It was one week after George Floyd had been killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, and protests calling for police accountability over treatment of African Americans were growing around the country.
Antoine White, who took to the streets in Ferguson more than five years ago, was among a sea of protesters in downtown St. Louis on June 1. This time he brought his fiancée and young kids along ... and his registered rifle as a statement.
“We are an open carry state, so I brought my rifle,” White recalled. “And it wasn't positioned in a threatening way. It was strapped to my back. I did it in response to the fact that there's a stigma around Black people being legally armed.”
It was a decision that he believes later made him a police target.
The protest was largely peaceful during the day, but by nightfall things became tense. Police deployed tear gas; a 7-Eleven was looted and set on fire; and four St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officers were shot after midnight.
Not long after White and several of his business partners, both Black and white, found themselves facedown on the pavement, handcuffed by police outside their own business, their guns confiscated. A video one of the men took shows more than 20 police officers, guns drawn, yelling expletive-laden orders and threats.
In the end, they were released. With no arrests made or guns discharged, police officers weren’t required to file a report. The cellphone video would become the one record of the incident at a time when protesters were calling for more police accountability.
When a video is the only documentation
White, a local artist and community organizer widely known as T-Dubb-O, co-owns a recording studio in the Mascot Agency building, just around the corner from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police headquarters. He and five partners, including Vincent Manuel and Jimmy Sewell, were focused that night on keeping looters away from their building.
Manuel, who goes by his stage name Ackurate, said they were all carrying their registered guns and had put up barricades to prevent people from getting in.
“We just sat out there for a nice amount of time, until I believe that's when we started hearing the tear gas grenades go off,” Manuel said. “And that was coming more so on the side of the police precinct. And then we started hearing a few shots go off. And I think that's when stuff really got chaotic close to us.”
With their business at 19th and Locust streets just behind the police department headquarters, he said they’re used to seeing lots of police officers in the area. Manuel said he didn’t think much of it when he noticed officers shining a light on him as he grabbed snacks from his car.
“I knew at that moment, it was somebody looking at me from the precinct,” Manuel said, “because it was a multitude of police over there. So I saw that. I kept walking. I'm fine. But once I heard, 'Hey, what the f--- are you doing?’”
He and others dropped to the ground.
Jimmy Sewell, who is white, recorded a cellphone video of the encounter. He said nothing seemed right about the situation, so he made a split-second decision to document it.
“I knew it wasn't a smart idea, but I reached into my pocket to get the phone to start recording, because I felt as if I had enough distance between myself and them to do that safely without them thinking I was reaching for anything other than that,” he said.
The video shows officers swarming the group and repeatedly saying to stay down. One officer can be heard saying, “Somebody wants to die today.”
The officers repeatedly ask about “the guy with the rifle.”
White believes this line of questioning was no coincidence. He said the officers knew exactly who he was because of his time spent protesting in Ferguson.
“It was intimidation,” White said, “and it was also a threat against my life, because as they had us on the ground they decided to start whispering things like, ‘We didn't get you in Ferguson, if you don't shut the f--- up, we'll get you this time.’”
It became clear the police thought the men were involved in the shooting of four officers earlier that night. White said he and his colleagues found out about the shooting on social media roughly 20 minutes before the officers came their way just before 12:30 a.m.
The three men told St. Louis Public Radio that the police were overly aggressive. They said they were handcuffed tightly and slammed against walls and the street. Sewell said his tooth was chipped and an officer put a knee to his neck, all while guns were pointed in their faces.
White said while they complied, officers’ actions further escalated the situation.
“I really thought they were going to kill somebody out there because they wanted to,” White said.
'Like Nothing Happened'
St. Louis Public Radio reached out to the police department about the encounter. A spokesperson declined an interview but said officials are aware of the video and have forwarded it to the department’s Internal Affairs Division. In a statement, the spokesperson said the department doesn’t discuss ongoing internal investigations.
An open records request found there was no official police report taken about the incident that night.
The fact it wasn’t documented is problematic, said Daniel Harawa, an assistant professor of practice and director of the appellate clinic at Washington University’s School of Law.
“That's one of the big issues especially for people of color and black people,” Harawa said. “There are all kinds of hostile interactions with police officers. But if they're not documented, if they don't culminate in an arrest, then it's essentially like nothing happened.”
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, city officials called for a review of the police department’s use of force policies. On June 16, Mayor Lyda Krewson, Police Chief John Hayden and Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards released a joint statement on the department’s policies and training.
According to the statement, “the reporting and documentation on any use of force is necessary and required. This goes for both non-deadly and deadly force. Furthermore, we monitor this internally for accountability measures and adherence to policy.”
Yet there is no language requiring reports if officers draw their weapon.
Either way, Harawa said the policy leaves the decision about reporting use of force entirely up to police.
“On almost every single level it requires an honor system, is a great way to put it,” he said. “It requires the police officers to report doing the bad things. And I feel like that is just fundamentally against human nature. Like people don't like to tell on themselves.”
A call for change
That night, a Black officer eventually came over to White and the other men and told them they weren’t suspects. They were all released and handed back their guns, and Manuel said officers shrugged it off as a “big misunderstanding.”
The white officers left, but a few Black officers stayed behind to talk to them. Manuel said those officers acted as if nothing happened. One even suggested they hang out.
“I'm like, ‘Are you seriously trying to do this stuff?’” Manuel recalled. “Nah. Like literally trying to [be] buddy buddy. Talk to us like … everything was cool. But I'm like, bruh, you just had a whole gun pointed in my face. I don't want to talk to you.”
Without the video, the three men say they know their interaction with police would have simply gone away.
But White has retained a lawyer and said this is far from over.
“They knew they were in full violation of the law,” White said. “The thing is normally people just accept that. I'm not going to accept it.”