The National Lawyers Guild had legal observers on the ground in Ferguson to monitor protests against the killing of unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. They were also present to help with jail support for community residents. But, while working, four of the NLG’s observers fell victim to the police occupation they were trying to help Ferguson fight and were arrested.
As Dennis Black, one of the legal observers arrested, commented, “Ferguson is a pilot program of what’s to come when communities respond to police brutality.” He and others had traveled from Detroit to see a preview of what police might do to squelch uprisings there.
Black and two other volunteers were arrested on August 21 about 10:30 pm. He explained that observers were concerned about police in body armor, who were stationed by a car wash on West Florissant Avenue across from what used to be a QuikTrip. They believed if anything was going to happen involving police it would happen here. They chose to record and document what police were doing.
Neither of the legal observers were permitted to stand in place for too long because of a rule imposed by the police. They kept walking back and forth with their cameras. About the third or fourth time they came back around, a female legal observer Black was with was arrested.
Black was on his walkie talkie informing others with the NLG that she was under arrest when he was ordered to stop and placed under arrest. Anthony, a legal observer, came over to see what was happening. He was arrested too.
Police told the female legal observer that they were not supposed to be engaged in surveillance of police. She also was ridiculed and harassed for being a legal observer. All of them were accused of “failure to disperse.”
Black and the other two legal observers were taken to the command center in the parking lot of the Target, where they had their personal identifying information taken by police. One of the officers also asked if Black had any questions. He asked if he was under arrest. They said, no, he was just in custody. The officer could not provide much more additional information because he was not the arresting officer.
The legal observers were taken to the police station in Clayton, Missouri, where they were released after a few hours when the protest was over.
NLG legal observer Max Suchan, as previously reported here, was arrested after midnight on August 20. Suchan was trying to obtain contact information from an arrestee so the group could continue help with jail support when he was grabbed and placed under arrest in the parking lot of a McDonald’s. The police had been charging into crowds and Suchan claimed that the officers were initially targeting young black man for arrests.
Each legal observer arrested in Ferguson was “arrested for doing their job,” NLG interim executive director Dan Gregor said.
Gregor described other concerns he had with the kind of “police overreaching” that had occurred in ferguson.
“I got the worst tear gassing of my life [August 18] and I’ve been in tear gas a number of times before,” Gregor recalled. He added the “shock and awe policing response to clearing those streets was just amazing.”
Only about forty to fifty people were on West Florissant Avenue when they fired off “somewhere between 20-25 canisters.” It bothered Gregor greatly that they were shooting about one tear gas canister for every two people out that night.
“Is the curfew constitutionally valid? Is the 5-second standing rule constitutionally valid?” Gregor asked. Residents who wanted to exercise their First Amendment rights were required to constantly be moving. (*The ACLU of Missouri challenged this rule but, thus far, has been unsuccessful in invalidating it.)
Also, Gregor added, “The checkpoints are outrageous, and checkpoints have been litigated for different things and with limited exceptions warrantless suspicionless stops and requiring ID have been held invalid.” They were found constitutionally invalid by a federal court in Washington, DC, in 2009, and mostly they are perpetrated against communities in the southeastern US and “in communities of color and lower socioeconomic communities.”
Just about all of what the police were doing in Ferguson was unlawful to Black, but, if this happened in Detroit—because, for example, residents revolted against water shut-offs—the city has a “multi-jurisdictional task force” that allows for the “amalgamation of all this equipment between these different law enforcement agencies to combine together.” There is a law that also permits the imposing of “martial law” when there is a “state of emergency” issued by the mayor or governor of Michigan.
Former Black Panther Blair Anderson, a lifelong activist who helped organize the Detroit delegation, stated, “I see this going well beyond the front pages of the story [of Michael Brown],” Anderson stated. The protesters “want to create a legacy.” They are a “model for the mobilization of black communities around the country and around the world.” And the people of Ferguson have handled all this with “great dignity.”