Tear Gas and Legal Observers: Preparing for Ferguson Grand-Jury Result

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With a St. Louis County grand jury’s decision on whether to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown expected in the next few weeks, different elements of the community are getting prepared. Police are stocking up on riot gear, and activists are training legal observers and making sure people know their rights. The Ferguson-Florissant, Clayton, and Riverview Gardens school districts in St. Louis’s suburbs have sent letters to parents warning them that schools might be closed or dismissed early for an emergency, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Oct. 24.

 “Should any event occur during school hours which presents a concern for public safety, a decision will be made as soon as possible regarding any necessary changes to the school day schedule, and we will evaluate whether bus transportation will be possible depending on several factors including road closures impacting bus routes,” Ferguson-Florissant’s Acting Superintendent Larry Larrew wrote. The schools also are reminding parents to alert their school of any updates to phone numbers or emergency contacts who are allowed to pick up their child. “Every family should have a plan for picking up children from school in such a situation,” wrote Chris Tennill, Clayton’s chief communication officer.

Meanwhile, the British Guardian reported Oct. 28 that St. Louis County police have stocked up on tear gas, plastic bullets, pepper-spray projectiles, and other forms of “less lethal” weaponry. They’ve spent more than $170,000 on crowd-control armor and armaments since Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was killed Aug. 9.

St. Louis County police made the purchases amid concerns that hundreds of demonstrators will return to the streets if Darren Wilson, the officer who shot dead Michael Brown in August, is not indicted on criminal charges by a grand jury currently considering the case. A breakdown of the department’s spending since August on equipment intended for the policing of crowds and civil disobedience, which totals $172,669, was obtained by the Guardian from the county force. Since the height of the protests, the department has spent almost $25,000 buying 650 teargas grenades, smoke-and-gas grenades, smoke canisters and “hornets nest” CS sting grenades, which shoot out dozens of rubber bullets and a powdered chemical agent upon detonation. It has spent a further $18,000 on 1,500 “beanbag rounds” and 6,000 pepper balls, paintball-style projectiles that explode with a chemical irritant when they strike a protester. The department uses LiveX branded pepper balls, which are billed as ten times hotter than standard pepper rounds. Another $77,500 has been spent on 235 riot gear helmets, 135 shields, 25 batons and 60 sets of shin guards, and other “uniform items”. A further $2,300 was used to buy another 2,000 sets of the plastic handcuffs that have been used to detain dozens of demonstrators plucked from crowds on West Florissant Avenue. In addition, an estimated $50,000 has been set aside by the department for repair work for damaged police vehicles. However, in a sign that further clashes are expected, they are in fact “not repairing any vehicles until unrest is over”, a department inventory said.

The city of St. Louis’s metropolitan police force and the Missouri state highway patrol have similarly stocked up.

Captain Tim Hull of the state highway patrol confirmed to the Guardian that the force had bought new crowd control equipment since then. “However, the specific information is [a] closed record” under Missouri state law, Hull said in an email. The Associated Press previously reported that Chief Sam Dotson of the St. Louis metropolitan police said his force recently spent $325,000 on “civil disobedience equipment.”

St. Louis area activists, meanwhile, suspect that much of this gear is intended to suppress the protests certain to happen if the grand jury does not indict Wilson. They are trying to strengthen the ad hoc legal-support system developed in the first days of protest after Brown was killed, giving people “know your rights” training and pulling together resources from the ArchCity Defenders, the National Lawyers Guild, the Mound City Bar Association, and local law students, says Guild legal worker vice-president Kris Hermes.

“We’re trying to get into a more sustainable formation,” says Sarah Coffey, a Guild board member from Detroit who’s part of a not-yet-named collective of about 30 people. The collective, which grew out of a jail-support hotline set up during the protests by Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, is training new volunteers and legal observers and developing a system to track arrests and channel cases to lawyers, she says.

She also advises protesters to write a lawyer’s phone number on their skin instead of on a piece of paper, because if they’re arrested, police might confiscate anything in their pockets. If they’re arrested, they should ask for a Guild attorney, because lawyers sometimes can’t get into jails to see prisoners unless the prisoner has specifically requested one. If they see police misconduct, she says, they should write down a description as soon as they can in as much detail as possible, including the officers’ names, the agency they’re working for, and the names of witnesses and media who saw it.

If they videotape something on their cell phone, she notes, there are apps available to upload it to the cloud immediately, so it will still be available if police confiscate the phone and delete it. It’s a good idea to download such videos and back them up on a home computer, she also advises. Make sure you have a password on your phone, she urges. If there is one, police need a warrant to open it if they want to search through contact information, e-mails, and more. If there isn’t, a search is a lot easier both legally and practically.

Two of the biggest civil disturbances in the U.S. since the 1960s happened after the courts failed to punish police accused of brutality: the five-day Los Angeles riots of 1992, which were sparked by the news that the four officers involved in the videotaped beating of Rodney King had been acquitted, and the three-day Miami riots of 1980, set off by the acquittal of four cops who’d faked a motorcycle accident to cover up that they’d beaten black insurance executive Arthur McDuffie to death with a flashlight.

On the other hand, when the four New York police who’d killed unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo with a 41-shot barrage were acquitted in 2000, the response was large but peaceful. Thousands of people rallied outside Diallo’s Bronx apartment, in Harlem, at the United Nations, and in Midtown Manhattan, where 90 were arrested doing civil disobedience.