© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Activist leader found guilty of wiping pepper spray on St. Louis police chief

Protesters and police outside St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce's house on Tuesday, May 15, 2015.
Lawrence Bryant | St. Louis American

A St. Louis jury Wednesday found activist Elizabeth Vega guilty of wiping pepper spray on police Chief Sam Dotson’s shirt — which drew a third-degree assault charge against an officer — during a May 2015 protest.

Vega, who is the leader of the Artivists STL, faces up to one year in jail on the misdemeanor charge. Her sentencing hearing will be held on Nov. 21. Associate Circuit Judge Nicole Colbert Botchway allowed Vega to remain out on bond until sentencing.

The incident occurred at an evening protest outside of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce’s house in the south St. Louis on May 19, 2015. The day before, Joyce had decided not to indict police Officer Jason Flanery in the shooting death of VonDerrit Myers Jr. in October 2014.

The case basically came down to Vega’s word against Dotson’s, having no video of their actual contact. The jury had to decide whether Vega intentionally wiped her hand across Dotson’s chest, while shouting expletives at him, as the chief testified. Or did Dotson walk into Vega’s pepper-sprayed hand and then tell her, “That’s assault,” as Vega testified.

“Chief Dotson knows what happened,” Vega said after hearing the verdict. “The officers who got on the stand lied about what happened, and all I have is my truth and a broken system that I will continue to fight.”

Dotson told the American the case was “very important” to him because police officers have been doing a good job at protecting citizen’s rights to free speech.

“There’s a line,” Dotson said. “And when someone touches a police officer, they’ve crossed that line. She had her opportunity to have her day in court.”

Dotson was not injured or harmed, he told the American, and that’s why it’s only a third-degree charge for “making contact” with an officer.

Vega told the American that she believes Dotson accidentally bumped into her hand and then realized that he could nail her — a well-known Ferguson activist — on an assault charge.

“That night, they were trying to target people who have been consistently active in the movement,” Vega said.

Dotson denied that’s what happened. When asked what it meant that a leader of the protest movement was convicted today, Dotson told the American, “These are the actions of an individual. I don’t think anyone should read into this as a case against a movement.”

Still, the case highlights the large rift that remains between police officers and Black Lives Matter activists in the city. The difference between the two sides’ accounts of that May evening was considerable.

On May 19, 2015, a group of about 40 protestors gathered outside of Joyce’s house. That spring, the Artivists visited several elected officials’ homes — including St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and Ferguson Mayor James Knowles — and left lists of demands and protest art on their doors. The group placed on Joyce’s porch illuminated lightboxes honoring VonDerrit Myers and pledging to “fight back.” They also were going to leave a pillow on her porch that stated, “How do you sleep at night?”

Their demonstration was coming to a close when the first police car arrived, activists said. The officers jumped out of the car with guns drawn and started pepper spraying the group without giving a warning, Vega’s attorney, Dramon Foster, said in his closing argument. Immediately the group moved to the sidewalk, Foster said, and one protestor, Keith Rose, asked for the officer’s name.

“When protestors are witnessing misconduct, they ask for the officer’s name,” Foster said in his closing argument. “[The officers] hadn’t given a single command.”

That’s when one officer moved inches from Rose’s face and pepper sprayed him in the eyes, Foster said.

“Is that what the state wants you to believe is appropriate conduct?” Foster said.

However prosecuting attorney Stanislav Levchinsky, in his closing argument, said when the officers arrived, they repeatedly asked the protestors to step off the porch and the group refused. That’s when they started pepper-spraying people. Some of the protestors were chanting profanities, which was shown to the jury in a video. Levchinsky said the police felt threatened by the crowd.

When Dotson arrived on the scene, Foster said Vega stepped toward him to try and tell him what his officers had done. And that’s when Dotson walked toward Vega, Foster said.

Dotson testified that Vega was shouting, “You did this to us. (Expletive) you. (Expletive) the police.” Then she moved toward him, the chief said.

A black female officer testified that Vega called her a “black b---h” while she was arresting her.

More than being convicted, Vega said she was most heartbroken about, “the things they lied that I said.”

“I would never say any of those things,” Vega said. She has never used the “f--k the police” chant, she said, and has had debates in her living room about using it. 

“It diminishes our humanity, and it’s counterproductive to what we are trying to do, which is to see each other,” Vega said.

Despite her loss, Vega said she feels that some good came from the trial. The prosecutor had to present into evidence photos of officers pepper-spraying protestors who stood on the sidewalk, she said, and police were forced to justify that. She could have accepted a plea bargain rather than taking the case to trial, she said.

"I chose to fight because I felt it was important that this conversation be had,” she said. “And it was important that power be held accountable for abusing their power.

Follow Rebecca Rivas on Twitter @rebeccarivas.

Rebecca Rivas is a reporter forThe St. Louis American, where this article was first published.