A civil liberties emergency

August 21, 2014

Mustafa Abdullah is a program associate for the Missouri ACLU. He spoke with Trish Kahle about what he has witnessed on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., as people have attempted to exercise their right to free speech in protest over the police murder of Mike Brown.

HOW DID you first become involved with the protests?

I FIRST started going on the night of Thursday, August 14. It was four days after the shooting of M. It was the first day that police responsibilities were transferred from St. Louis County to the state Highway Patrol.

The issues with militarization of the police and excessive use of force had been going on for several days at that time, and I just thought that enough is enough. In talking with my colleagues at the ACLU, we felt it was time to go down there and help educate people about their rights, try to organize the legal observers, making sure we were doing what we can to protect people's first amendment rights.

TELL ME about what it was like to be in Ferguson on August 18, the first day that the National Guard was called in?

THINGS HAPPENED very quickly on Monday. The reason I went out was that I had seen on Twitter at about 10:30 in the morning that police were not allowing people to protest at the corner of Ferguson and West Florissant, which is basically around the corner from where Michael Brown was shot and killed. So I decided to go down there myself and see what was going on.

Police clad in riot gear move down West Florissant in Ferguson, Mo.
Police clad in riot gear move down West Florissant in Ferguson, Mo.

I was threatened with arrest five times in the space of about an hour. The first time, I was just standing on the sidewalk. I might have been standing there for no more than a minute, and I had three officers come up to me and tell me that I couldn't be standing for more than five seconds--that I had to keep moving on the sidewalk. They said if I stood for more than five seconds, I would be arrested.

I was not trying to get arrested. I was trying to document what was going on--to talk to people and to see what information I could collect and report. I proceeded to talk with a local journalist, and we were walking up and down the street repeatedly. And the same group of officers came up to me and said, "Are you lost? You need to get to where you're going." They were basically threatening me with arrest, but they weren't telling me where to go. So I told them that I was confused, because I was just told that I couldn't be standing for more than five seconds, so I just had to keep moving on the sidewalk.

The third time, I was again just standing on the sidewalk for a minute, and the same officers approached me, essentially the same scenario. I was threatened again. The fourth time, I was talking to an activist and a pastor, and the pastor asked to stop for a moment of prayer. And so out of respect, I stopped, and we prayed for a moment. And the same group of officers came up, and they told us, "We've already told you. We will arrest you. Get moving right now, or we're gonna arrest you."

The two folks that I was with proceeded to ask them who was telling them to enforce these rules, and they said it was their supervisor. But they couldn't come up with any logical reason as to why they were doing this other than that the governor had issued a state of emergency.

The fifth time I was at the McDonald's parking lot, which is basically a block from the now infamous QuikTrip (QT) that's half-burnt, and is directly adjacent to the area where Michael Brown was shot and killed. So I went in to get a drink of water, and I noticed that Jesse Jackson had pulled up in a vehicle, so people were coming out and gathering in the McDonald's parking lot because they were excited to see him. I went up to shake his hand and take a photo with him.

In the meantime, there's a group of 15 or 20 officers that they keep in the parking lot, and one of the same officers who had talked to me before threatened me with arrest again, saying I couldn't be standing for more than five seconds. I was confused, because I was on private property. So I asked him: Did the owner of this particular franchise tell him I couldn't be standing here? Had he issued a no trespassing order? But they again told me that it's a state of emergency, the governor issued it.

There may be some logic there, but there's a disconnect in their explanation. When people are on private property and the owner of that property has not publicly appeared to issue a statement requesting that people not be trespassing on their property, you can't arrest them.

But it was a shock. I had never imagined that in a country referred to as "land of the free and home of the brave," I would ever be threatened with arrest for standing on a sidewalk for more than five seconds and threatened for standing in the middle of parking lot at a McDonald's with a person who's basically a celebrity civil rights leader. I just never imagined that. It was shocking to say the least.

DOES THE "state of emergency" actually give the state the right to suspend private property laws and rights?

THAT'S SOMETHING the ACLU legal department has been looking into. Apparently it's a pretty complicated issue in legal terms. At a minimum, we're very concerned that people aren't being allowed to stand on a public sidewalk.

I DID a little digging into the history of the municipalities because it was striking to me how different Ferguson felt from a normal suburb. I found that the emergence of these suburbs was linked to the political demise of post-Civil War Reconstruction. When I laid that against voting patterns, it seemed like the setup of the county has been used to disenfranchise African Americans from holding power. The people I talked to said that they could vote the politicians in Ferguson out, but that only does so much because their lives cross these boundaries all the time. What has been the response from elsewhere in the St. Louis area? How does this link to broader processes that can't be confined to the Ferguson town limits?

ONE NOTE in terms of what has been going on politically, in terms of the relationship between the city and the municipalities, is that St. Louis County tends to lean liberal, including among whites. And for the last 10 years, there's been a push to merge the white municipalities with the [majority African American] North County.

Speaking from my own engagement with folks, a major political obstacle to mergers of the bulk of St. Louis County is that the mayors, the city council people and the school boards like having the power that they do in these local municipalities. So there's an ego issue--an issue of wanting to have power over my own little fiefdom. There are folks in the county, the city and the municipalities who are aware of that dynamic.

What I'm hearing from people in the street in Ferguson is that there's much more of a push to do something to shift the power balance [from the majority white municipality leaderships to the majority Black populations,] and there are organizations on the ground trying to get protesters registered to vote. For some time, people have asked, "Why don't they just vote out the folks who are currently in power?" who are mostly white, who are not representative of the diversity of the community.

This is an opportunity for people to begin to flex their muscles. There's such an extended history of repression, and this is a rupture point, an agitation point. The central question facing people on the ground is how do you actually build organization and infrastructure? How do you get people to organize around specific agendas and calls to action?

It's happening organically. There wasn't much of an organized presence on the ground, no leadership in place before this incident. Several organizations are coming together and actually trying to build a grassroots leadership. We'll have to see how this unfolds over the next days.

WHICH ORGANIZATIONS are coming together?

THE ACLU's goal has been to educate people about their rights, organize people to defend them and organize legal observers. We've been working with the National Lawyers Guild and Amnesty International to ensure that we can have legal observers and attorneys on the ground. We've been working with local grassroots organizing groups like MORE [Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment] to help connect people with pro bono legal help with their bonds and things like that.

In terms of the grassroots organizing, besides MORE, there's been the Organization for Black Struggle, the NAACP and the Coalition Against Police Crime and Repression. These are the groups organizing the people power around various demands that are in flux. There's a growing list of demands--local and national demands--that different organizations and community leaders have been signing on to.

There's also faith-based organizing centered around Metropolitan Congregations United, which essentially has been organizing clergy to make statements in solidarity with the family of Michael Brown, calling for transparency in the investigation. In Ferguson, for the rest of the week, the school system has closed down, and I know that they're trying to organize parents to walk kids to school and get them to school safely once school starts again. If these kids are at home and on the street, they're opened up to being victims of police brutality.

Also, the local chapter of the Center for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) drafted an open letter to Michael Brown's family that was immediately signed by 18 local Muslim community leaders and organizations representing about 100,000 Muslims in the community. That letter called for a transparent and thorough investigation by the FBI, and it basically expressed solidarity with the family of Michael Brown. The Palestinian Solidarity Committee for St. Louis has also been a part of the grassroots organizing.

That pretty much covers the organizations involved, but as you can see, there isn't a sufficiently organized coalition yet--it's only these organic things that have popped up.

LET ME circle back and ask you about the efforts to protect journalists and human-rights observers?

ON MONDAY, when I connected with a number of journalists, they were pretty frustrated because, like the citizens of Ferguson, they were told they couldn't stand for more than five seconds on the sidewalk. They had to keep moving. It made it pretty difficult for them to do interviews and talk to people--things like that. They were being hassled just like all the other folks on the street.

The other interesting thing to note is that on Monday, the QT was cordoned off. The police were occupying the QT parking lot. They had one media outlet there. I couldn't tell who it was. I didn't dare walk across the street to the QT, because I was told that if I did, I would be arrested. Similarly with the McDonald's situation, it's private property, and all they could say was that there was a state of emergency, and we're occupying this area. And so the media couldn't go and walk to the QT and do reporting from there.

In the evening, it's been much worse for journalists. The people during the day have been hassled by law enforcement, but there haven't been any attacks on the media or journalists during the day, as far as I know. But once nightfall comes around...I was told a story about the Al Jazeera crew being hit with tear gas.

CNN's Don Lemon was pushed by a police officer while live recording. Anderson Cooper was told by officers, while doing a live recording, that he needed to stop--they were trying to shut down the live reporting. On Monday night, journalists appeared to be cordoned off in a particular parking lot, and riot police had guns pointed at them at one point. The journalists appeared to have all their hands up. It's concerning that media are being shoved off into a particular area and not being allowed to move out of that area.

Also on Monday, Attorney General [Chris] Koster had created--I forget the legal term--an "alternative safe protest zone" adjacent to the McDonald's in a field. And so they were telling people, as of 4 p.m. Monday, to go and stay in that field if they wanted to protest. We had an attorney who went down to Ferguson Monday evening. He took pictures of the field. The field was blocked off by a padlocked gate. It was padlocked still this morning.

We're still unclear about the legal reasoning around the state of emergency, but if you say you've created a protest zone that's padlocked, and you put all the protesters in a blocked-off area, I'm concerned about the safety of the protesters. The officers can then launch tear gas into one area, and where do the protesters go?

Liberals, and particularly white liberals, need to go to Ferguson and talk to the young people. The challenge is to move people in these white liberal communities away from being so focused on anti-racism training [for cops], which is mostly needed for persons who are white. Clearly law enforcement already goes through antiracist training, so I'm not really sure this is going to yield any measurable benefits. When I talk to kids in the street and ask them what they think about requiring more antiracism trainings for cops, they are very disinterested. They find it laughable.

They want the officer to be arrested who shot Michael Brown. They want the police records to be released. They want stricter requirements to be put in place for racial profiling. They want a special prosecutor to be brought in as opposed to the county prosecutor. That sort of political push requires a radical political will. That is going to be a challenge for the organizers on the ground.

HOW DOES what's going on in Ferguson fit into the broader crackdown on the civil liberties and the rights of journalists to report stories?

OF ALL the things that you've said, I'm increasingly concerned about the militarization of the police across the country. This is something we've been tracking at the ACLU. Basically, the most important thing that I took away from the ACLU report is that if you give law enforcement a hammer, they're much more inclined to look for a nail. This is especially true when faced with situations they're not really trained for.

This has been happening where they bring out military equipment almost immediately. On Monday night, they had snipers out. They were positioning themselves on top of Humvees, and a local journalist had a sniper rifle trained on him/her. The laser dot was on his/her chest for a few seconds, and it was terrifying. On the night of Wednesday, August 13, Mustafa Hussein had an officer's gun trained on him for filming. Twice.

There are civil liberties violations left and right. It's crazy. Particularly with law enforcement telling people they have to stop filming, they have to stop protesting, they have to disperse. Particularly when the protesters are not doing anything to law enforcement. It's just wrong.

When the protesters dispersed into the neighborhoods, tear gas and rubber bullets continued to be fired--even as people ran away. People were coming out of their homes, concerned for the safety of the protesters and getting tear-gassed.

This goes beyond things like protests too. You have Humvees and snipers and SWAT teams being called out for minor infractions, and it just raises anxiety. You have to wonder what situations having military equipment would be helpful in! We need to have some serious regulations in place over the use of this stuff--at a minimum.

The militarization of the police undermines democracy. It undermines freedom of speech. It can undermine due process and accountability. On Monday, police weren't wearing badges. It widens the gap between police officers and citizens--especially given the lack of transparency that already exists in holding law enforcement accountable for their wrongdoings. And all of this undermines and threatens the freedom of the press.

WE'VE SEEN the increasing use of community peacekeepers. Who are they, and what has been the response of the community to them?

THE BLACK Lawyers for Justice, affiliated with the New Black Panther movement, are on the ground. The Black Panther folks have been helping to maintain the flow of traffic in the streets. They've played an important role in keeping the roads clear, at least until Monday when the police instituted new orders on the sidewalks. The Black Panthers have helped people who've been upset or drinking to calm down. And just regular people have been doing that too.

Regular people have been helping people who've been drinking too much, taking care of them and making sure that they don't get behind the wheel. Some people have been drinking to deal with the grief and stress of the last week, and that's become a necessity. The people at the protest have taken responsibility for each other.

I'm concerned about the threat from the KKK to come and terrorize people in the name of protecting white businesses. That could present a real challenge to the relative calm of the protests.

OBVIOUSLY THE curfew was lifted last night, and I want to get your sense of why that was. Was it the result of advocacy by the NAACP and ACLU, or did the governor have his own reasons?

THAT'S A very good question. We did work with the NAACP to put pressure on the governor to lift the curfew. I'd like to think he is having the best interests of the public in mind. But I think the governor has not seen protests like this. This is new territory. He's trying to figure out how to cut this short, given his larger political ambitions.

He has political aspirations beyond his current seat--whether that would be running for Senate or being appointed to some position in the next Democratic White House, that's probably something that made him more likely to reconsider the situation.

The public that's not immediately impacted by this situation is still struggling to understand it...There's that public image that voters are wrestling with, and that's something he's considering--the pressure of organized groups on the one hand and the galling ineffectiveness of the curfew over the last couple of days on the other. A lot is hanging in the air right now. We're going to have to wait and see. The people of Ferguson didn't back down from the curfew.

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