Independent video journalist assaulted, arrested in St. Louis protests
According to a lawsuit filed on his behalf, freelance video journalist Demetrius Thomas 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. Thomas and two freelance filmmakers, Mark Gullet and Fareed Alston, were among those represented.
According to the lawsuit filed on Thomas’ behalf, Thomas drove downtown after receiving a call from a friend telling him about the protests, but by the time he arrived they had all but ended. He parked near Tucker Boulevard, where he saw police officers in “military garb” form a line and begin chanting loudly.
While filming the police, Thomas changed his position to get a better angle. According to the complaint, an officer approached Thomas and told him that he could record as long as he remained on the sidewalk. He complied and rejoined other members of the media on a sidewalk corner.
The lawsuit says that Thomas noticed a change in the officers’ attitudes and that they appeared to be preparing to kettle and arrest all those present, so Thomas attempted to leave the scene via a nearby alley. A police officer blocked his path and directed him back towards the intersection. Thomas complied.
At the intersection, Thomas saw between 100 to 200 officers pounding their batons against their shields and the ground. According to the complaint, Thomas was terrified and attempted to return to his car parked past the intersection. Officers blocked him once again.
“In response to Mr. Thomas’s plea, an SLMPD officer pointed a large can of pepper spray at Mr. Thomas and told him to ‘get out of here’,” the complaint says. Thomas complied, and followed the officer’s directions to return to the intersection. There, the crowd was pushed by police and Thomas was knocked to the ground. Suddenly and without warning, police began indiscriminately pepper spraying the kettled crowd.
According to the complaint, when police advanced into the crowd to arrest those present, several officers held Thomas by the arms and legs while another struck him repeatedly in the ribs with his baton. Another officer confiscated Mr. Thomas’s camera, and in the altercation officers broke Thomas’ drone.
Thomas was zip tied and taken to St. Louis City Justice Center alongside others arrested at the scene, where he was detained for several hours.
“I was strictly there to film and document that night because it’s a part of history. Instead we were kettled, beat, and arrested — there was nowhere to turn, and you couldn’t call the police because they were the ones doing it to you,” Thomas said, according to a press release announcing the lawsuits. Thomas also said that the damage to his camera equipment cost him several job opportunities, making it impossible for him to keep up with house payments.
In a video posted on ArchCity Defenders’ YouTube, Thomas said the events are something he’ll never forget.
“For it to end up the way that it ended up kind of damaged my whole outlook on trying to capture real life events like that, because it could always take a turn for the worse,” he said.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documented 10 journalists detained, arrested, assaulted or had their equipment damaged while covering the protests that night.
Thomas, Gullet, Alston and the other plaintiffs are seeking damages, attorney’s fees, expenses and any other relief the court deems appropriate. Thomas’ case is not expected to go to trial until April 2021.