Police arrested Aideen O’Brien during a protest following the Jason Stockley’s not-guilty verdict last year. O’Brien, a Webster student, said she still deals with trauma from the protests.
“I have developed PTSD,” O’Brien said. “Like flinching at loud noises and looking behind me when I’m walking.”
O’Brien, along with other protestors, took to the streets following the acquittal of St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley on Sept. 15, 2017. Stockley was accused of shooting and killing unarmed black man Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011. O’Brien said she was present during at least 10 protests.
As reported in The Journal last year, police arrested and charged O’Brien with rioting and two counts of resisting or interfering with arrest because of her actions during a protest at the St. Louis Galleria. Her case is still ongoing a year later. O’Brien said she believes she did nothing illegal when police arrested her.
“They are dragging it out as far as they can even though they know that they really messed up,” O’Brien said. “They are not willing to admit fault.”
While O’Brien fights a legal battle of her own, other protesters present after the Stockley verdict are now in court. On Sept. 17, 2018, 12 federal lawsuits were filed against the city of St. Louis on behalf of people involved in the Stockley protests. Six more suits were filed Oct. 2, 2018. Filed by civil rights law firms ArchCity Defenders and Khazaeli Wyrsch, the suits allege law enforcement violated protesters’ First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights during the Stockley protests.
Sept. 17 lawsuits
Twelve lawsuits representing 14 people were filed Sept. 17, 2018, on behalf of activists present at a protest exactly one year before. Plaintiffs include independent filmmakers and members of the military.
“They are a small slice of the 123 people that were illegally pepper sprayed, beat and arrested that night,” ArchCity Defenders said in a press release on Sept. 17.
Alison Dreith, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, is one of 14 protestors represented in the lawsuits. According to the suit, Dreith was let into City Hall to use the public restroom during the protest. When finished, she exited City Hall and rejoined the protest, where she was pepper sprayed in the face by an unidentified police officer.
Dreith said city officials she knew helped her out of the street. She said they helped her change clothes and waited with her for her husband to come pick her up.
“My skin was burning,” Dreith said. “I couldn’t see. I was in severe pain.”
O’Brien said she witnessed protesters being pepper sprayed during a protest she attended downtown. She said she used her sign to shield herself from the spray.
“[The police] are operating under orders to disperse,” O’Brien said. “With that mentality, they can see anyone that could be close to the action as a threat because they’re trained to respond to people at a protest as a threat.”
Javad Khazaeli of Khazaeli Wyrsch said Dreith’s testimony violates a 2014 federal consent decree. The decree states anyone being pepper sprayed must first be warned and given a chance to leave.
Dreith’s testimony, Khazaeli said, is consistent with the other plaintiffs in the suits. Khazaeli said she was given no warning and was not breaking any laws when she was pepper sprayed.
“It seems like the police were using pepper spray as punishment,” Khazaeli said.
Oct. 2nd lawsuits
Plaintiffs listed in suits filed on Oct. 2, 2018, include a disabled woman and a reverend. Six lawsuits allege police violated protestor’s rights on Sept. 29, 2017.
Khazaeli said activists were peacefully protesting near Busch Stadium for several hours before a police officer forcefully grabbed a female member of the clergy. When a male clergy member complained, he was slammed to the ground and arrested. Another protester was tasered as more activists began to protest law enforcement’s treatment of fellow protestors.
Khazaeli said as people became more upset, police officer William Olsten began to pepper spray protesters, including a woman in a wheelchair. Chief John Hayden, at the time a supervisor, looked on.
“There was no danger to [Olsten], no danger to his property,” Khazaeli said. “He just got sick of people complaining about him, so he decided to take matters into his own hands.”
Julie Setele, Webster University Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology, legally observed a protest after the Stockley verdict was announced. She said she saw the attitude of law enforcement towards protestors change over the course of the evening.
“At first when I was at a larger gathering, the police were keeping their distance,” Setele said. “Once the official protest ended and the organizers said, ‘We’re done here,’ that’s when the policing tactics changed. The police became much more aggressive.”
Khazaeli said one of his biggest concerns with this series of lawsuits is the targeted spray of a disabled woman. He said the pepper spray seeped into the felt of her wheelchair.
“One year later, I can still smell the pepper spray that has been fused into this poor women’s wheelchair,” Khazaeli said.
Dreith said she has received five death threats this year because of her work. However, because of her experience at the protest, she does not feel comfortable contacting the police for protection.
“I got a threatening letter sent to my home after I had gone to D.C. to protest Kavanaugh,” Dreith said. “I was too afraid to call the police. I had to have someone else do it for me.”
Dreith said she still does not feel able to publicly protest in St. Louis by herself. When she attends protests, she goes with her husband.
Khazaeli said the city is not willing to take allegations of protesters who said their rights were infringed upon seriously. He said they are asking for monetary damages in the suits in hopes of holding those responsible accountable for their actions.
City Councilor Julien Bush said on Tuesday the city is planning on defending the lawsuit.
O’Brien said as an activist present at the protests, she hopes the lawsuits hold the city accountable. She said she wants law enforcement to be required to wear a body camera at all times and that deescalation should be police officers’ first reaction in a conflict.
O’Brien said she would only attend another protest if she had a support system with her.
“I do not want to get grabbed again,” O’Brien said. “I have been to protests after my arrest, and they have been fine. I have not regretted going, I am just a lot more cautious.