A federal judge in St. Louis has ruled unconstitutional a crowd control method Ferguson police used on African-American protesters that sounded eerily similar to prohibitions against Blacks during slavery.
It was known as the “keep moving” policy, and the police began using it in August after the death of Michael Brown to control the protesters by prohibiting them from remaining still for more than five seconds. If they stopped moving, they were in danger of being arrested.
But after the policing tactic was challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, U.S. District Judge Catherine D. Perry issued a preliminary injunction halting the five-second tactic, ruling that it violates protesters’ First Amendment and due process rights.
“The evidence from plaintiff’s witnesses shows that the police, including those from St. Louis County, told many people who were either peacefully assembling or simply standing on their own that they would be arrested if they did not keep moving,” the judge said in her decision. “Some law enforcement officers told people that they could stand still for no more than five seconds. Others gave instructions that people were walking too slowly, or that they could not walk back and forth in a small area. Some law enforcement officers did not make people keep moving, others did. Some officers applied the strategy to reporters, others did not. Many officers told people who were standing in small groups on the sidewalks during the daytime hours that they would be arrested if they did not keep moving.”
Perry called this arbitrarily applied, ad hoc policy unconstitutional.
“The rule of law is essential to our constitutional system of government, and it applies equally to law enforcement officers and to other citizens,” Perry’s order said. “Criminal laws must be defined in a way that allows ordinary people to understand what conduct is against the law.”
But the judge said her injunction doesn’t prevent the police from enforcing Missouri’s “failure-to-disperse law” or any other law.
“Law enforcement must be able to use the full range of lawful means to control crowds and to protect people and property from acts of violence and vandalism, including ordering a crowd to move or disperse if law enforcement officers believe the crowd is assembled for the purpose of violence or rioting,” the judge said.
After rebellions in the early 1800s brought fear and trembling among the slaveholder communities throughout the South, states passed laws prohibiting enslaved men and women from coming together for meetings, believing that was a way to halt any insurrections.
The arbitrary policy created by St. Louis County police to keep African-American protesters from standing still together has unmistakable similarities to the 1800s.
The ACLU said Perry’s decision was a major victory.
“Vague rules that are applied in a haphazard fashion tend to increase community tension,” Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, said in a news release.
The St. Louis County Police Department told Mashable that it will comply with the judge’s decision. “It will not affect our plans as we were not going to use it going forward,” said Sgt. Brian Schellman, a department spokesman.