REUTERS/Joshua Lott

Filmmaker sues St. Louis police for assault, arrest while covering protest

September 17, 2017

According to a lawsuit filed on his behalf, documentary filmmaker Fareed Alston was assaulted, arrested and his equipment damaged while documenting protests in St. Louis, Missouri, on Sept. 17, 2017.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that more than 1,000 people had gathered in downtown St. Louis to protest the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white former St. Louis police officer who in 2011 fatally shot Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man.

That night, police officers advanced around the intersection of Washington Avenue and Tucker Boulevard, boxing in approximately 100 people for arrest or detention in a maneuver called kettling.

On Sept. 17, 2018, one year after the kettling arrests, ArchCity Defenders, a legal advocacy organization, and the law firm of Khazaeli Wyrsch filed 12 lawsuits against the St. Louis Metro Police Department on behalf of individuals whom they said were treated illegally by police officers during the protests. Alston and two freelance video journalists, Mark Gullet and Demetrius Thomas, were among those represented.

According to the lawsuit filed on Alston’s behalf, Alston arrived in downtown St. Louis with his assistant between 9 – 10:30 p.m. CST on Sept. 17. Both were carrying official press passes and cameras for the purpose of documenting the protest.

Though many of the protesters had already dispersed, a small group was standing on the side of Washington Avenue. The lawsuit says that Alston also saw approximately 50 to 100 St. Louis police officers dressed in riot gear, so he and his assistant split up and began filming. According to the complaint, officers did not indicate that the filmmakers should not enter the area or that a mass arrest was imminent.

Shortly after, a line of police started advancing toward the demonstrators. According to the complaint, an apartment tenant allowed Alston’s assistant to enter the building and escape the marching line of police, but Alston was unable to do the same. Alston then noticed a second line of police approaching from the opposite direction, beginning to box in all those present while pounding their batons against their shields and the ground.

While continuing to film, Alston and a few other people approached the line of bicycle police who made up one side of the kettle so they could ask to leave. As they neared, the complaint says, the officers started “slamming” their bicycles on the ground. Alston searched for another exit, but finding none he re-approached a bicycle officer to ask to be let out.

“Without warning or any verbal directions, the police officer pushed Mr. Alston back with his baton and his shield and started to fire pepper spray directly at Mr. Alston’s face,” the complaint says. “At the same time, a second officer began to pepper spray Mr. Alston.”

Alston and others around him fell to the ground, and were quickly surrounded by police. According to the complaint, a number of officers began kicking Alston while continuing to douse him in pepper spray for several minutes.

Officers then turned Alston over and cuffed him with three zip ties, causing immediate pain. Another officer roughly pulled the camera from around Alston’s neck, “slammed” it on the ground and powered it off.

The lawsuit says that at one point an officer began to taunt Alston.

“The officer said that this is what Mr. Alston got for wanting to videotape the police. Other officers also told Mr. Alston not to record what was happening. It was clear that Mr. Alston was targeted for documenting the protest,” the complaint says.

Alston was taken to St. Louis City Justice Center alongside others arrested at the scene, where he was incarcerated for nearly 24 hours and received minimal medical attention. His camera was returned to him upon his release, but it had been badly damaged and pieces of his lighting equipment — including a lighting fixture and its power source — were lost when he was roughly cuffed.

According to the complaint, Alston continues to suffer physical and psychological repercussions from his arrest and assault, including persistent numbness in his hand, chronic respiratory issues and nightmares. He also no longer feels comfortable covering protests, which had been the main subject of his work.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documented 10 journalists detained, arrested, assaulted or had their equipment damaged while covering the protests that night.

Alston, Thomas, Gullet and the other plaintiffs are seeking damages, attorney’s fees, expenses and any other relief the court deems appropriate. Alston’s case is not expected to go to trial until early 2021.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected]

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