On St. Louis’ most restless night of protests for some time, interim police chief Lawrence O’Toole seemed to embrace a tribal us-and-them attitude toward demonstrators in his city. Hours after reporters watched black-clad riot cops chant “Whose streets? Our streets!” at dispersing protesters, O’Toole boasted to press cameras that “police owned the night,” comments which Mayor Lyda Krewson (D) would criticize days later.
It all may have seemed hollow posturing and harmless banter. But a new lawsuit illustrates the very real abuses that such a domineering mentality from law enforcement can foreshadow. O’Toole’s cops allegedly beat, taunted, and repeatedly maced a handcuffed filmmaker that Sunday night, singling the Kansas City man out from a herd of arrestees to punish him physically for recording them. Drew and Jennifer Burbridge sued the city on Tuesday, alleging the kind of unprofessional, illegal mistreatment at police hands that’s routinely drawn protesters into American streets in recent years.
The Burbridges were present late Sunday night, September 17, when officers suddenly encircled a mix of protesters and reporters in a “kettle.” The tactic involves riot police cutting off all exit routes for a group of people and then arresting everyone. The Burbridges say they were not warned at any point to leave, or to avoid going to the intersection where they were filming protesters and police, before the sudden kettling. With the perimeter established, the suit says, officers began indiscriminately spraying pepper spray into the trapped group.
The couple sat down and held onto one another. Police moved inside the kettle. “One of the two officers…stated ‘that’s him’ and grabbed Drew Burbridge by each arm and roughly drug him away from his wife,” the suit says. Despite being told Burbridge was a member of the media and not a protester, the officers “then purposely deployed chemical spray into his mouth and eyes and ripped his camera from his neck,” according to the suit. Officers beat the man repeatedly, first with hands and feet as they got plastic zip-tie cuffs onto him and then going back for seconds with their batons after his hands were bound.
“Do you want to take my picture now motherfucker? Do you want me to pose for you?” one officer allegedly said to Drew during the beating. When the assault caused him to lose consciousness, Drew “awoke to an officer pulling his head up by his hair and spraying him with chemical agents in the face.”
The officers running the kettle and alleged beating were not wearing name badges on their uniforms and declined to identify themselves to either Burbridge throughout the encounter. Multiple officers seemed to taunt Jennifer as she watched her husband beaten, the complaint says. “Did you like that? Come back tomorrow and we can do this again,” one allegedly told her. Another, the complaint says, asked her, “What did you think was going to happen?”
An hour or so later, O’Toole and Krewson would appear on local television to praise their officers for effectively balancing the First Amendment rights of peaceful protesters against the criminality of a small minority of those still present on the streets after dark.
The basis for the police crackdown that night was a handful of smashed windows downtown. But the vandals had been arrested hours earlier by the time the Burbridges arrived and got caught up in the kettle, according to local news reports from the night.
The allegations of collective punishment, targeted brutality against non-resistant arrestees, and a seemingly intentional singling out of media members all echo a separate lawsuit in Washington, D.C., over the city police’s handling of protesters during President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
The protests the Burbridges attempted to cover in St. Louis didn’t have anything to do with Donald Trump personally. The city is on edge because another white police officer has been vindicated in the suspicious slaying of a young black man, not because of any acute action from the White House. But the tone and momentum established for police forces around the country by the new administration in Washington has an influence on how both individual officers and whole department cultures view dissent, protest, and civil unrest.
Immediately upon Trump’s taking office, the administration made clear to law enforcement observers that any protest they deemed to be violent should be met with force. In the months since, the president himself has given aid and comfort to the enemies of civil rights, encouraging cops to knock people around after they are arrested but before they have been proven guilty of any crime or even formally charged with one. In his informal political alliances with men like David Clarke and his own speeches, Trump has repeatedly betrayed an affection for roughing up his critics — something a few optimists in political journalism had hoped he might leave behind on the campaign trail.