AF officer among those arrested in St. Louis claiming they weren't protesting
By JEREMY KOHLER | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | Published: September 23, 2017
One was an Air Force lieutenant who came out of his downtown apartment to witness the commotion in his neighborhood.
Another was a Chicago-based photojournalist for Getty Images assigned to cover the latest bout of unrest in St. Louis.
And still another was a St. Louis police officer working undercover at the protest.
They were among more than 120 people forcibly arrested downtown on Sunday by St. Louis police cracking down on protests. The arrests came at least two hours after vandals had broken some windows and flower pots a few blocks away.
The police were congratulated by their acting police chief, who said they "owned tonight," and got praise from Gov. Eric Greitens for their tactics. But as more details emerged about heavy-handed police tactics, criticism mounted. A lawyer for the Post-Dispatch condemned the "inappropriate and disturbing" arrest of one of its journalists. A lawsuit on Friday alleged that the police violated people's civil rights. And two top city officials on different days used the word "disturbing" to describe allegations of abusive police.
On Friday, Mayor Lyda Krewson asked the director of public safety to investigate how an undercover officer became bloodied during his arrest Sunday when he was mistaken for a suspect believed to be carrying chemicals that could be sprayed on officers.
"The allegations are disturbing," Krewson's spokesman Koran Addo wrote in a statement.
City Counselor Julian Bush on Wednesday also called the allegations disturbing.
The incident began when two uniformed officers near the protest ordered the man to show his hands, sources said. When he refused, they knocked him down and hit him at least three times and zip tied his hands behind his back. When he stood up, his mouth was bloodied, the sources said.
Commanders the next day told the officers they had arrested one of their own.
Police arrested another officer Sunday -- an Air Force lieutenant who lives with his wife in an apartment on Washington Avenue.
Lt. Alex Nelson, 27, who works in cyberoperations at Scott Air Force Base, was walking around his neighborhood with his wife when they became trapped between quickly closing police lines. He said he was kicked in the face, blinded by pepper spray and dragged away.
"It's our street," he said. "I hear the police say it was their street, but it's literally my street. I have coffee on that street, and I own property on that street. We were not active protesters. We were looking into the neighborhood to observe events that were unfolding.
"I'm very sad how they treated me and my wife through the escalation of violence they used on me. It was incredibly unnecessary. I've had training on how to arrest and be arrested, and I capitulated to every demand that was made of me, even before I was on the ground. We were told to move back, and we moved back. We were told to move this way, we moved this way. We obeyed every command that we heard. We were never given an order to disperse. Not once."
He said while waiting to be loaded into a police vehicle, he said he was an officer in the military. He said the police officer replied, "Shut up. Stop. I don't care."
Caught in the sweep
One of the most-repeated complaints of those swept up in the mass arrest was that they had nowhere to go. William Waldron, 38, who was in town from New York to build the stage for the U2 concert, which was canceled, said he was leaving a bar on Tucker Boulevard and had no idea police had given any order to disperse. He said he tried to get back into the bar but was shoved back by a police shield.
"They threw me on the ground and told me I was being arrested," he said. "The guys inside were trying to come out and tell them I was a part of their crew, and police told them if they opened up the door they were going to arrest them."
"In one way, I felt like they were doing what they felt they needed to do," he said. But he felt the police went "way overboard."
A documentary filmmaker from Kansas City, visiting with his wife, said he was knocked unconscious during the sweep. Drew Burbridge, 32, said he never heard orders to disperse until officers started to advance, banging their batons and chanting, "Move back."
"I turned my camera off and asked if there was anywhere I could go, but I was denied the right to leave," he said. "I didn't want to be a part of this."
Officers ordered him to turn his camera off and get down on the ground, and he complied.
"The only thing I cared about then was putting my arms around my wife," he said. "I just, I just kept saying: 'It's going to be OK.'"
Burbridge said officers then grabbed him by both his arms and dragged him away.
"I just said: 'I am a member of the media, I am not protesting, I am not resisting,'" Burbridge said.
An officer sprayed his face with a chemical, his head was forced into the ground and an officer ripped his camera from his neck.
Burbridge claims his hands were then bound by zip ties before two officers started kicking him in the back, neck, arm and legs while he lay restrained on the ground. He said he was knocked unconscious on the pavement for about 10 to 30 seconds.
After he came to, Burbridge said an officer lifted his head by his hair and pepper sprayed him in the face again.
Another journalist was caught in the sweep. Scott Olson, 57, of Chicago, was on assignment for Getty Images. He said he had covered several protests in his career but had been arrested only one time: by a Missouri state trooper in Ferguson in August 2014. (He was not prosecuted.)
Olson said he shot many photos of vandals causing damage downtown. The area had quieted down considerably, and he was getting ready to leave for the night when a friend tipped him off that police were planning to clear the streets and that he might want to stick around.
As the "kettle" closed in, he shot photos until an officer ordered him to get to the ground and drop his cameras. He got to his knees and gently placed his $15,000 equipment on the street.
As he was led away, he asked, "What about my camera?"
An officer responded, "(expletive) your camera," he said. But another officer grabbed it and placed it around his neck.
Dillan Newbold, a medical school student at Washington University working on a doctorate in neuroscience, said he also was videotaping the protest when he got caught in the kettle.
Newbold said he never heard an instruction to disperse but soon officers converged, and one told him to stop filming. Newbold said he turned off the camera on his phone and was immediately sprayed with a chemical irritant.
Newbold said he was restrained with zip ties that were so tight that he lost all feeling in his hands and his fingers began to turn purple. He said his hands still burn, and there are still areas that have not regained feeling.
"It felt like the officers were treating it like some kind of sport," Newbold said.
More stories from people arrested Sunday
Rodney Ford, 28, of Denver, said he had driven to St. Louis on Friday for a family wedding on Saturday. He and his fiancée, Tabetha Esry, 29, came downtown to protest on Sunday night.
"We thought we could have a lawful assembly," he said. "We thought that's what this was. But that right was stripped away from us."
He said he had heard there was vandalism downtown but "didn't see people yelling toward the police when I was there."
Ford said after lines of police officers closed in on him, he and his fiancée put up their hands and knelt. The officers sprayed them with chemicals, and zip tied them.
He said Esry suffered a bruise to her thigh from being stepped on by an officer's boots and was dragged off aggressively.
Ford had a new 9mm pistol on him that cost $600 at Bass Pro Shop. He said he had never fired it. He said police took the weapon and told him it was going to ballistics.
"They just disarmed a civilian," he said. "Now I have no right to protect myself. My firearm has been stolen. When I went to retrieve my phone at the (area station), they had no information about my gun."
Morgan Latham, 19, has bruises she said are from a police officer pulling her under her arms and getting shot with pepper pellets before she was arrested.
"Honestly it felt like a drive-by shooting," said Latham, a student at St. Louis Community College in Florissant.
Latham said she heard police using racial slurs.
"I don't think it was them being racist, I think it was them wanting people to know they didn't have any power," she said.
Marvin Malone, 27, was in the crowd to document the protests as a freelance photographer. He was at the corner of Olive Street and Ninth Street on Sunday night when he decided he wanted to go home. He and his girlfriend walked to Tucker Boulevard to cross, but a police officer stopped them. She directed Malone and his girlfriend, who was also taking photographs of the demonstration, to walk to Tucker and Washington Avenue. They were under the impression they'd been directed to that intersection because it was a clear avenue to exit.
"That's when police started kettling," Malone said. "As they told people to disperse, they wouldn't let people leave. We were there for about 30 minutes, and then the police gave the final warning to disperse, but wouldn't let people leave. That's when the police started rushing and macing."
First, the police arrested Malone's girlfriend, he said, at which point he "told them to go to hell and arrest me, as well." The police used zip ties to handcuff those in the kettle crowd.
"They put them on extremely tight, and I don't have the best blood circulation because of third-degree burn scars, so my hands were completely numb." Malone and his girlfriend spent the next day in jail, with no way to contact family, friends or employers, he said.
Mark Gullet Jr., 24, was at the demonstration as a freelance videographer. His wife's in the same business, and the two want to do a film on St. Louis crime. They set out on Sunday to get b-roll, or background footage, of the demonstrations for the new film.
Gullet got downtown around 11 p.m., "after all the vandalism had happened." He arrived on Washington Avenue, where he saw groups of people and police standing around.
"I was not a part of any vandalism. I was on the sidelines with other media. Out of nowhere, we hear marching and batons hitting shields," Gullet said. Gullet and the people standing around him were boxed in, "with nowhere to go," and minutes later the police were given the order to make arrests.
Gullet obeyed when he was ordered to the ground, he said, but was still coated in pepper spray. He shut his eyes but felt the sting of the spray in his mouth and on his skin. The effects lasted for hours after the arrests, Gullet said, and made for an especially uncomfortable environment once he was packed into a holding cell with roughly three dozen others.
"It was nothing but coughing and sneezing, because of the pepper spray," he said.
Marcus Anderson, 22, was out with a friend downtown when they decided to walk with the protesters. They stopped at the corner of Tucker Boulevard and Olive Street to take photographs of the demonstration.
"Then this truck came up and started shooting mace and rubber bullets," Anderson said. Then, the police tackled him.
"They tried to say I was resisting arrest but I wasn't," he said. "They threatened to tase me, break my arm and beat me. They put their knees in my back and neck. They said they were tired of me, and tired of my people looting. But I wasn't looting, and nobody I was with was looting. They were just putting me in this category."
Anderson was arrested and jailed overnight. He had a laptop in his bag when he got arrested. When he got home from the ordeal, the laptop was cracked and had loose pieces that were not loose prior to the arrest, he said.
Mario Ortega, 36, had just arrived in St. Louis from an out-of-town trip and met a friend downtown around 10 on Sunday night. They saw the protests happening, and decided to ask protesters in the streets about future protests.
"We want to make change happen here in St. Louis," Ortega said. He's lived in the area for about seven years. He originally came to Washington University as a student and stayed to work. He's now a post-doctoral researcher in neuroscience.
Ortega's educational background helped him realize what kind of damage was inflicted by too-tight zip ties used to restrain him and his friend when they were kettled and arrested.
"They were really, really tight, to the point that we still have nerve damage," Ortega said. "I went to the doctor for that." He received medication and will have to return for a follow-up, he said. Ortega didn't get the impression that the same level of tightness was used for every arrestee.
"It seemed like if they didn't like you for some reason, you got it really tight," he said. "My left hand went purple and both of his hands went purple."
Fareed Alston of East St. Louis was filming the protests for his company City-Productions and Publishing when he was arrested.
"It was like imminent danger, a wall of police circling around us," Alston said. "They told us to get on the ground and everyone complied. Even as we did that they started pepper spraying us and kicking us to the ground with their foot and taking people's phones."
Alston, 28, said as he was being taken to the police van he saw officers giving high fives, taking selfies and smoking cigars.
"I feel like the police were much more aggressive and tactical," he said. "When I look at the footage it's almost like I'm filming a royal formation or a military drill."
Blythe Bernhard and Janelle O'Dea of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this article.
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