They almost ran over a woman in a wheelchair,” she said. “They’re coming out and still using their military tactics, being authoritarians just like they have for years.”