A federal lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that police in Ferguson and St. Louis County used excessive force and falsely arrested innocent bystanders amid attempts to quell widespread unrest after the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
The five plaintiffs in the suit in St. Louis include a clinical social worker who said she and her 17-year-old son were roughed up and arrested after not evacuating a McDonald’s quickly enough. They also include a 23-year-old man who said he was shot multiple times with rubber bullets and called racial slurs by police while walking through the protest zone to his mother’s home, and a man who said he was arrested for filming the disturbances.
“The police were completely out of control,” said attorney Malik Shabazz of Black Lawyers for Justice, a group whose members sought to quell tensions at the nightly protests that stretched for more than week after Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, who is white, shot the unarmed Brown, who is black. “In those initial days, it was virtually a police riot.”
The lawsuit seeks $40 million in damages and names Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar, Ferguson officer Justin Cosma, several unnamed officers identified collectively as John Doe, and the city and county governments.
Shabazz said the suit could be broadened to include additional plaintiffs. A St. Louis County police spokesman referred inquiries to County Counselor Patricia Redington, who said she had not seen the suit and declined comment. A public relations consultant working for the city of Ferguson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the immediate days after Brown’s shooting, local police in riot gear fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters who refused to disperse and, at times, broke into nearby stores. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon eventually placed the State Highway Patrol in charge of securing Ferguson with a more relaxed approach. Nixon later imposed a curfew that was lifted after several nights of clashes between police and protesters, and called in the National Guard, whose members have since departed Ferguson.
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.