Late night on September 15, 2017, Alderwoman Megan Ellyia Green said she and about 10 others were walking to their cars after protesting police brutality in the Central West End. Earlier that day, a Missouri Circuit Court judge acquitted former St. Louis Police Officer Jason Stockley of the first-degree murder of Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011, and protestors took to the streets soon after.
Green had narrowly escaped getting tear-gassed in the CWE neighborhood earlier that night by seeking refuge in a synagogue with about 150 other protestors, according to the federal lawsuit that Green filed against the City of St. Louis and its police department on September 25.
Green’s group, which was about half clergy members, were trying to go home when they passed a line of police on Kingshighway Boulevard just north of Lindell Boulevard. As they passed, the police mocked the group, the lawsuit states.
“They said things like, ‘Don’t get hurt on the way home’ and overly sarcastic remarks,” Green told the St. Louis American. “I don’t think they knew who I was, but we had some clergy with us who were definitely wearing their collars.”
As the group rounded the corner and were walking in front of the Chase Park Plaza movie theater, an armed police truck, called a MRAP, came speeding past them, the lawsuit states. Green had seen this tactic before in 2014 during the Ferguson unrest, where these armored trucks would drive by and teargas protestors, Green told the American. She instructed the group to take cover, and the truck drove past.
They then crossed the street and were nearing their cars when the truck made a surprise U turn, sped by them and threw a can of tear gas about 10 feet from where they were standing on the sidewalk, according to the lawsuit. They immediately fell to the ground choking, their lungs and skin burning, Green said.
“We were pretty caught off-guard,” Green said. “What I have witnessed in both 2014 and in 2017 is that chemical agents seem to be used as a message to punish protestors, specifically protestors against police brutality. It seems to be the message that our police department is using to try to incentivize people to not protest.”
Green is suing the city and police department for First Amendment retaliation, use of excessive force and assault, among other counts of wrongdoing. Green’s case now makes 15 lawsuits that the Khazaeli Wyrsch law firm has helped file against the city’s police regarding excessive force during the Stockley protests. At that time, the police department was acting under the leadership of then-interim police chief Lawrence O’Toole, who is now assistant police chief. Fourteen of those lawsuits were filed last week by individuals who claim they were beaten, maced and jailed in the mass police “kettling” arrest on September 17, 2017. The nonprofit ArchCity Defenders law firm is co-counsel on 12 of these lawsuits.
The American has not yet received a comment from the city regarding Green’s case.
Green said she experienced respiratory issues for months after being tear-gassed.
“I was in and out of Urgent Care and different respiratory doctors for almost six months, with different inhalers,” Green said. “Something got aggravated as a result of the tear gas, and I had quite a chronic cough for a long time.”
The lawsuit states that Green will donate any money she may receive to a racial equity fund that the Ferguson Commission recommended that the city establish, which the city has yet to do.
Green told the American that she hopes her suit will push the city to “get serious” about changing policies regarding the way the city handle protests.
“I think it’s important to have something codified that is clear for both police and for protestors,” Green said. “And something that can’t be changed with the stroke of a pen. The issue with just updating internal policy is that it can change without public hearings, without comment. But when you pass legislation, it is an open, transparent process.”
In October 2017, Green introduced Board Bill 134 to establish a better First Amendment policy for the city. The bill never made it out of the aldermanic Public Safety Committee because the aldermen wanted Green to try and work out an agreement with newly appointed Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards. However, Green said Edwards was opposed to the bill so it went nowhere.
The American reached out to Edwards about his view of Green’s bill and has not yet received a response.
“I think one of the biggest problems we have right now is our current unlawful assembly ordinance is so vague and so contradictory that no one knows what it means,” Green said. “So if police don’t know what it means and people exercising their First Amendment rights don’t know what it means, it’s going to set up a situation where people are confused and not abiding by the Constitution. It’s important that we get clear policy on the books.”
However, enforcement may still be an issue. A federal judge has already ordered that the city stop using chemical weapons and adopt other protocols to protect the constitutional rights of those observing, recording or participating in protest activity.
In October 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Missouri sued the City of St. Louis in a class-action case over the police kettling incident. The ACLU’s lawsuit seeks permanent policy changes for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. A month later, Judge Catherine Perry ordered the police to put down their chemical weapons.
Rather than going to trial, Perry ordered a mediation process between the police and the ACLU. The deadline to come up with an agreement between the two parties passed on February 1, and now a trial has been set for October 2019. The ACLU and police can still settle in mediation before the trial.
In her November 2017 order, Perry stated that the evidence showed that “officers have exercised their discretion in an arbitrary and retaliatory fashion to punish protesters for voicing criticism of police or recording police conduct.” She found that the ACLU is likely to succeed on their claim that the city’s police have “a custom or policy” of deploying pepper spray against citizens who record police or exercise their rights of free speech to criticize officers.
Javad Khazaeli, the attorney representing Green, said the alderwoman has a strong chance of winning her case based on the findings in the ACLU case.
And while the ACLU is fighting for a permanent shift in policy, Khazaeli said it will take more than that to see change.
“Changing laws and changing policies are great, but at a certain point you have to change personnel too,” Khazaeli said. “A year later, all the supervising officers that were involved in this are still out there. They are still the faces of department. The city is basically saying that ‘not only do we not think that they did anything wrong, but we are doubling down and standing behind them.’ When that happens, you lose faith in the administration.”