After an evening of relatively calm protests Tuesday in Ferguson, Donnell Johnson said he was trying to act as a “peacekeeper,” picking up trash and helping to keep things calm.
Police officers thanked Johnson for his work, he said. But his next encounter with the cops wasn’t so friendly.
When Johnson was ready to leave, he said, he planned to walk to his grandmother’s house about three blocks from the protest area. The road to get there, however, was closed, and Johnson said police told him he would have to take a much longer route.
Johnson, 35, said his feet were blistered, and he told the officers he couldn’t walk that far. They gave him a choice, he said: Walk the 20 blocks or be arrested.
“I just said, ‘I can’t fight you. … You’re going to have to arrest me because I can’t. … I have sores on my feet,’” he said.
St. Louis County police arrested Johnson on a charge of “failure to disperse.”
If the incident happened as Johnson described, Brendan Roediger, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law, said the officers’ actions would not have been legal.
“There’s no justification for it,” he said. “The streets remain public.”
Johnson is among 163 people who had been arrested in Ferguson and taken to the county jail as of Thursday morning amid days of protests over the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. Others arrested and taken to municipal jails are not included in that count.
Roediger, who said he was in Ferguson for two nights during the protests, questioned the legality of many arrests he’s seen in Ferguson. In his opinion, “police are just using the arrests as a method of crowd control.”
Officer Brian Schellman, a spokesman for the St. Louis County Police Department, said he couldn’t speak specifically to why arrests were made, but he said that assertion was not true for St. Louis County police.
“We’re not arresting just for crowd control or just to arrest people,” he said. He directed further questions about reasons for the arrests to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, which has been in charge of law enforcement operations in the protest area, but a public information officer for the patrol declined to comment on that.
Of the 163 arrests, 126 were made for “refusal to disperse.” According to Missouri Revised Statute 573.060, a person “commits the crime of refusal to disperse if, being present at the scene of an unlawful assembly, or at the scene of a riot, he knowingly fails or refuses to obey the lawful command of a law enforcement officer to depart from the scene of such unlawful assembly or riot.”
“They’re asked to leave, and they’re not leaving. It’s that simple,” Sgt. Al Nothum, a spokesman for highway patrol, said of the charge.
But Roediger said for the most part, people he saw being arrested were not doing anything unlawful and were trying to follow law enforcement instruction. Sometimes those instructions can be unclear when many people are yelling at once, he said.
“A lot of protesters being arrested are acting in good faith,” he said.
It is legal for police to make an arrest if there is a lawful order to disperse and people don’t comply — “police have the right to maintain traffic,” he said. But in Ferguson, police had West Florissant Avenue, where the bulk of the protests were taking place, blocked off to traffic.
“It’s a little absurd to say you’re worried about traffic in the area when you’ve set up military checkpoints” to close the area to vehicles, he said.
Johnson said he saw the arrests as a “scare tactic,” especially since he hadn’t been charged with any crime.
Johnson said he was taken into custody around midnight Wednesday and was held at the county jail until around 6:30 a.m., then released without any paperwork. He said he was told that he “may” get paperwork in the mail later with a charge.
Schellman said it’s not true that people arrested at the Ferguson protests aren’t being charged, though.
“Nobody is not being charged,” he said. “If they were arrested, they’re being applied on for a warrant on whatever the charge is.”
Tricia Rodgers, a system support analyst for the jail, said the arrestees are brought to the county jail and have been “released pending application of warrant.” Aside from “refusal to disperse,” other arrests have been on suspicion of burglary, assault of an officer and unlawful use of a weapon, among other charges.
Even with the high number of arrests in Ferguson, Rodgers said the jail hasn’t had to increase staffing to keep up with the intake.
“We’re booking about the same amount of people because, honestly, most of our police officers are up there. We’re not getting a lot of arrests elsewhere,” she said.
Ed Magee, an executive assistant in the prosecutor’s office, said the police have 10 days to bring the cases to the prosecutor’s office, and the prosecutor’s office has 10 days to review the cases.
“Once the cases are presented to us, we will review them, and we will make a decision based on the evidence,” Magee said.
When asked whether protesters in a similar situation would normally be charged, Magee said the office hasn’t had a similar situation to compare it to.
“There is no normal,” he said. “It will be treated like any other case.”
Whatever the outcome, Johnson is upset not just about the arrest itself, but other actions during the process. One issue, he said, was that officers involved would not give him a name or badge number, and he said he’s heard similar stories from others arrested.
Schellman said he’s heard stories like that, too, but only in media reports.
“We keep hearing that, but no one has stepped forward to tell us that,” he said. “We would like to know about that, but nobody has stepped up to tell the police.”
St. Louis County police officers are required to wear a badge and to identify themselves if asked, he said.
“We have not received one complaint at the St. Louis County Police Department against our officers,” he said.
Despite his arrest, Johnson wasn’t slowing down. Soon after being released from the jail in Clayton, he joined a protest outside the building over St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch’s involvement in the case. Johnson was still wearing the yellow shirt, which read “Disciples of Justice,” that he’d worn to the protest Tuesday night.
“I may be a little dirty and funky, but it’s for the cause,” he said.
Among the 163 people who had been arrested in Ferguson protests and processed at the St. Louis County jail as of Thursday morning, the reasons for arrest broke down as follows:
126 — Failure to disperse
18 — Second-degree burglary
5 — Assault of an officer
3 — Unlawful use of a weapon
3 — First-degree burglary
2 — Trespassing
2 — Interfering with an officer
1 — Peace disturbance
1 — Possession of stolen property
1 — Possession of marijuana
1 — Destruction of private property
112 black males
33 white males
14 black females
4 white females
29 of the 163 arrested were from out of state (not including those from Illinois in the metro St. Louis area). The majority of those were white.
Source: St. Louis County