Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri filed a $40 million federal lawsuit on Thursday alleging that police in the local and county departments violated civil rights and used excessive force to falsely arrest innocent bystanders in an attempt to crack down on the demonstrations that took place throughout the month.
The death of Michael Brown, a black teenager who was unarmed when he was shot to death by Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, sparked weeks of marches and demonstrations against police brutality and racism.
The five plaintiffs, including some who were not involved with the protests but encountered officers while eating out or walking home, said they were arrested violently, shot at with rubber bullets, and subjected to racial slurs.
"The police were completely out of control," said attorney Malik Shabazz of Black Lawyers for Justice. "In those initial days, it was virtually a police riot."
The lawsuit names Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, Ferguson officer Justin Cosma, several unnamed officers collectively identified in the suit as “John Doe,” and the city and county governments.
Early days of the protests saw the police forces dressed in riot gear and shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds of unarmed protesters. After days of unrest, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon put the State Highway Patrol in charge of securing Ferguson, which initially helped ease tensions. But police brutality returned to the protests after St. Louis County police were allowed back on the ground shortly after state troopers took over operations.
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Talking Points Memo writes:
Plaintiff Tracey White said she and her son, a high school junior, were waiting for a ride from her husband at a West Florissant Avenue McDonald's after attending an Aug. 13 "peace and love" rally at a Ferguson church when several rifle-carrying officers told her she was being arrested because she would not "shut up." White said she and her son were detained for five hours at the county jail on charges of failing to disperse, but she said she was not provided with any records reflecting that charge or a future court date.
"It was so horrifying," she said. "We did nothing wrong."
Dwayne Anton Matthews Jr. said he was confronted by eight officers that same night while walking to his mother's home after the bus route he normally takes stopped short of his destination because of the unrest. The suit alleges that after Matthews was shot multiple times with rubber bullets, he fell into a creek or sewer, where police officers "pounced on him, slammed his face into the concrete and pushed his head under water to the point that he felt he was going to be drowned."
Matthews, who styles his hair in long dreadlocks, told reporters at a Thursday press conference outside the St. Louis federal courthouse that he was called a "coon" and a "mophead," among other racial slurs.
Hundreds were arrested in recent weeks, including protesters, reporters, lawyers, and community leaders. Wilson has not been arrested for Brown's death.