The arrest and charging of Karla Frye marks a pivotal moment for protest in St. Louis County
Her case says a lot about prosecutorial discretion.
Like many mass arrests in St. Louis County, the events leading up to a police roundup at the Galleria Mall last Saturday began with a peaceful protest.
Demonstrators gathered and marched at the mall, located just outside the city with the highest rate of police killings in the U.S, in response to the not-guilty verdict of former police officer Jason Stockley. They were there to call out law enforcement’s ubiquitous use of violence against Black bodies without consequence — to disrupt business as usual. But the nonviolent act ended with a militarized police response, the overnight detention of 22 people, and numerous criminal charges.
Officers say they were asked to intervene by the mall’s management because protesters were impeding shoppers. They allege most people followed orders to leave while some remained. At that point, they started to make arrests. (Video shows these arrests involved pummeling people to the ground.)
The sequence of events on Saturday seemed to play out the way many protests — and subsequent law enforcement crackdowns — have since 2014, when Mike Brown was gunned down by Darren Wilson in Ferguson. Police arrived at the scene of a nonviolent demonstration and used physical force to quell it. But what happened after made the encounter markedly different from others. For what appears to be the first time, one of the people arrested at the protest, Karla Frye, faces charges under a statute that now classifies officers as “special victims.”
According to a charging document submitted to a grand jury by St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch on Sunday, Frye committed a assault in the third degree by jumping onto the back of officer John Blake. The document lists Blake as a “special victim,” a designation in Missouri’s criminal statute that is reserved for specific groups of vulnerable people and increases the penalties for anyone who assaults or commits a hate crime against them. Due to pressure from the law enforcement community and the so-called Blue Lives Matter movement that grew in response to Black Lives Matter and the Ferguson Uprising in 2014, Missouri legislators modified the statute to include police officers. Anyone accused of assaulting an officer under this new classification now faces a Class D felony, which can result in a seven-year prison sentence and a $10,000 fine. Without the special victim designation, an assault is considered a lesser Class E felony — one that comes with a maximum prison sentence of four years.
Local criminal defense attorneys believe Frye is the first protester prosecuted under the updated statute. She also stands accused of rioting, resisting arrest, and interfering with an arrest.
Missing from the charging document, however, is any mention of Blake’s chokehold on Frye’s 13-year-old grandson, and that Frye was reportedly trying to save him. One photo of the scene appears to show Frye on the officer’s back, but a photo taken at another angle shows something else entirely. In it, Blake’s arm is gripped tightly around the young boy’s neck. A distressed Frye has one arm — not her entire body — slung around Blake’s shoulders. She appears to be pleading with the officer to let her grandson go.
Frye said she was at the protest and heard police tell people to disperse, but things escalated quickly. “I started yelling and the guy grabbed me and somebody else came up behind me and grabbed me. And I was telling them to stop, leave me alone, let me go,” she said during a jailhouse call. “My grandson started to help me and they grabbed him, so that upset me more, it became a melee.”
Like all local prosecutors responsible for charging decisions, McCulloch is tasked with interpreting and applying state law in the pursuit of public safety. After the arrests on Saturday, he had the power to decide if criminal behavior had actually occurred at the mall. He had leeway to determine if the peaceful protesters who allegedly disobeyed orders, or the police who choked and bodyslammed people to the ground, were the real danger. Cops were excluded from the group of seven people he charged, meaning McCulloch used his authority to define protesters as the threat.
By charging Frye with assault, he used that authority to define what Frye did as a form of violence, as opposed to classifying the violence displayed by officers as such.
“I think that charging a 57-year-old grandma — who’s a reverend, who’s active in the non-profit community — with assault [in the] third degree, under this new law, is not an accident,” Executive Director Thomas Harvey of the ArchCity Defenders, the legal group representing Frye, told In Justice Today. “That’s a very clear example of the way prosecuting attorneys’ offices can advance their own agendas through the discretion that’s afforded them. I think you can see similar allegations brought against different individuals in different jurisdictions and not see this type of felony charge.”
The aggressive prosecution of protesters, and people perceived as protesters, is par for the course throughout St. Louis County. McCulloch, a man who famously comes from a family of cops, has historically aligned himself with the law enforcement community by declining to prosecute officers who use fatal force, severely charging protesters, and refusing to penalize cops who bully and use a disproportionate amount of force against them. The updated statute is yet another tool he can use to charge people for what the law enforcement community considers hostile interactions with officers — and Frye is his first target.
“In this event, they charged [Frye] with the most serious possible crime, after what was obviously a chaotic situation,” Harvey said. “Bob McMulloch has been very clear about his goal, in the past, to protect law enforcement. I’m sure he just envisions this as part of his job, but the discretion in charging illustrates part of his motivations.”
McCulloch appears to be motivated by his alliance with law enforcement. But Missouri is far from the only state where legislators are introducing and passing so-called Blue Lives Matter bills. Even though harsh penalties already exist for people who harm or threaten police, these bills have sprung up across in the country following the expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as a few officer shootings that garnered national attention. This year alone, more than a dozen states have increased penalties for engaging with officers in a seemingly aggressive way.
“It’s pandering to a very pro-law enforcement crowd, the tough on crime crowd,” Harvey said. “You simultaneously add another level of punishment for someone charged on a felony and you are able, in an optics way, to say you are increasing protections for police officers.”
But activists and legal experts have long decried these bills as a way to vilify people calling out injustice that goes unpunished by the government — exactly what happened at the Galleria Mall. As Executive Director Vince Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights told the Nation, the bills provide a legal mechanism to treat protesters of police violence as “enemies of the state.” With regard to one such bill in New York, he said it “gives the police added incentive to claim an assault when being lawfully confronted by protesters, which will deter legitimate protest even when those assaults don’t actually happen.”
In St. Louis County, it is abundantly clear whose side the law is on. But if Frye is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, it will be a turning point for protesters in a place where they are already treated as enemies of the police. To Harvey, the situation is “absurd.”
“The Jason Stockley verdict couldn’t be any better illustration of a heightened sense of protection for police officers in America. He’s on tape saying ‘I’m gonna kill this motherfucker,’ and then 45 seconds later the man is dead. Anthony Lamar Smith had been shot by him five times,” Harvey said. “And yet a judge and the City of St. Louis found him not-guilty, and found all of that evidence not convincing.”