Two young men featured in iconic photos taken during the Ferguson, Missouri, protests of August 2014 are among a whole swath of demonstrators and observers whom St. Louis County authorities chose to prosecute nearly a full year later.
Others who were recently charged by the St. Louis County Counselor’s office include a pastor, a “peace poet,” a young student muralist and a legal observer. At least three professional journalists (including one of the authors of this story) also recently found out they would have to appear in St. Louis County Municipal Court.
Authorities have not said precisely how many people have been charged just under the statute of limitations, but court records examined by The Huffington Post indicated that over two dozen individuals had court dates Monday for allegedly “interfering with a police officer in performance of his duties.” An unknown number of other individuals have court dates on Wednesday and next month.
It’s noteworthy that so many have been charged with little more than “interfering.” That’s the type of vaguely defined offense that policing experts say should be closely scrutinized by law enforcement agencies and by prosecutors because of the wide potential for misuse.
Edward Crawford — also known as “da man wit the chips” — is one of those now being charged. He was arrested in Ferguson on Aug. 13, 2014. Shortly before that, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer snapped a photo of Crawford, wearing an American flag T-shirt and holding a bag of chips, as he threw a police tear gas canister away from the crowd. The picture went viral.
Crawford, a 26-year-old waiter and father of three, told HuffPost that he recently received a summons in connection with the year-old incident. At the time, he was arrested on an officer interference charge, and a court official said he is also facing an assault charge. His court date is next month.
Earlier this month, Crawford came to the aid of Robert Cohen, the photographer who took the famous shot, after St. Louis County police hit Cohen with pepper spray. Crawford hopes to take classes to become an emergency medical technician, according to the Post-Dispatch, and is considering getting a tattoo of that picture of himself.
He recently told HuffPost that he thinks all the videos and social media furor have helped ensure that the police abuse of the past year hasn’t been ignored.
“In some parts of the world, this is unfamiliar,” Crawford said. “The police crimes are very low, police officers are respectable in a lot of places. Every police officer isn’t bad. There’s a lot of good police officers out there who protect and serve. But you also have some who seem to not.”
Another protester whose image became famous, Rashaad Davis, was arrested on Aug. 11, 2014. Photographer Whitney Curtis captured a stunning picture (above) of Davis with his hands in the air being confronted by heavily armed police officers in riot gear and gas masks. The photo gathered attention after it ran in The New York Times, and Curtis eventually won a 1st place award from the National Press Photographers Association.
Another angle on that confrontation (below) was caught by Scott Olson, a Getty photographer and former Marine who was later arrested in Ferguson simply for leaving a designated “media zone.” Olson does not appear to be facing charges in connection with that arrest.
But Davis, 24, has been charged with “interfering” with a police officer in performance of his duties.
Luke Nephew, a member of a group called the Peace Poets, is also facing an “interfering” charge, according to court records. Nephew previously wrote that he and others had been “talking, praying, listening, chanting” last August. Then “police broke into the crowd and started grabbing people,” he said, and everyone started to run.
“I was tackled to the ground,” he recalled. “Multiple cops jumped on me. One grabbed my face and smashed it into the concrete. I felt one of them slam his knee onto the back of my neck. All around, the police were doing the same thing to innocent people. My brothers were laid flat on the ground with automatic weapons pointed at their heads.”
Nephew wrote the lyrics to the song “I Can’t Breathe,” which has become popular in protest circles and was sung by road-blocking demonstrators in New York following the decision not to indict the officer who used a chokehold on Eric Garner. The Peace Poets did not respond to a request for comment.
Dennis Black, a legal observer originally arrested on a “failure to disperse” charge last year, has now been charged with “interfering” with a police officer as well. Rev. Melissa Bennett, who is often seen playing the drums during St. Louis area protests, was charged with “interfering” in connection with her October 2014 arrest, but that case was dismissed on Monday. A high school student who helped paint a mural on the Ferguson movement is facing an “interfering” charge.
And they are not the only ones whom St. Louis County authorities decided to prosecute for “interfering.” The number of people so charged is troubling. Christie Lopez, the Justice Department official overseeing the Civil Rights Division investigation into the unconstitutional practices of the Ferguson Police Department, noted in a 2010 paper on “contempt of cop” arrests that many federal settlement agreements require local law enforcement to track disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and other such charges that are frequently misused.
“There is widespread misunderstanding of police authority to arrest individuals who passively or verbally defy them. There is abundant evidence that police overuse disorderly conduct and similar statutes to arrest people who ‘disrespect’ them or express disagreement with their actions. These abusive arrests cause direct and significant harm to those arrested and, more generally, undermine the appropriate balance between police authority and individual prerogative to question the exercise of that authority,” Lopez wrote.
Ryan Reilly, one of the authors of this story, is facing charges, along with Wesley Lowery of The Washington Post, in connection with their arrests inside a McDonald’s in Ferguson on Aug. 13, 2014. Other journalists who recently received summonses from the St. Louis County Counselor include Tom Walters of the Canadian network CTV and Matty Giles, a New York Universityjournalism student. (Videographer Mary Moore still faces charges in Ferguson Municipal Court brought by a different set of prosecutors.)
A joint statement from the American Civil Liberties Union and several other organizations called the sudden flood of charges nearly a year after the Ferguson protests “a blatant violation of constitutional rights and an appalling misuse of our already overburdened court system.” The St. Louis County Counselor is mostly responsible for defending county officials from lawsuits. The office recently agreed to a settlement with reporter Trey Yingst, who wasunlawfully arrested by the St. Louis County Police Department in November.
A county spokesman told HuffPost that most of the new cases are “probably not even that serious.” The charges, however, could lead to arrest warrants for individuals who are unaware they’ve been charged or unable to make their court date — a very likely scenario given the length of time between the incidents and the prosecutor’s response.
“No matter what we do as lawyers, there are going to be … young people who end up with warrants or end up locked up because of this,” said Brendan Roediger, a law professor at St. Louis University.