‘We must protect the right to peacefully protest’

Criminal charge for white St. Louis couple

In late June, when a white couple pointed guns at the racial justice protesters marching past their $1.15 million mansion in St. Louis

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US PRESS GROUP

In announcing criminal charges against a wealthy white couple who pointed guns at anti-racist protesters marching through their gated community, St. Louis’ top prosecutor said the protesters were “peaceful” and “unarmed.”

“We must protect the right to peacefully protest, and any attempt to chill it through intimidation will not be tolerated,” Kimberly Gardner wrote in a statement on Twitter.

But Gardner noted in the statement that she had also filed charges against another St. Louis man who had “assaulted peaceful demonstrators at the King Louis IX statute on June 27th,” the day before the incident involving the white couple.

The man charged in that incident was black, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch previously reported. The newspaper published video it said appeared to capture part of the assault, which showed a black man attempting to slap a white man, during a protest centered on whether or not to remove a statue of the French King.

Since 18-year-old Michael Brown’s killing by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, St. Louis has become one of the major centers of protest over racist policing and broader anti-black racism in the United States. Ferguson is one of the many small jurisdictions that circle St. Louis, a metropolitan area that is marked by stark racial segregation between black and white residents.

Gardner, who was elected in 2016, is the city’s first black circuit attorney.

In late June, when a white couple pointed guns at the racial justice protesters marching past their $1.15 million mansion in St. Louis, the photographs and the video of the incident immediately went viral.

St. Louis’ police department said that they were investigating the June 28 incident, but that it viewed Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the white couple, as the victims, not the perpetrators, of an incident of “trespassing” and “intimidation.”

But the city’s top prosecutor, who is black, made a different announcement. Kimberly Gardner said said was she was “alarmed” to see an incident “where peaceful protestors were met by guns and a violent assault”, and that her office was also investigating.

“Make no mistake: we will not tolerate the use of force against those exercising their first amendment rights,” Gardner wrote.

Gardner, the first African-American top prosecutor in St. Louis’ history, was elected in 2016 as one of the country’s new wave of progressive prosecutors, who aimed to reduce mass incarceration and address the stark racial disparities within America’s criminal justice system.

Since she announced her investigation into the McCloskeys, powerful white Republicans, including the president, Missouri’s governor, and Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, have rallied behind the wealthy white couple, and made clear that they would oppose any attempt to charge them.

Trump said in an interview that the idea that the McCloskeys might be prosecuted was “a disgrace.” Republican governor Mike Parson said in a radio Friday that he would likely pardon them if they were to be convicted of anything.

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley asked the Justice Department to consider a civil rights investigation of Gardner, suggesting that her investigation of whether the couple violated any laws was an infringement of their Constitutional rights, and an “an unacceptable abuse of power and threat to the Second Amendment.”

Gardner said she has received death threats in the wake of the comments about her by Republican lawmakers, and compared the attacks against her to violent threats by the Ku Klux Klan in an interview with the Washington Post last week.

“This is a modern-day night ride, and everybody knows it,” Gardner told the Washington Post, referring to the Ku Klux Klan’s tactics of intimidation towards black Americans. “And for a president to participate in it, in the larger context of racism and cronyism, is scary.”

Several Black leaders in St. Louis have expressed support for Gardner, including Democratic U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, who has said protesters “should never be subject to the threat of deadly force, whether by individuals or by the police.”

Gardner did not back down in the face of political pressure from Missouri Republicans to choose not to prosecute the gun-toting St. Louis couple. On Monday, she announced criminal charges against the McCloskeys, including a felony charge of unlawful use of a weapon, and a misdemeanor charge of fourth-degree assault.

“It is illegal to wave weapons in a threatening manner that is unlawful in the city of St. Louis,” Gardner told the Associated Press, arguing that the couples’ actions risked creating a violent situation during an otherwise nonviolent protest.

She is recommending a diversion program such as community service rather than jail time if the McCloskeys are convicted. Typically, class E felonies could result in up to four years in prison.

An attorney for the McCloskeys, Joel Schwartz, in a statement called the decision to charge “disheartening as I unequivocally believe no crime was committed.”

Gardner has said Trump, Parson and others are attacking her to distract from “their failed approach to the COVID-19 pandemic” and other issues.

Gardner has already spent years battling with the city’s police union and Missouri’s Republican political establishment. Her office charged then Republican governor Eric Greitens with felony invasion of privacy in 2018 for allegedly taking a compromising photo of a woman during an extramarital affair. The charge was eventually dropped, but Greitens resigned in June 2018.

A private investigator Gardner hired to investigate the claims against Greitens was later indicted for perjury for allegedly lying during a deposition. His case is pending.

Gardner also has butted heads with police leaders, especially after she developed an “exclusion list” of more than two dozen officers who were barred from serving as primary witnesses in criminal cases over what Gardner called credibility concerns. The move angered Police Chief John Hayden, who also is Black.

In January, Gardner filed a federal lawsuit accusing the city, the police union and others of a coordinated and racist conspiracy aimed at forcing her out of office. The lawsuit also accused “entrenched interests” of intentionally impeding her efforts to change racist practices.

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