Over 300 Arrested in St. Louis: It's About More Than Police Brutality

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ACLU organizer Mustafa Abdullah says police brutality and economic inequality are deeply intertwined in St. Louis, Missouri

JAISAL NOOR: Over 300 people have been arrested as thousands have taken to the streets to protest the acquittal of St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley for killing 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011. 143 people were arrested on a highway protest on Tuesday alone, including two journalists with The Young Turks. In a police recording of the incident, Stockley can be heard saying he was going to kill the suspect. Smith was shot five times and pronounced dead on the scene. Now joining us to discuss this and the ongoing protests is Mustafa Abdullah. He’s an organizer with the ACLU of Missouri. Thank you so much for joining us.

M. ABDULLAH: I’m happy to be here.

JAISAL NOOR: So, talk about what you’ve seen in the streets over the past two weeks plus. The police have said there have been criminal elements in the protests who have engaged in vandalism and rioting.

M. ABDULLAH: So, I think that the organized protests are really a beautiful sort of demonstration of a community’s response to what they see as systemic oppression and a lack of accountability and transparency when it comes to interactions with law enforcement and the investigations into police brutality and police killings. What I’ve seen is, I’ve seen protestors lead chants of, “Take one, take all.” I’ve seen protestors who are referring to themselves as family and I think that these issues are particularly very personal to them. I think that the fact that there has been a few instances of windows being broken at businesses is more of a demonstration of people’s anger and frustration and I think that I’m not, I think that those acts should be interpreted within that lens. And so when we’re seeing things at protests that we may find disagreeable or that we don’t understand, I think it’s important for folks to remind themselves to take a step back and to really try to have empathy for why people are frustrated and why they’re angry.

JAISAL NOOR: So, the ACLU recently sued the St. Louis Police Department over their use of chemical weapons or chemical agents, interfering with the video recording of police activity, making arbitrary arrests and kettling protestors. Two journalists with The Young Turks were also arrested. Talk about these over 300 arrests, why the ACLU has filed this lawsuit and if you can touch upon the arrests of journalists as well.

M. ABDULLAH: Yeah, so the role of the ACLU has been to protect the rights of protestors and to protect First Amendment rights. This has actually been a core ACLU issue since our founding and actually, the first issue that the group of ACLU lawyers back in, I think it was in 19, It was almost 100 years ago, was around the distribution of papers through the United States Postal Service. But basically, President Woodrow Wilson didn’t want for any of those newspapers that were against the war to be distributed. So, that was their first action with ACLU lawyers coming together to protect the First Amendment rights of those newspapers who were dissenting voices.

So, the protecting of the First Amendment rights of dissenting voices has always been an ACLU issue. And so we’ve seen instances out at the protests where, as talked about in the lawsuit, where folks appear to be indiscriminately maced, where there seems to be an indiscriminate use of tear gas and in situations where police have told people that this is an unlawful assembly, and said that they could leave in a particular direction, but it appears as though all those directions are actually blocked off so that there’s actually no egress route for folks.

In addition, the continued use of unlawful assembly as a reason to end protests has been concerning because it’s arguably at certain times that it’s not actually met that legal standard of folks actually engaging in a riot. So, there’s a difference even in the city and the state statutes about what constitutes a riot. So, we’ve been concerned about the preempt, the police department preemptively using that. I think it’s very concerning, the arrests of both, not just the unlawful arrests of some of the protestors but also the arrests of journalists and legal observers, because we’re always paying very close attention as to whether there’s any indication from police officers that they’re arresting these folks because they’re precisely performing their roles of documenting what’s going on. So, these are all issues that are central to people’s rights to be able to go out and peacefully assemble and to protest out in public.

JAISAL NOOR: And so can you talk about your response to what some have called antagonistic behavior by the police department? What you’ve described, and also, police officers chanting, “Who’s streets? Our streets,” after they, the police saying that after they cleared the protests. St. Louis police kill its residents at a higher rate than any other police department among America’s 100 most populous cities. St. Louis is deeply segregated, similar to Baltimore. Life expectancy, access to education, jobs, income is greatly, it can vary greatly. So, it’s within this context that these protests are happening and people often point out how differently police respond to rioting by sports fans, for example, than what you see with these largely peaceful protests. Can you talk about that as well, and why it’s important for these communities that are protesting to have this First Amendment right protected?

M. ABDULLAH: Yeah. I think that at the core of the concerns and the frustrations of the protestors is issues around institutionalized racism and oppression, and it’s not even just at the hands of police, it’s a societal issue. In St. Louis, in regards to policing, actually, in Missouri, since 2000, we have been collecting racial profiling numbers. So, basically data on vehicle stops and searches, basically for the past 16 years. We’ve known in the state that there’s been an issue of racial profiling and some of the municipalities are worse than others. I believe that if I remember correctly, the most recent numbers from the city were, I think, about one , that they were 1.4 times more likely to be African-Americans to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts. They’re also more likely to be arrested for the same violations of the law, even though the white counterparts are more likely to be found with drugs on them.

I mean, the numbers there are very clear that there is an issue of racial profiling. I know that when I go, over my four and a half years of working at the ACLU, I’ve done many, many, many Know Your Rights workshops across the state, and it is pretty amazing to me the stark indifference of knowledge of people’s rights when I go to communities of color to talk about policing issues versus when I go and talk to white, white communities.

I actually just came from a series of speaking engagements at a school in north St. Louis County, and I’m talking to eighth graders and about half of them have had experiences with law enforcement, black eighth graders. And that is somewhat the norm for communities of color, and unfortunately for them, I often hear that their experiences are negative; that they feel like they’re being hassled on the street, that they’re being stopped because they fit the description of somebody who’s a person of color, that they’re being detained by police when they feel like they actually don’t have any sort of reasonable suspicion to be detained other than they happen to live in this particular community.

So, there’s a strong level of distrust there, and I think that part of the challenge, particularly here in St. Louis is that as demonstrated through the DOJ reports on Ferguson, that some of the municipalities, particularly in north St. Louis and the St. Louis region really do, sort of like a policing for profit model where they really try to build up the revenue for their city through traffic violations and through making people pay fines for minor, minor violations. So, certainly, particularly in the north St. Louis region, there is a lot of tension and animosity with law enforcement, which I think is very unfortunate.

I also do understand from a law enforcement perspective that these sets of protests are unique because the protestors are going out there to protest the police. So, I know that that seems to be having an impact on sort of how the police handle these protests. I’m sure that it personally impacts them. I hope that both law enforcement and folks in the community, when they see these folks going out to protest and they’re talking about their experiences with law enforcement that they actually really listen and try to have some empathy, because we need to be addressing these systemic issues, and law enforcement needs to be addressing them.

JAISAL NOOR: And it looks like these protests are going to keep continuing because these, as you said, systemic issues are not going away, and they’re going to take proactive measures to really address them. So, thank you so much for the interview and we’re going to keep following this topic.

M. ABDULLAH: Yeah. Can I say a little bit more about the legal observer program?

JAISAL NOOR: Yeah, absolutely.

M. ABDULLAH: Great, so I just want to say that we’ve been working with great partners at the National Lawyers Guild, the St. Louis chapter, on training lots and lots of folks over the past few years on, since the killing of Mike Brown on becoming legal observers. Actually, since the non-guilty charge was leveled towards Jason Stockley, we’ve trained over 200 people to be legal observers in the St. Louis region. But basically, legal observers go out there to document the police response to protests. They’re not there to participate in the protests, they do not act as protestors. They are literally just there to document what the police are doing and it’s for the purpose of protecting the First Amendment rights of protestors.

So, we are going to be doing a series of trainings, actually, in the St. Louis region. We’re going to be doing two for people of color on October 14th and 15th, both from 3 to 5 p.m. On Saturday, October 14th, we’re going to be at the Julia Davis Library and on the 15th we’re going to be at Wayman AME Church. Then also, on the 21st we’re going to be doing another legal observer training that will be open to everyone from 2 to 4 p.m. at CIC in the Cortex on North Sarah Street. So, I would really encourage folks to come out to those. If there’s any questions, people can email us at outreach@aclu-mo.org.