Lobe: Law enforcement should approach activists with peace, not force

Cullen Lobe

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.

Protesters and Journalists have endured violent tactics this past year at the hand of law enforcement, raising serious concerns about human rights & First Amendment abuses.  

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People are finding their voices and place in a world where silence and passivity are no longer options. Whether it be in the streets or elsewhere, people across the country are showing up to exercise their First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, they are being met with undue brutality and consequences for their efforts. 

November 20th, 2016

I was involved in multiple pipeline protests this year.  My intentions were to stand in solidarity with Native Americans, and lend a hand to help protect the water against a pipeline and winterize the camps. I was welcomed into a community that was driven by prayer, unity, and hard work.

By 5 PM, a non-violent action began on a bridge that was just a quarter-mile away from camp, and the site of a roadblock set up by law enforcement. When the first rubber bullets and tear gas flew towards the group of about 20, I had a feeling things were going to escalate, but never to the level that was displayed.

The night turned into police using water cannons against unarmed water protectors in subfreezing weather. I witnessed firsthand the extent our Government will go to disperse peaceful assemblies. I saw law enforcement shoot down drones, single out journalists and medics before firing rubber bullets at them. I watched law enforcement entrap hundreds of people in a thick wall of putrid, vomit-inducing tear gas. 

The only thing differentiating this from an all-out war zone was the lack of weapons on one side of the barbed wire. Despite hundreds injured, most water protectors stayed peaceful and displayed heroics that shouldn’t have been needed.

From my personal perspective within the camps, there is a disturbing pattern that continues to allow and persuade officers to use such brutal force against their fellow citizens. This is a major First Amendment issue. 

St Louis, 2017

Recently, Jason Stockley, a former St. Louis police officer, was acquitted in the 2011 death of a black driver, Anthony Lamar Smith. Overwhelming evidence proved Stockley’s intent to kill. This was another instance of a lack of accountability, something that People of Color have been combating for far too long.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department kills its residents at a higher rate than any police department among America’s 100 most populous cities, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In response, St. Louis citizens unified in the streets. 

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In the 18 days of protest, 307 were arrested, most of them experiencing violent arrests, according to multiple lawsuits filed against the department, one being by the ACLU.

On two occasions, police used a tactic called ‘kettling,’ in which they cut off all exit points, surrounding and entrapping anyone present. As police moved in to arrest those that were kettled, beat, pepper-sprayed and dragged people prior to arrest.

During the weeks of protest, 10 journalists were arrested. Most of these journalists had visible press passes and were documenting. Despite doing exactly what they should be as journalists, that didn’t protect them from being kettled, pepper sprayed, and thrown in jail.

One journalist arrested was Jordan Chariton of The Young Turks. I watched his live stream as he was interviewing demonstrators, and, without giving any dispersal orders, police surrounded the group and arrested all present. Earlier that night, those protesters briefly blocked traffic on a highway and it was for this that they were strategically surrounded and arrested. Some will say that blocking traffic isn’t the ‘right’ way to protest. However, this is in no way a violent act, or one that warrants the arrest and jailing of journalists, a pastor, state representative, and 120 other community members. 

After making arrests one night in St. Louis, officers chanted “whose streets, our streets” as they marched down public roads. The supervisor of the civil disobedience unit, the self-named “riot king,” is unapologetic regarding the violence he uses against protesters, despite several of his officers facing brutality lawsuits. 

When Americans are injured and arrested during lawful assembly, and journalists are silenced for doing their job, it is time to seriously question the powers and structures that be. President Trump recently signed an executive order that deregulated the flow of military equipment into police departments–Meaning police departments will now have access to military surplus equipment typically used in warfare. With weapons used strictly for violent means, police can only escalate situations.

These tactics do not work. The more people police injure or arrest, the more people will be inspire to join the ever-growing community of activism. We must continue to talk about these concerns, because protests around the country will continue to grow despite the government’s attempt at stopping them.

Opinion columnist Cullen Lobe can be reached at letters@collegian.com.