The Rev. Karla Frye has become famous as the African-American grandmother who was put in a chokehold by a St. Louis County Police officer while protesting at the Saint Louis Galleria mall on Saturday.
The photo, made by Christian Gooden of the Post-Dispatch, carries with it two narratives: that of the black grandmother trying to protect her grandson from being choked by police, and that of “a woman inserting herself into an arrest in progress” and getting arrested herself, as Gooden tweeted.
An elder at St. Peter African Methodist Episcopal Church and chief operations officer of Community Women Against Hardship, Frye, 56, was charged with a felony for allegedly assaulting a police officer, who qualifies as a “special victim” under state law. This “special victim” status allowed County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch to charge Frye with a more severe, Class D felony, rather than a Class E felony, which is charged when the person allegedly assaulted is not a “special victim.”
St. Louis County Police claim Frye jumped on the back of the arresting officer, injuring his back. Photos of the incident by Gooden show her at least reaching around the officer. Photos from the vantage point opposite Gooden show that the officer arresting Frye’s grandson had him by the throat in a chokehold – which Frye would soon experience herself as police subdued her by the throat.
She also was charged with rioting and resisting arrest. She was held on a $10,000 bail, and was released around 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.
The protests at the Galleria seemed peaceful until around 1 p.m., when mall management called the police. St. Louis County Police said the peaceful protest was disrupted when someone threw a trash can at a police officer. The Richmond Heights Police Department said protestors were then given three warnings to disperse and more than 150 people left, but some did not and 22 were arrested.
Marjorie Theodore, who protested at the Galleria, said if the police called for protestors to disperse, she was not able to hear them in the crowd. She said her son, who was arrested at the event, was not told what he was being charged with or offered legal counsel.
“The police took a peaceful situation and committed violence,” Theodore said.
Frye told The American – where she worked as managing editor in the early 1980s – that her lawyers advised her not to speak to media. But she was streaming live in Facebook immediately before her arrest.
“You know, I’ve been protesting and marching since I was in high school,” she said, as she descended on an escalator toward the food court where the arrests would take place.
“But just now, when a cop grabbed my 13-year-old grandson, I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like that.”
In the video, protestors chant and drum as police line up behind them.
Only one call to disperse can be heard in Frye’s Facebook Live video. About 30 seconds after the call to disperse, policemen begin pushing into the crowd.
“No, what the hell?” Frye said. “Y’all don’t have to be physical! People are moving and you’re still doing this!”
Policemen began to push some of her fellow protestors to the ground.
“Why are you doing this?” she screamed.
Then, a policeman moved toward her grandson, and she yelled, “He didn’t do anything! Leave my grandson alone!”
The policeman dragged her away from the escalator and yelled, “You’re under arrest!”
The video ends there.
Frye was protesting at the Galleria alone, according to her son, Jared Pleasant. Then her grandson and cousin, both black, arrived to pick her up and were seen by police as protestors.
After her grandson was handcuffed, he was not charged with anything and was released.
“The St. Louis County Police Department has used an incredible amount of discretion during these periods of civil unrest,” said County Police Chief Jon Belmar in a statement. “Citizens have been allowed to exercise their first Amendment Rights; however, when those protests descend into criminal activity, law enforcement has no other choice but to intervene.”
In the videos, no protestors are damaging any property. They aren’t even inside the businesses near the atrium – the surrounding stores all have their grates down. The order to disperse is given, and a minute later, Frye’s grandson is being shoved to the ground.
Frye and others arrested at the protest were released on bond after more than 24 hours. Legal observers alleged constitutional violations when county government locked the Justice Center and would not let them speak with their clients.
“At every turn, our lawyers were met with delay, miscommunication, and a general indifference to the rights of the people arrested and the attorneys who work with them,” said Thomas Harvey of ArchCity Defenders. “As it was in November of 2014 following the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, St. Louis County simply shut down the courthouse and arbitrarily denied access to lawyer.”
A speedy release was especially necessary for Frye, who – aside from having a family, a nonprofit organization, and a church to get back to – had to take her blood pressure medication.
At a press conference on September 25 calling for an investigation into police conduct, Rev. Karen Anderson, the board chair of Metropolitan Congregations United, said the events at the Galleria seemed designed to create fear among those present.
Anderson said, “I am appalled at the fact that police in this city, and in the county, feel like they have a right to practice domestic terrorism on the citizens of St. Louis.”
Jessica Karins contributed to this report.