More than a dozen people who were trapped and brutally arrested last year in a downtown intersection marked the anniversary by suing the city and eleven St. Louis cops.
All the people suing were caught up in the infamous police "kettle" on the third night of protests following the acquittal of ex-St. Louis cop Jason Stockley
on charges of murder.
In twelve separate suits, a total of fourteen plaintiffs allege they were surrounded, pepper sprayed and, in many cases, beaten, slammed to the ground and dragged across pavement despite complying with police orders.
"I feel like they wanted to make an example out of us to all the protesters," says Demetrius Thomas, a 37-year-old filmmaker who is bringing one of the suits.
Cops knocked Thomas to the ground, clubbed him in the ribs with batons and broke his cameras, he says. In the year since, he has had to rent equipment for video assignments, eating up his profits. He says the financial strain ended a long-term relationship and cost him his house in south county.
Thomas says he had to move in with his mother and struggles with anxiety.
"Now, if I see police or I'm close to police, I just feel nervous," he says. "My hands get all clammy and shaky."
The cases were filed by the St. Louis civil rights law firm Khazaeli Wyrsch and the nonprofit firm ArchCity Defenders. They are the latest chapter in the ongoing legal fallout from the police department's heavy-handed tactics during weeks of protests following the Stockley verdict.
See also: Filmmaker at Protests Was Beaten by St. Louis Cops After Kettling, Suit Says
The ACLU won a preliminary injunction in November that outlawed several of the most-aggressive tactics police used during the demonstrations. U.S. Circuit Judge Catherine Perry wrote
that police used pepper spray to "punish protesters" and followed no clear criteria for declaring assemblies unlawful.
"Plaintiffs’ evidence — both video and testimony – shows that officers have exercised their discretion in an arbitrary and retaliatory fashion to punish protesters for voicing criticism of police or recording police conduct," Perry wrote in her 48-page order.
That case is still in settlement negotiations between plaintiffs and the city.
The lawsuits filed on Monday cover a lot of the same conduct as the ACLU case, and several of the people called to testify by the ACLU are plaintiffs in the new cases.
Attorney Javad Khazaeli says his clients had originally hoped to see the ACLU suit settled first, but they have decided they could not wait any longer. Another factor in the timing is the statue of limitations on potential charges from their arrests. The city let the one-year deadline pass without pursuing the "failure to disperse" charges listed in nearly all of the 123 arrests from the night of the kettle.
Plaintiffs in the new cases include protesters as well as people such as Thomas, who say they were neutral observers. He is one of several in the group who insist they were there only to film that night and say cops homed in on them and their cameras.
See also: Mike Faulk, Post-Dispatch Reporter, Sues Over Kettling Arrest
The demonstrations began almost immediately on September 15, 2017, after now-retired Judge Timothy Wilson found Stockley, who is white, not guilty of murder
in the 2011 killing of Anthony Lamar Smith, who was black. Protesters flocked to the streets next to the courthouse, and police responded in force, unleashing the department's Civil Disobedience Team, better known as "riot police," to turn back the crowds. Despite a previous settlement
that sought to rein in police, officers unloaded on demonstrators with pepper spray.
But the department is facing its highest scrutiny for what happened on September 17.
After two tense nights, more than 1,000 people marched non-violently through downtown and Midtown
. But as darkness fell, something shifted. Police ended up corralling more than 100 people in a move called a "kettle." Then, some of those people say, officers pepper-sprayed, cuffed and beat them even as they fully complied with orders.
In a news release issued the next day, police claimed the scene turned dangerous as the hour grew late.
"Many of the demonstrators were peaceful, however after dark, the agitators outnumbered the peaceful demonstrators and the unruly crowd became a mob," the statement said.
Police cited broken windows downtown and other vandalism. But when called to testify during the ACLU suit
, police supervisors admitted that was hours before and blocks away — and that by the time of the mass arrests they could not be sure the vandals were even in the crowd. They also admitted that they hadn't given any recent orders to disperse before lines of officers blocked off all four sides of Washington and Tucker, trapping dozens of people inside.
Khazaeli says the police version of events was a lie from the start. There was no mob or growing danger, he says. If anything, the night was winding down and many of the people arrested had no idea they were being targeted by police until they were surrounded and officers moved in.
"You can understand the ludicrousness of kettling people into an intersection, not letting them leave, beating them and then charging them with failure to disperse," Khazaeli says.
Another of the plaintiffs, a National Guard lieutenant colonel and downtown resident named Brian Baude, claims in court papers he went out to photograph and document damage done by vandals.
"His goal was to act as a neutral observer safeguarding the truth, and he wanted to help protect the community," the filing says.
Baude says during his travels he recorded damage and even picked up an overturned trashcan. But he still ended up in the kettle.
"Mr. Baude approached another officer in line across Tucker south of Washington and asked if there was anything he could do to be helpful," according to his lawsuit. "The officer grabbed him by the lapels and shoved Mr. Baude back into the intersection."
He was one of at least two members of the military arrested that night. Another, Lt. Alex Nelson, and his wife, Iris, are also plaintiffs. In their suit, the Nelsons say they had been at their loft nearby and went out to see what was happening. Despite lying on the ground with his hands in plain sight, Alex Nelson says officers beat him and lifted up his head so they could pepper spray him directly in the face.
"You like that, cocksucker?" one officer told him, according to Nelson.
Despite claims that people failed to disperse, video from that night shows people were desperate to do just that. Thomas' footage shows people going from one side of the kettle to the other, pleading to leave. Police, standing shoulder to shoulder, beat their night sticks on the ground in unison as bicycle cops lined up their bikes like a barricade, shouting "move back" as they closed in.
, as well as that of another plaintiff, Jonathan "Reb Z" Ziegler, shows people raising their hands and voluntarily lowering themselves to the ground. Cops blasted them with pepper spray and manhandled them anyway.
On Ziegler's video
, an officer is heard mocking him as "Superstar" as he is showered with pepper spray.
Police were in a celebratory mood after the arrests. Multiple witnesses say they saw them smoking cigars, and they were heard mockingly chanting
, "Whose streets? Our streets." The lawsuits include a photo of at least seventeen officers posing with the kind of banner neighborhoods hang out of civic pride. The pic was posted on social media with the caption: "SLMPD CDT [Civil Disobedience Team] Team welcomes protesters."
Then-acting chief, Lt. Col. Larry O'Toole, capped off the evening by bragging to reporters
that "the police owned the night."
ArchCity Defenders Executive Director Blake Strode says St. Louis, given its familiarity with protests, should have known better.
"The answer to robust, lawful protest is not violent crackdowns and military-style tactics by police," Strode said in a prepared statement. "The kettling arrests of peaceful civilians that took place one year ago constituted a gross violation of the law and abuse of state power, and there are real human beings who suffered as a result."
The suits specifically name Colonel Gerald Leyshock, who was in charge the night of the kettle, as well as Lt. Scott Boyher and Sgt. Matthew Karnowski of the bike unit; Lt. Timothy Sachs, who oversaw the riot police; and two of Sachs' sergeants, Randy Jemerson and Brian Rossomanno, whom protesters call "Riot King."
The suit also includes several unnamed officers, listed as John Does 1-5. Khazaeli says they have been hard to identify, because they covered their faces and did not wear name tags.
"They were just nameless," he says.
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