Unlike the buildings that surround it, the house at 3309 Illinois Avenue has a large, overgrown front yard and a chain-link fence circling last autumn's dead foliage. A few wooden pallets are stacked in a pile, and a protest sign, planted at a crooked angle, reads: "Instead of War, Invest in People."
Aside from the yard, the south-city dwelling known as Bolozone appears no different from its neighbors. But nearly four years ago, the collective that lived here commanded front-page headlines when it was raided by a police battalion. On May 16, 2003, police arrested 27 people for protests directed at the World Agricultural Forum, held at the Hyatt Regency at Union Station.
In July the three-bedroom home and its tenants will again occupy center stage. The American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the building's occupants and more than a dozen other activists who say their civil rights were violated.
The suit was filed in response to a number of incidents that occurred two days before the agricultural forum and the seventh installment of Biodevastation, a smaller international conference devoted to concerns about genetically modified foods. The lawsuit charges that a conspiracy "emanated from the highest echelons of city government and [was] carried out and effectuated in the form of unlawful arrests and illegal and unlawful searches of persons and property."
Among the defendants named in the lawsuit are the City of St. Louis, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Board of Commissioners and St. Louis Police Chief Joseph Mokwa.
Over the past two months, attorneys representing plaintiffs and defendants have taken dozens of depositions from building inspectors, police officers, residents of Bolozone and members of a touring bicycle circus who were also involved in the forum protest.
Depositions will be completed March 16, setting the stage for a jury trial set to begin July 9 in front of United States District Court Judge Stephen N. Limbaugh Sr. (uncle of right-wing talk-show host Rush Limbaugh).
The Riverfront Times last month was subpoenaed by the Missouri Attorney General's office, which along with the St. Louis City Counselor's office is defending the city. A request was made for hard copies of the two stories complete with photographs that the paper published on the events of that spring morning. [See "Meet the Anarchists," June 25, 2003, and "Legal Loopholes," August 13, 2003.]
The plaintiff's case focuses in large part on Bolozone, where police officers, accompanied by a building inspector, came to condemn the building, claiming that tenants were living there without an occupancy permit. According to the suit, officials "arrived at the house to enforce the condemnation suddenly, unexpectedly, carrying firearms, and acting in a rude, intimidating, and aggressive manner."
The suit also alleges that the police forcibly entered the two-story wood-frame house, searched it without a proper warrant, downloaded information from computers, rummaged through occupants' personal belongings and damaged property.
"They just tore things up. They threw things around. Sliced open sleeping bags and urinated on clothes," Dan Green, Bolozone's owner, told the Riverfront Times several weeks after the brouhaha. (All 25 plaintiffs, including Green, have since been advised by their attorneys to withhold comment on the case until after the trial.)
According to the suit, each woman at Bolozone was strip-searched by a female police officer.
Police identified each woman as "Anarchist." Male occupants were cuffed and identified again, as anarchists before being loaded into a van and sent downtown.
Around the same time, the suit alleges, cyclists were detained by police in Tower Grove Park and charged with obstructing traffic. Their belongings were searched and they, too, were arrested. Some of the cyclists' property, including private journals and medication, was confiscated.
Later that day, Mokwa somberly displayed a table full of the paraphernalia that his officers had seized. "We are very concerned," the chief said as he surveyed the confiscated booty, which included a bag of rocks, a slingshot, lighter fluid and whips. "We can certainly draw conclusions and expectations after we found these items."
After newspaper editorials expressed outrage at the arrests, Mokwa in June 2003 ordered an internal-affairs investigation. When the Riverfront Times requested a copy of the probe's findings under the state Sunshine Law, the department denied the request, saying the documents were exempt from the law because they concerned personnel matters.
Mokwa's department was on red-alert in the days leading up to the agricultural forum, which drew bigwigs from Monsanto, Dow Chemical and DuPont, among other corporations. Mindful of the riots that shook Seattle during the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization, police officials consulted Seattle police officers and reviewed footage of the melee that attracted worldwide attention.
Despite worries that protests might get out of hand, the agricultural conference went smoothly. In fact, only a few hundred activists turned out, and no arrests were made.
The suit, meanwhile, argues that "the malicious and unlawful intent of [the police department] was to prevent [the cyclists] from participating in the Biodevastation 7 Conference and from protesting the World Agricultural Forum."
One protester, Eric Carter, was walking on a south-city street when, according to the lawsuit, two police officers stopped him for questioning. They allegedly ordered him to sit on the curb while the cops emptied the contents of his backpack. He was then handcuffed and later sent downtown, jailed and charged with "public demonstration."
When his court date arrived, reads the complaint, "there was no police report and all charges against the plaintiff were dismissed ... No articulable reason to stop, search, seize, detain or arrest Plaintiff Eric Carter existed."
The suit itself explains the crux of the ACLU's arguments. Armed with knowledge that protesters from out of town would be coming to St. Louis to demonstrate, police, using a pretext of housing and traffic violations, arrested potential demonstrators in order to "harass, intimidate, deter and to otherwise force individuals, including Plaintiffs, into silence."
"They were working together, and as we said in the pleading, they conspired to use pre-textual arrests to infringe on the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs," explains Gary Sarachan, one of five St. Louis attorneys representing the plaintiffs on behalf of the ACLU.
Sarachan would not elaborate, saying that he didn't want to argue the case in the press. Lawyers representing the defendants also declined comment for this story, but in court filings have denied all of the accusations.
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