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Legal Observer Arrested in Ferguson Says He Saw Police Targeting Black Men for Arrest

A legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild, who was wearing a clearly marked green hat, was arrested just after midnight on August 20. He was one of at least forty-seven arrests police made during protests urging the county to arrest or indict Officer Darren Wilson, who has been identified as the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.

Max Suchan told Firedoglake in an interview that the police had “massed up.” He observed police “charging into the crowd.” It was his sense that they were “targeting” young black men from the neighborhood.

He recalled being pushed to the ground as he tried to get contact information from a black man, who had been roughly brought to the ground by riot police who had their rifles pointed at him. Riot police that had made a ring around the black man while he was being arrested were the ones who placed Suchan under arrest.

“I wasn’t trying to interfere with the arrest, but I was trying to get the person’s contact information, which we’ve been successful in doing throughout the weeks and days leading up to that,” Suchan explained. “I wasn’t really given an order to disperse, but they grabbed me and placed me under arrest as well.”

Suchan said the officers had him sit on Florissant Avenue, the blocked off area where protests have been happening, and then they were put in a police van.

“[They] first took us to Target, the command staging area they’d been using,” Suchan further recalled. “And they left us in the car for about an hour and a half. During this time, [we were] repeatedly pounding on the door, kicking the door with our feet, trying to get the attention of an officer to come loosen these two men’s zip ties. They were extremely tight. They couldn’t feel their hands. It’s very hot inside the [police van]. And that was probably the most difficult part of the arrest, watching the police make eye contact with us through the window and be yelling for help and knowing they can clearly hear us and not have them do anything about it.”

Suchan’s story is consistent with others, who have been arrested and claimed they were kept in a bus or van for a long time until police finally took them to the police station in Clayton, Missouri. Previously, a black man named Terrance Williams, who was shot with a rubber bullet at “point blank” range, described being arrested and kept in a vehicle for seven hours before finally being transported to the police station.

By about 1:45 am or 2 am, Suchan said they were led to a table in a staging area. St. Louis County police officers took an initial arrest report and searched and inventoried belongings. They were then taken to Clayton in a “separate paddy wagon.” Suchan was then released by 6 am.

Suchan put his arrest in context:

I’m a white legal observer with a clearly marked hat. I did notice a huge difference in how they were treating; I mean, it was almost as if they were hunting down—they were really, really targeted and brutal arrests in the beginning. They were almost only directed against young black men. And I do think that’s a big distinction to make. I am not happy that I got arrested, but I wasn’t singled out because of the color of my skin and chased down and beaten up because of it. And that was something that I witnessed on the streets numerous times before I was arrested.

During the same night, police gave commands and dispersal orders that were unclear, which led to some being arrested while trying to leave the area. Suchan witnessed individuals trying to talk to police about what “exit route” to take. They were subsequently arrested.

While in the police van in the Target parking lot, everyone was able to use Suchan’s cell phone to call legal support and their families. They shared stories from the week. One man from New York had a bump and cuts and bruises on his face.

Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who has been leading the massive law enforcement response in Ferguson in the past week, has told media that there are “agitators” or “criminal elements” within the protestors. During an informal discussion with media and human rights observers from Amnesty International on August 20, he gestured toward businesses and pointed out people his forces had already singled out as “elements” that would cause problems—potential trouble makers. But, with only six arrests, there really were no problems during the night and these “elements” he spotted didn’t do anything criminal.

In terms of legal support work on the ground, Suchan suggested it had not been too difficult to locate people, who had been taken to jail, but not everyone knows the legal support phone number for Missourian Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE). They have been the key group doing legal support within the community, helping people locate family and loved ones who have disappeared in the system.

One key dilemma for those doing legal support work is that many arrested are still in jail because of previous traffic tickets or traffic violations and fines that they had not paid in other municipalities. According to Suchan, there are people arrested with him, who would have been released, if the bench warrant system did not keep them in prison until fines were paid off.

MORE and the NLG have been working with people to “triage” and get individuals released so that they can be out demonstrating in the streets again. (This is something that deserves much, much more attention and I intend to cover it in more detail in a future post.)

St. Louis County also has a pending access warrant system that seems unique. Suchan, a law student, was not sure what it meant that the police had thirty days to decide to charge him with committing an offense.

“I was given no paperwork. I just have my property bag, and I don’t even know technically what the next steps are. I assume they would mail me something if they were going to decide to press charges within that 30-day period of time. And I was verbally told that I was being charged with disorderly conduct, that all the people in our van were being charged with disorderly conduct.”

Suchan shared that he was “incredibly inspired by the people of Ferguson.” He, again, was insistent that the disparity in treatment between him and others with much darker skin be recognized.

“We don’t all face the same risks, and we all weren’t treated the same once we were arrested,” Suchan stated.

Video of Suchan and others being arrested.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."