Ferguson Activists and Attorneys Talk Chemical Warfare, Mass Arrests, Latest Police Shooting

By Kenrya Rankin Aug 20, 2015

Yesterday, August 19, was the one-year anniversary of the still-unprosecuted police killing of Kajieme Powell, but that wasn’t the only source of turmoil in the Ferguson area. Within the same 24 hours, St. Louis County issued the first of up to what may be 1,000 summons to activists and journalists arrested in last year’s Michael Brown protests; police in St. Louis fatally shot Mansur Ball-Bey, a black 18-year-old; and authorities deployed tear gas at a resulting protest. In response, a group of activists and attorneys have assembled to address the state of things on the ground in the city that became famous when a then-police officer shot and killed Michael Brown on August 9, 2014.

The group includes Montague Simmons and Kayla Reed of Organization for Black Struggle, Advancement Project senior attorney Denise Lieberman and St. Louis University Law professor Brendan Roediger. They talked to reporters today to discuss their concerns and observations from yesterday’s unrest and what it means for residents who are living in a “violent police state.” Here are their key points.

Kayla Reed on Mansur Ball-Bey, who police say pointed a gun at officers:
Yesterday, a year ago, Chief Dotson got on television and stated that Kajieme Powell had a knife in is hand, high above his hand, charging at officers. Later, video came out proving that that was a false statement and there was never a public issuance or apology or correction for that matter. So one year later, it is very hard to believe that the same chief who has allowed his force to continue to escalate situations and in several different incidents has been proven to be lying, that his account of events is true. Especially when they differ so much from people who live in that neighborhood and have lived in that neighborhood for some many years and knew this young man. So the narrative that he had a gun and an officer feared for his life, that is a narrative that we hear most often with these situations. That’s the narrative that we heard with Walter Scott, that he reached for the officer’s gun but video disproved that. The situation that we were faced with [yesterday] and [on]  August 9 with [the police shooting of Tyrone Harris] is that there is no body camera [footage], that we have to take what the officers are saying for truth. Especially yesterday, because the young man is no longer here. 

Denise Lieberman on use of tear gas:
Last night the residents and protestors of St. Louis were again barraged with tear gas, chemical agents and a militarized response to peaceful protest activity. This action flies in the face of a federal restraining order and subsequent settlement decree that requires police to issue dispersal orders, provide clear and unambiguous warning for chemical agents. It requires that chemical agents not be used solely for the purpose of squelching First Amendment activity, requires police to provide not only warnings but an opportunity to disburse, and a clear egress to do so. Clearly, none of these were followed last night, and this follows a pattern of aggressive and militarized police responses that we saw throughout the actions of the last week, indeed over the last year, that have had the effect of demonizing and criminalizing First Amendment activity. This is antithetical to the sworn duty of police to protect and serve communities, [not] to criminalize them. 

Brendan Roediger on why the newly issued charges are especially dangerous for young people:
For the leaders, for the journalists, I have faith that they will find lawyers and that they will be represented. My real fear is, there were hundreds of young people who were picked up for doing nothing. And a lot of those folks don’t live in the same residence, and they’re not gonna receive their summons, and they’re gonna be arrested, and they’re gonna be incarcerated.

Denise Lieberman on abuse of power:
[We’ve seen] numerous examples throughout the week that not only included [the] usurping of the county executive’s authority by issuing a state of emergency, we saw it in mass arrests during peaceful demonstrations, and we saw it in numerous civil rights violations incurred by those who were in custody at the hands of the police. And all of this is compounded by the reopening of hundreds of old cases from last year, charges that the prosecuting attorney himself determined not to prosecute. All of this is designed to intimidate peaceful demonstrators from engaging in protected First Amendment activity and chill their right to free speech. People who are arrested and subject to mistreatment have a variety of potential sources of civil rights violation claims that they may be able to raise. We are calling on St. Louis county counselor’s office to promptly dismiss these spurious charges that are been re-brought from last year.