The civic flavor of the Ferguson protest movement was on display as much as public education when faculty, alumnae and students from Saint Louis University School of Law presented a free public program on legal rights and the police on Saturday afternoon at Dellwood Recreation Center, 10266 West Florissant Ave.
The public forum started out on folding chairs fanned around on the turf of an indoor soccer field, before a deafening electrical hum moved the group into a multi-purpose room with candy and game machines, Foosball and picnic tables.
The free public education was delivered in a lively mix of lecture, question-and-answer, simulations and town hall-style pronouncements from the audience that were often as informative as the expert advice.
As always in the Ferguson movement, the group was diverse by race, gender, age, income and formal education. Engagement was intense, but never argumentative, and the group wanted to stay longer than the two hours scheduled with the rec center, which is located a mile and a half north on West Florissant Avenue from the iconic McDonald’s in the Ferguson protest zone.
Christina Vogel, a student at SLU Law, set the tone by saying that the law is on the side of the people. Several in the group of 50 or so people chuckled knowingly. The premise of the Ferguson protest movement is that the law and its officers have been abusive of the people. Vogel insisted that reforming the police is a slow process, and the protest movement and Department of Justice are now building up from the basics.
The students and attorneys covered the basics. Attorney Nicole Pleasant said it's critical to always ask a police officer who stops you up front if you're being detained or free to go.
A citizen interrupted to say that it's the police, not the people, who need to learn the law. The same citizen was asked to join a law student to enact a simulation of a police officer stopping a pedestrian. When told to ask the law student playing the cop, "Am I free to go?” she instead ad libbed, "Am I free to go, or am I going to be arrested and killed?"
Of course, the Ferguson movement started with the fatal police shooting of an unarmed teenager who had been stopped by Officer Darren Wilson for jaywalking on August 9. Wilson shot Michael Brown at least six times, twice in the head.
Multiple eyewitnesses claim that Wilson fired the fatal shots while Brown’s hands were upraised in the air, in the act of surrender. No police report has been released documenting Wilson’s version of events, but St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar claimed that Brown struggled with Wilson and tried to take his service revolver.
Whether or not Belmar stated the facts of the Wilson case accurately, attorney Monique Abby urged, you should never resist arrest or fight back physically with a cop. “The place to fight back is not on the street,” said Abby, who is a Ferguson resident.
Charles Wade, an activist from Austin, Texas, who has been visible in the movement, said it's not wise to be defensive and to assume every police encounter will be fatal. “How many people have been killed by Ferguson police this year?” Wade said. “One.”
SLU Law student Avvennett Gezahan insisted that citizens should always invoke their rights to the police, even if they don’t think the police will respect their rights. She said invoking your rights puts police on guard that you know your rights.
The same goes, the SLU Law students said, with declining to give police consent to search your vehicle or person. Until police patterns and practices are reformed, the officer may search you illegally anyway, but in that case any evidence they find may be suppressed at trial.
SLU Law professor Brendan Roediger, who has been active working on municipal court reform and representing jailed protestors, acknowledged that it wasn’t very comforting to get advice about something your lawyer can do for you in court after a cop has violated your rights. But he broke it down: “Our first goal is keeping young people alive and out of prison.”
In all police encounters, the public was reminded, they have a right to remain silent and to request an attorney. SLU Law students went over various ploys that police officers commonly use to get someone talking. One such ploy appeared in the True-False portion of the program: “True or false: Small talk with an officer on way to the station is harmless? FALSE.”
The dynamics of the street protests that are ongoing in Ferguson were discussed. Abby said the law is clear: you can not impede the flow of traffic without a permit, and you can be arrested if you do. She also warned against dramatically telling police they are being filmed at a protest – just do it. Adam Sennecaut, an activist from Des Moines, Iowa, speaking from the crowd, told people they should write the phone number for MORE jail support (314-862-2249) on their arm before they protest.
The forum also provided an opportunity for direct participants in the movement to speak about its direction. Sennecaut, noticing a trend from some of the law students encouraging cooperation and de-escalation, said many people were still angry and have a right to be. “Peaceful protest movements have always had a militant backbone,” he said.
Justin Hansford, a SLU Law professor who has done some negotiation with police on the protest front lines, said he and his colleagues did not intend to downplay any grievances that people may have. “I don’t think we should move toward some ‘New Ferguson,’” Hansford said, “before certain police officials and officers are held accountable.”