After police shot and killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile last week, protesters across the country marched in protest of what they saw as yet another example of excessive use of force by police against black men. But the protesters ran into a big obstacle in the course of their demonstrations: the police.
By the end of the weekend, police arrested hundreds of protesters around the country, including activist DeRay Mckesson, in the course of aggressive police action against the demonstrators.
Now the American Civil Liberties Union is suing police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where officers killed Sterling. Lee Rowland, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, explained:
Constitutional rights — particularly that very First Amendment — are pretty robust, on paper. But as Black citizens of America know, for far too much of our history so many of those “rights” have had invisible whites-only asterisks attached. What’s new about modern protest is that our First Amendment rights are now often exercised on videotape, as are law enforcement’s reactions to speech and protest. And the livestreams coming out of Baton Rouge this week should cause grave concern. And recognition that we still have hard work to do translating those parchment rights to the streets.
Police, for their part, said they only arrested people who broke the law — specifically by blocking public roads and highways after they were told not to.
The ACLU takes issue with those claims:
As this harrowing livestream shows, first the police told protesters to get off the street. So protesters went to the sidewalks. Then they were told to get off the sidewalks — and a private property owner offered refuge. So the cops told people the assembly was no longer lawful, and they’d be arrested. Where, exactly, do government officials expect their citizens to protest? It’s looking, unfortunately, like the answer is “nowhere.”
In short, law officers on the ground in Baton Rouge have done nothing to facilitate the constitutional rights to which they have each sworn an oath. Instead, they have met words with weapons, peace with violence. They have continually escalated a nonviolent protest into a full-scale conflict between the citizens and the police.
There’s a twisted irony to what this latest legal battle is all about. Police shot a man — in what many saw as excessive use of their power. Then when protesters took to the streets to speak out against the shooting, police arrested them — in what many say was an excessive use of their power.
One can, of course, argue whether what police did was unconstitutional; the ACLU and police will likely settle that in court. But this is certainly not a good look for a police department already in trouble, in the public view, for acting excessively.