Law student faces danger in Ferguson

 Law student Nicholas Klaus, a trained and veteran observer for the National Lawyers Guild, had never found himself in the kind of danger he experienced in November in Ferguson, Mo.

The first time the third-year student at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit went to the St. Louis suburb as an official legal observer to report on protests there was Oct. 10 through 13. Klaus, who lives in Ferndale, returned home that time inspired.
The October protests followed a national call to action by some groups to show support for justice in the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot by white police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. Klaus was accompanied on that trip by Wayne Law first-year students Holland Locklear of Clinton Township and Henry Schneider of Detroit.
“That weekend, I was moved in the showing of solidarity and love that I saw there,” Klaus said.
He went back to Ferguson on Nov. 24, the day a grand jury announced it would not indict Wilson, again to observe for the National Lawyers Guild.
“The second time around, it was a completely different experience – and not in a good way,” Klaus said.
He was accompanied on that trip by Curtis McGuire, a Detroit guild staff member and photographer who had been to Ferguson protests on three other occasions.
“He watched my back throughout that whole time and I watched his,” Klaus said. “We were trying to stick together like glue, as we’re trained to.”
Guild observers wear neon green hats to identify themselves and don’t chant or accept literature during a protest. Instead, they shoot video of what’s going on and take notes. They are tasked with documenting interactions between police and demonstrators for guild lawyers, who, later if warranted, pursue legal action to protect the rights of protestors.
Klaus, who has served as a legal observer for the guild in dozens of situations, including last year during a contentious election in El Salvador, said, “I’ve never seen anything like what I’ve seen in Ferguson.”
The night of Nov. 24, after the grand jury’s announcement of its decision, Klaus and McGuire went to Ferguson’s West Florissant Street, where rage and havoc reigned. Businesses and cars were set ablaze, guns were firing and the situation was so volatile that firefighters stopped responding to put out fires.
“It was pretty bad,” Klaus said. “At one point, we were caught between a burning building and the riot police with all their tanks and tear gas and whatnot. On the east side of us was a whole lot of gunfire. We were just trying to take cover.”
As the night went on, the observers went to Mokabe’s Coffeehouse on Arsenal Street in the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis — an area Klaus compared to Royal Oak in Michigan. The coffeehouse was sympathetic to the protestors and offered them free beverages and to serve as a place of refuge. When Klaus and McGuire got there, about 80 protestors were standing on the sidewalk outside the shop and on its outdoor patio.
“The St. Louis police were there, too – about 50 to 80 riot cops,” Klaus said. “They kept telling people to disperse, even though there was no violence. It was just people standing on the sidewalk at about midnight. A law professor went out there and negotiated with the cops to find out where the protestors could be. The cops indicated that if they all moved onto the private patio, everything would be fine. Curtis and I were on the patio right near the sidewalk.”
People began to move off the sidewalk, when Klaus heard a loud noise.
“And it just starts raining tear gas canisters,” he said. “Protestors started running to get inside the coffee shop. I was looking down, and I could see a canister rolling toward the door. I don’t know if it made it inside because my eyes were in severe pain, but it was pretty smoky inside. Everybody tried to get out the back, into the alley, and the cops started shooting canisters over the building into the alley. Medics were working on people’s eyes and people were vomiting. Even though they had been experiencing protests in Shaw for months, I don’t know why this particular night they decided to use tear gas.”
McGuire and Klaus waited for about half an hour until they could see again before they tried to leave the area.
“Tear gas is really, really painful,” Klaus said. “It just was bad.”
Added McGuire: “For me, the worst part of the tear gas was not being able to see. I could cope with the burning in lungs, ears and skin, but the most important tool for a legal observer is the eyes. Without the ability to see, our ability to witness the unfolding events was strongly inhibited.”
The two observers, still wearing the guild’s trademark green hats, went out the back with a handful of other people and started walking toward the opening of the alley.
“One of the police vans pulled up and started spraying Curtis and I with rubber bullets,” Klaus said. “It was a miracle we weren’t hit. We ran and hid. Then, all of the police left. I think they realized they screwed up.”
The two men collected some of the rubber bullets and tear gas canisters from the ground as evidence and returned to where they were staying.
“We got there about 4:30, and got up at 6 to observe an action in Clayton (another St. Louis suburb) that morning,” Klaus said. “It went off without a hitch. Then, we went and slept for a couple more hours.”
Later that day, the observers went to another protest taking place in downtown St. Louis, where about 200 demonstrators shut down Interstate 44 and Interstate 75 by sitting down in the roadways.
“About six people were arrested, and a dozen people were pepper-sprayed,” Klaus said. “I’m not surprised they got arrested, but they didn’t need the pepper spray. With an act of civil disobedience, you are planning, more or less, to be arrested. But everybody was already leaving when the pepper spray came out.”
That night, Klaus and McGuire went to the Ferguson Police Department, where a large protest was underway.
“The police were freaking out, and the National Guard was also all over,” Klaus said. “That got pretty bad. We moved a few blocks away to where a cop car had been set on fire. They were going crazy with the tear gas there. We got out of there. We were trying to make it to our car. The parking lot was more or less empty except for one other vehicle. There were three activists outside of it. The car was being searched and the kids arrested. I walked up with my camera and started asking if I could get the people’s names.
“One law enforcement officer pointed his machine gun at my chest and started yelling at me to get out of there, and backed me up to our car. My hands were up and I had to lean back against the car. The end of the barrel was about 6 inches from my sternum. We pulled out of there with machine guns pointed at us.”
The next day – the day before Thanksgiving – a protest was taking place in downtown St. Louis that turned into an occupation of the entrance to City Hall.
Klaus videotaped while police used pepper spray on the demonstrators and made arrests.
“They beat a couple of the protestors pretty good,” he said.
Later that day, McGuire and Klaus dropped off their cameras and other evidence they’d collected with an office of the National Lawyers Guild and left for Michigan.
In the aftermath, Klaus said he is hopeful that a fairer justice system can be realized.
“The feeling that I had after Ferguson in October is not totally removed,” Klaus said. “I feel like more and more people are starting to see what’s going on, whether that’s because of Facebook or because people set a lot of stuff on fire. It opens people’s eyes to the anger and the rage. They’ve got to ask themselves, ‘What set these people off? What is going on?’ ”
Last year, the guild’s Detroit and Michigan Chapter named him as Outstanding Law Student of the Year. He’s now the national student vice president of the organization, and he strongly encourages others to get involved in the organization’s civil rights mission.
“I think people need to join protests,” Klaus said. “I think that’s where you start. And there’s plenty of legal research that needs to be done, letter-writing campaigns and such. Get with an organization and start working.”