Outside of the Ferguson Police Department, protesters continue to exercise their right to protest in response to the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, on Saturday. In a show of solidarity, they hold up signs encouraging drivers to honk their horns in support of justice for the young man’s family, just a day away from starting college.
On Wednesday, Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, and I went down to meet with demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights across the street from the police department. We handed out “Know Your Rights” cards to inform participants of their rights and protections when interacting with law enforcement.
During the course of that meeting, Mr. Rothert informed the participants that suppressing their right to peacefully assemble is unconstitutional. “Intimidating people to give up their First Amendment rights is no better than prohibiting their First Amendment rights in the first place,” he said. “So, the militarization is very troubling.”
Since Brown’s shooting on Saturday, Ferguson and St. Louis County police have reacted to the largely peaceful protests in an overtly militarized and confrontational way: body armor, armored cars, SWAT teams, tear gas, snipers training their assault rifles on protestors, and K-9 units. Particularly at night, it’s hard to tell the difference between the intersections along West Florissant Avenue and Tahrir Square.
In response to a comment that Ferguson police are intimidating members of the media, Mr. Rothert stated that, “If there are journalists who feel they are being shut out and if the media are intimidated or pushed out, then the story doesn’t get told. That’s an offense to the First Amendment as well.” Since then, disturbing reports of police teargasing and assaulting and detaining journalists have gone viral.
When asked what the ACLU’s involvement was, Mr. Rothert informed the participants that a public records request was made to obtain the police reports connected to Michael Brown’s death. He told them that our request was denied. “The lack of transparency is troubling,” said Mr. Rothert. “The incident report is a public record that should be disclosed. It sends a bad message when police are asking people to obey the law and they are violating it by not releasing these public documents.”
No police action was taken during our visit, and there did not appear to be any police officers or representatives near the protest.
We left around 4:55 p.m. All was quiet. Unfortunately, it didn’t remain so as night fell.
The ACLU of Missouri is currently on the ground in Ferguson, Mo., observing police conduct and educating protestors of their rights. You have the constitutional right to not only protest peacefully in public, but you also have the right to record police officers as they carry out their duties to serve and protect you, the citizen. For more on how police forces have become so excessively militarized, please see the ACLU report, “War Come Home.”
Sign our petition asking the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Justice to stop funneling billions into the militarization of state and local police forces.