Missouri Should Try Listening to Protesters Instead of Attacking Them

“I think everyone deserves the same rights as I do. I just want peace and justice,” says Maleeha Ahmad, one of the protesters who was pepper-sprayed by police officers in St. Louis last week.

Ms. Ahmad has joined a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Missouri against the city of St. Louis, arguing that the militarized and overtly aggressive police response to people protesting Jason Stockley’s acquittal violated the protesters’ First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, and due process rights. The ACLU of Missouri also sent a letter to officials in St. Louis reminding them that law enforcement is obligated to refrain from unnecessary and disproportionate use of force against nonviolent protests.

For the past nine days, protesters in St. Louis have decried a Missouri judge’s decision to acquit Stockley, a former St. Louis police officer, of first-degree murder for the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a 24-year-old Black man. The demonstrations called for justice and an end to the cycle of police brutality that is enabled by court decisions amounting to little more than a slap on the wrist.

What should have been a nonviolent demonstration in St. Louis was sullied by aggression, provocation, and intimidation by St. Louis Police. On the first day of the protests, officers descended on demonstrators wearing state-funded riot gear, full-body riot shields, and helmets. They fired tear gas and used pepper spray on dozens of people. They confiscated and destroyed videos of police activity recorded by observers. The videos that did go public showed people being “kettled,” or corralled into small areas, leaving them trapped in the face of an onslaught of chemical agents.

Acting Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole told a room full of reporters that everything happening in the city was being properly managed. ‘’We’re in control,’’ Chief O’Toole said. ‘’This our city and we’re going to protect it.”

And “their” city it was.

Police arrested more than 100 people on the first night of demonstrations, 80 on the second, and even more in the subsequent days. Protesters, press members, and innocent bystanders were rounded up together the same night police smugly chanted, “Whose streets? Our Streets!” An elderly woman was trampled and then arrested during one of the skirmishes.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has tried to defend its actions by pointing to singular acts of violence committed by a few people. To some, this may seem like a sufficient justification. Dispersing large crowds ensures everyone’s safety, right? Wrong.

Although police are authorized to issue dispersal orders for unlawful assemblies, law enforcement officials in St. Louis used their power indiscriminately, without making clear when and where those orders applied. As a result, people engaged in a lawful protest — along with observers and members of the press — were trapped and subjected to these violent tactics without the opportunity to disperse.

Further, isolated incidents of confrontation, even violent confrontation, should never be used as a proxy for the legality of an entire political demonstration. If police officers are given carte blanche authority to stamp out protests as soon as someone throws a rock or smashes a store window, then the state will always have an excuse to squelch the constitutionally protected speech of peaceful demonstrators.

Indeed, the First Amendment prohibits this broad-brush approach to state-sanctioned censorship. The Supreme Court decided in NAACP v. Clairborne Hardware Co. that the state cannot declare an entire political demonstration illegal simply because a handful of actors engage in violent conduct. By retaliating against lawful protests with militarized force, without any warning, police impinge on the due process rights of protesters.

We should also be careful not to let police serve as the ultimate arbiters of a demonstration’s legality. Like other institutions in American society, police are vulnerable to implicit biases, rooted in Reconstruction-era theories of Black criminality, that paint protesters of color and the demonstrations they lead as inherently aggressive, dangerous, and fraught. These biases impact the First Amendment rights of protesters to this day.

Like Maleeha Ahmad, Missouri is in need of peace. Only three years ago, the “Show-Me” state was rocked by the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. If Missouri is to heal, it must start by listening to protesters instead of attacking them. That is the first step down a long road towards ending the continued oppression and injustice Black and brown people face at the hands of law enforcement.

Add a comment (32)
Read the Terms of Use

Jorge

FUCK THESE FASCIST COPS

Anonymous

You can fuck cops if you like, but they might just fuck you back by leaving you without their protection. How many black boys would die in the first month?

Dr. Joseph Goebbels

Where do these people get the time to protest? Don't they have jobs? Don't they have better things to do? Children to raise? Hobbies? Are their lives so empty and meaningless that have to go out and raise a ruckus and get arrested? Get life people.

Go fuck yourself

Does any of that matter? They feel they have a legitimate complaint and are exercising their rights. Who the fuck are you to tell them they can't?

FraserCrest

Are you so apathetic and disconnected that you think standing up for civil rights is something that only jobless people with boring lives do? So, only boring people with nothing better to do care about justice, equality and civil rights? So, in your mind millions of women who protested in DC, across the country, and in cities across the globe (after the election of a man who spouts off racist, sexist, and dangerously ignorant comments about nuclear armament and locking up political rivals] were just a bunch of boring, jobless females with nothing to do but march. Unfortunately, you get to reap the rewards from the hard work and sacrifice of others to preserve freedom and government accountability in this country when you so obviously don't deserve it. How much boring down time do YOU have that allows you to seek out websites with articles on civil rights, just so you can soil them with the stain of your depressing and useless existence?

Anonymous

The people who protest for rights make sure you get to keep yours--you should be thanking them.

Dr. Joseph Goeb...

I knew I should have aborted you.

Anonymous

Sounds like you have to get a life yourself "Dr", and start having empathy instead of judgment for people who care about justice and freedom for all.

Adrienne

When your brothers and sisters are killed and there's no justice for the killers, would you just go to work?

Anonymous

Haha, so glad idiots like you don’t vote OR protest.

Pages

Stay Informed