Civil Disobedience and Free Speech Tested by Prayer in Ferguson
Rev. Sekou, arrested while in protest and prayer after Michael Brown was shot and kIlled in Ferguson, was found not guilty of failing to obey police orders.
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
On February 9 of 2016, after 20 minutes of a jury deliberation, Ferguson civil liberties protester Rev. Sekou was found not guilty on charges stemming from an arrest back in September of 2014, during the Ferguson uprisings. Rev. Sekou was detained when he knelt in prayer outside a local police department where police officers claimed that he was resisting orders.
On to talk about his ordeal and what it means for the democratic right of civil disobedience and the right to protest is the man himself, Rev. Sekou. Rev. Sekou is an author, documentary filmmaker, pastor, theologian, and of course a political activist. Rev. Sekou, good to have you back on the Real News.
REV. OSAGYEFO UHURU SEKOU: It’s a pleasure to be here, as always.
PERIES: And so let’s get a take on how you’re feeling.
SEKOU: I mean, I’m overjoyed, because the Ferguson prosecutor attempted to place our movement on trial, and to use my case as a proxy to defame our movement. And that the citizens saw through that and exonerated me.
PERIES: So before we get into the dismissal, take us back to the day and describe to us what happened to you in that act of civil disobedience.
SEKOU: Well, there was a call put out by the Metropolitan Community United, which is headed by David [Gert], who was actually one of the witnesses who testified in my defense, to come out to the police station where there had been ongoing protests for about six weeks following the murder of Michael Brown.
And clergy came out. We began, a few kneeled and prayed, and on inner faith, spontaneous prayer meeting broke out. And the activists, actually, the young activists came and laid hands on the clergy as we were praying. The activists then in turn decided they were going to stay in the street, and they saw the police amassing. They were going to stay in the street and were willing to risk arrest. And so they asked us to step back. And we did so. And then the police began to advance upon them, carrying these long billy clubs that reminded me of apartheid South Africa, those kind of images.
And so kind of before I knew it, I just darted out in front of the young activists and kneeled and prayed, as a way to halt the police. I was subsequently arrested immediately, and then taken and placed in a bloodstained van, and held there for about an hour and a half. What was interesting about it, the victory of that night, is that the young people would not leave the street until I was released. They said they were not going home until they, the police gave their preacher back.
And so Ron Johnson, the captain, the Missouri Highway Patrol captain, came out [and was] over administering the police forces in Ferguson at that time, during the state of emergency. Came out and tried to negotiate with them to go home, and they wouldn’t go home until I was released. And so I was released out of the van and given a ticket, and made three different offers by the state to not, to go, which would include up to five years probation. And so my able attorney Jerryl Christmas and I decided that it was something that we needed to go to trial for.
PERIES: And of course, what is the argument that was being used by the prosecution in this case? It seems a bit absurd, particularly given that they have been collectively releasing a number of the activists that were arrested during that period, and their charges dropped.
SEKOU: Well, recently they attempted to prosecute a number of activists, and the case was thrown out against six of them, I believe, including sister Heather, who is one of the main livestreamers. She, in February 2015, she was snatched out of her wheelchair by police officers during an arrest, and they wanted to go ahead with charges but they had to throw those charges out. So Ferguson has consistently tried to prosecute, and the greater St. Louis judicial structure has attempted to prosecute various facets of this movement. And so at that, at one level I’m quite ordinary in that sense.
Their charges against me was initially failure to disperse, which was a very broad category and a poorly written ordinance. And then they re-amended the charge to failure to comply. In reality, the police officers never gave me a command to leave. And if the officer who was their key witness, Cosma, Officer Cosma, had already been cited in a lawsuit for hog-tying a 12-year-old where he settled out of court, as well as a, who abused Ryan Reilly and Wes Lowery of the Washington Post and Huffington Post, respectively. And is facing a $40 million lawsuit. And so that was their key witness.
And so in that context, we found ourselves just arguing the fact of, arguing the law, which is I had not been given comply, and that actually Officer Cosma was not my arresting officer. He just simply filled out the form.
PERIES: Now, tell us a bit about the prosecutor herself, Stephanie Karr, and her record in terms of these kinds of prosecutions against activists and the connection her law firm has to the city.
SEKOU: Her law firm represents 27 municipalities in the greater St. Louis region. As you, many folks know by now, St. Louis County is divided into some 90-some-odd municipalities, some of them extremely small, which have a long history of sundown towns and other functions to segregate and isolate black folks. So in that 27 municipalities. Her firm, there’s the judge, they basically run the Department of Justice for these local municipalities, and are privately contracted by Ferguson City in particular to run these cases.
PERIES: Now, one other thing is that the Justice Department today announced they’re actually suing Ferguson. At least it was reported in the media today, and I know it actually happened a few days ago. Tell us, between the connection between your case and these charges coming about.
SEKOU: One of the challenges is the judge refused, amended, supported a motion by the prosecutor not to mention the Department of Justice report. So that was, there could be no mention of it during my trial. And so what we’ve seen is a consistent behavior by Ferguson City having negotiated some, you know, 500-some-odd days with the Department of Justice in good faith and then refusing to honor those negotiations by offering some of, you know, pretty offensive amendments, which would include if they dissolved their police department they would not have to respond to any of the justice questions raised by the Department of Justice.
And so this speaks to a privatized Justice Department in Ferguson, combined with the death of Michael Brown, which facilitated for us to have this national conversation, a scathing report by the Department of Justice, a tepid negotiation process with the Department of Justice which ultimately led to Ferguson, ultimately refusing in their own way to abide by the rulings hence, forcing the Department of Justice to sue them.
And it just speaks to the level of corruption. History shall record Ferguson and Missouri as our postmodern Mississippi. And also it’s interesting when you talk about the political climate here that, you know, some, over 30 states have passed some forms of legislation to constrain police behavior. Not one has been passed in Missouri. And so while we have some victories and that we’re moving forward, we are up against a recalcitrant municipal and state apparatus that refuses to acknowledge a simple truth, which is that black life matters.
PERIES: Victory it is. Rev. Sekou, it is so good to have you with us, and we look forward to further reports on developments that are occurring in Ferguson.
SEKOU: Thank you so much. And it’s always a pleasure to be on the Real News Network.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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