Editor's note: Language featured in this piece may be considered offensive to some.
With the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, "Ferguson" became shorthand for racial strife and police shootings of unarmed black men.
But years before the protests and chants of "Hands up, don't shoot," there was something amiss in the Ferguson, Mo., police department.
Before Michael Brown, there was Fred Watson.
Watson, a veteran and St. Louis native, was at a public park in Ferguson that summer, playing basketball with friends. He says he spotted a police officer wandering through the park, "randomly selecting people" and arresting them.
After he was finished playing basketball, Watson sat in his car and watched a baseball game happening in the park.
That's when the police officer he'd seen earlier pulled up behind him. The officer, Eddie Boyd III, got out of his squad car and walked to Watson's window. He asked if Watson knew why the officer had pulled him over.
"Sir, you didn't pull me over. You didn't stop me. I was sitting here. I've been here for 10 or 15 minutes," Watson recalls saying, in an interview with NPR's Michel Martin.
The officer asked Watson for his social security number. Watson declined to give the officer that information.
From there, Watson says, things went crazy. "He was yelling, screaming, telling me to throw my keys out of the car, telling me to get out of the car," he says.
In response to questioning, Watson told the officer his name and where he lived. "Then I actually picked my phone up to call the police," he says. "He, again, yelling, irate, telling me to put the phone down for police safety."
Watson put down his phone, and, afraid of provoking the officer, he grabbed the steering wheel "to make sure there's no sudden movements on my behalf. So I don't get myself killed."
"I can kill you right here!" the white officer shouted at the black man in his car, according to Watson. "Nobody will give a fuck."
Watson didn't respond. He didn't move. He just kept squeezing the steering wheel, hoping the danger would pass.
Systemic violation of rights
When the Department of Justice was investigating the Ferguson Police Department, it talked about Watson's case, as an example of the systemic violations of the rights of the Ferguson's African-American residents — and how these violations can impact people's lives.
"Even relatively routine misconduct by Ferguson police officers can have significant consequences for the people whose rights are violated," the Justice Department report said. "Without cause, the officer went on to accuse the man of being a pedophile, prohibit the man from using his cell phone, order the man out of his car for a pat-down despite having no reason to believe he was armed, and ask to search his car. When the man refused, citing his constitutional rights, the officer reportedly pointed a gun at his head, and arrested him."
Officer Boyd handcuffed Watson, took him to jail, and wrote him up on several charges, including not having a driver's license or registration, having an expired driver's license and not having Missouri tags. Watson says none of these charges had merit. Boyd also ticketed Watson, who had been sitting in his parked car, for not wearing his seatbelt.
When he was arrested, Watson was working with National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, in a job that required a top-secret security clearance. After facing so many charges, that lingered for so long, Watson lost his security clearance — and with it, his job.
"I go from having a majority of everything we want and need, to not having anything. Sleeping in a storage unit, in the back of my car, in the basement, in garages," he says. "It's a catastrophic event."
Years of legal wrangling
"The prosecutor should have taken one look at this case, taken one look at the file — which included Fred's driver's license, registration, insurance, all of these charges that were clearly without any foundation — and dismiss the case," says Watson's attorney Blake Strode, a civil rights lawyer with ArchCity Defenders.
Instead, it took five years and multiple attorneys for Watson to try to extricate himself from the legal system. Guilty pleas have been entered on Watson's behalf, without his consent or knowledge. His lawyers had to navigate the system to move to withdraw those pleas, as the case was certified to circuit court. Finally, the second prosecutor on the case dismissed all charges.
Watson found out the charges were dropped when his lawyer notified him. "In my opinion it was done underhandedly," he says. "It was done in a sneaky manner."
Even though all the charges were tossed out, Watson says he doesn't feel vindicated. "I feel like, again, it's just another step. Nobody has called. Nobody has said that, 'We're going to fire the police officer Eddie Boyd, we're going to try to do something right, we're going to at least provide the wages lost or we're going to do something to get you your job back or your clearance renewed. Nothing."
Complaint filed against the officer
Before the charges were dismissed, Watson filed a federal complaint against the officer and the city of Ferguson for civil rights violations. That case is pending. "What we've seen so far is really a city that's been pretty resistant to owning up fully to the damage they cause in the lives of people like Fred," attorney Blake Strode says.
Watson's story is not unique, Strode says. "There are people in the streets here in St. Louis protesting the killing of a young black man named Anthony Lamar Smith, and the acquittal of the police officer who killed him." On Friday, a judge acquitted a white, former police officer, Jason Stockley, of first degree murder charges for the shooting death of Smith in 2011.
The major difference in Watson's case, Strode says, is that "fortunately, Fred is here with us. And those people, those lives were taken from them."
The St. Louis protesters aren't just objecting to police misconduct, Strode says.
"The whole system is guilty," he says. "And Fred's case is such a perfect example of that. ... The police officer acted poorly and unlawfully and abusively. Those charges had to be reviewed by supervisors. They had to be presented to a prosecutor, who issued the cases. So we really are talking about a systemic failure here."
Watson's case, Strode says, is just part of "a broader continuum of cases that really reflect the ways in which the lives of poor people and people of color are destroyed by the very system that purports to protect and serve them."
NPR's Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi produced the audio version of this story.
You won’t find a paywall here. Come as often as you like — we’re not counting. You’ve found a like-minded tribe that cherishes what a free press stands for. If you can spend another couple of minutes making a pledge of as little as $5, you’ll feel like a superhero defending democracy for less than the cost of a month of Netflix.