ST. LOUIS – More than a dozen people arrested in a police "kettle" during a 2017 protest in St. Louis are suing the city, police officers and their supervisors, alleging they were roughed up, pepper sprayed and illegally detained.
Federal lawsuits were filed Monday, a year to the day after the Sept. 17, 2017, downtown protest. It was among several demonstrations that followed the acquittal of white former police officer Jason Stockley in the shooting death of a black suspect.
The lawsuits were filed by 14 people involved in the downtown protest, and two others who alleged they were pepper sprayed by police at a separate protest at City Hall. All of the lawsuits allege violation of constitutional rights and seek unspecified damages.
St. Louis City Counselor Julian Bush on Tuesday declined comment.
Stockley fatally shot Anthony Lamar Smith following a police chase in December 2011. Stockley claimed Smith had a gun and he fired in self-defense; prosecutors said Stockley planted the weapon.
Then-Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce filed first-degree murder charges in 2016, after Stockley had left the department. Stockley opted for a bench trial, and a judge on Sept. 15, 2017, found Stockley not guilty .
Protests began immediately and lasted for weeks. Two nights after the ruling, protesters converged on downtown St. Louis. Some broke windows and knocked over flower pots.
Around 11 p.m. on Sept. 17, 2017, police used a tactic known as a kettle in which officers form lines and encircle crowds deemed unruly. The procedure resulted in 123 arrests.
But the practice has drawn severe criticism from some who say it ensnares not only protesters but innocent people who cannot escape. The lawsuits say some of plaintiffs were beaten and pepper sprayed.
Among those suing were downtown residents who said they were not part of the protest, along with journalists, a scientist, and two military officers.
"This region is no stranger to protests, and yet it seems that we simply cannot learn from our mistakes," Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, said in a statement. ArchCity Defenders and another civil rights law firm, Khazaeli Wyrsch, filed the lawsuits on behalf of the plaintiffs.
The kettling "constituted a gross violation of the law and abuse of state power, and there are real human beings who suffered as a result," Strode said.
A suit filed by freelance video journalist Demetrius Thomas said a police officer beat him repeatedly in the ribs with a baton, and his camera equipment was confiscated and ruined, costing him work to the point that he had to move out of his home. He now lives with relatives.
Mark Gullet of St. Louis, a filmmaker and also a freelance journalist, said in his suit he was restrained with zip ties and pepper sprayed in the face.
A suit filed by Mario Ortega, who was a Washington University scientist at the time, said he was simply watching the protest when he got caught in the kettle. His suit said he was pepper sprayed, punched, kicked, dragged and slammed into a building.