Legal observer and current law student Matt Becke was assaulted and arrested by the Des Moines Police Department (DMPD) a couple of weeks ago during a Black Lives Matter event in the Des Moines metro area. Though an objective bystander, Becke suffered excessive force, mistreatment and a night in jail. The purpose of legal observers at these events, similar to the press, is to provide a checks-and-balances system between protesters and law enforcement.
“Legal observers attend demonstrations as officers of the court to ensure that the police do not violate the participants' constitutional rights,” Becke explains. “We observe the police and document their interaction with the demonstrators. If needed, we can then be subpoenaed to appear in court or give depositions to give our version of what transpired… We are trained to distance ourselves as much as possible from the demonstration. We do not take part in chants; we do not hold signs; we do not sign petitions; we are not a part of the demonstration. Our role is merely to observe that the constitutional rights of those in attendance are not violated.”
The event plan was to march from East High School to the downtown police station with a list of demands ranging from oversight, community involvement, funding and legislation to protect communities of color. As the protest continued, officers began kettling protesters while issuing dispersal orders, making it difficult for people to exit without encountering police.
“The demonstrators were then forced to turn down a side street as all other avenues were blocked off. In the video I have, you can hear a police car make two short blasts of a siren and then see a line of police move in. Unprovoked by the demonstrators, the police began to grab people at random and make arrests. I had to tell several officers ‘don’t’ as they pointed Mace dispensers directly at me as I repositioned myself to better film the arrests taking place,” Becke said.
Becke adds, “Kettling is a controversial tactic used by police to quell uprisings. They block all exits, demand that demonstrators disperse and then move in to arrest people for not dispersing. The DMPD spokesman went on the record to say there is a time and place for protesting, and the time is over. The police knew what they were doing that night and led the demonstrators like sheep to the slaughter. The demonstrators that night were on a public sidewalk when they were arrested.”
Becke started filming when he saw four officers on top of one demonstrator. After an officer noticed him filming, Becke reiterated to them he was a legal observer and a law student.
“The officer advanced and another joined. I told them that I was within my rights and duties to be doing what I was doing. I saw that I was about to be arrested and was trying to yell that my phone and my notebook is Attorney Work Product, meaning that any information contained therein is part of an active investigation and cannot be taken or used. I was able to get out the ‘ah’ in Attorney Work Product when I was hit in the face with a riot shield and knocked to the ground,” he recalls.
When asked about what kind of force the DMPD was using at this event, he says, “The police were using a lot of force.”
“The riot shield to the face had knocked off and mangled my glasses, so I was unable to see much after that. They were dispersing chemical agents and being extremely physical. I was placed in a paddy wagon with nine of the demonstrators. One man’s shirt was ripped to shreds. It seemed all of us were bleeding. Anyone who wore glasses no longer had them. There was a member of the press arrested along with a 16-year-old girl,” Becke continues.
The officers told Becke he was being arrested for failure to disperse, a frequently used charge to slap legal repercussions on the files of protesters based out of spite and inconvenience. Once they arrived at the police station, he noticed “several stations set up to facilitate the mass arrests.”
“I saw that the police were attempting to have demonstrators read and sign something. I asked what they were signing and I was immediately moved away from the demonstrators. I was informed later the form being proffered was a release saying that the individual had not been injured during their arrest. Anyone who said they were injured were moved to a different station and photographs were taken of the injury. I was not offered this form to sign, asked if I had been injured or had any pictures taken. We were then loaded back into the paddy wagon and driven to the Polk County Jail.”
What transpires once Becke arrived at the jail is a gross abuse of power and human neglect. A back-and-forth during the intake process with a correctional officer occurred because of Becke continuously explaining he needed to urinate. After he was finally granted to do so, without answering any of the intake questions, Becke was placed in a safety cell on suicide watch. Four officers put him down on his stomach and stripped him naked.
“I was relatively compliant until they began to take my mask off,” he says. “I began to scream that my 4-year-old daughter has asthma and I need this mask to protect her. The mask was then ripped off my face, a ‘suicide’ blanket was placed on my naked back and I was told if I moved before the cell door shut, I would be tased.”
Becke had to lay naked and still in that cell for six hours. The condition of his jail cell was horrendous.
“There was dried vomit on the walls, small pieces of lettuce and tomato. I kept pounding on the door, the guards would come, I would tell them there was vomit on the walls and they would say they didn’t see anything and walk away. I would pound on the door and demand my phone call and was repeatedly told that I was not allowed a phone call until I was cleared by the jail psychiatrist who would not arrive for another eight hours. This went on for the majority of the six hours I was there,” Becke describes.
It's a common theme seen throughout our country during this civil unrest that press, medics and legal observers are being wrongfully flagged and arrested, with the arrest usually resulting in injury. Wrongful arrests also include demonstrators and protesters standing for and using their constitutional rights but being continuously attacked and demonized by law enforcement.
On an ending note, Becke poses the question, “If nonviolent American citizens can be whisked away from a public space in this way, whose country are these police protecting?"