St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner filed an unprecedented lawsuit on January 13 against the city’s mostly White legal establishment, The New York Times reports. Gardner, who was elected in 2016 and is the first African American to serve as the top prosecutor in St. Louis, alleges that the local police union and other city officials engaged in a “racially motivated conspiracy to deny the civil rights of racial minorities,” according to The Times. 

Gardner believes St. Louis officials intentionally tried to stop her from investigating police misconduct and prevented her from reforming the local criminal justice system. She alleges civil rights violations in her lawsuit, which was filed under a rarely used federal law known as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 that was established to criminalize attempts to re-enslave Black people. 

According to The Times:

More recently, the law has been wielded in a lawsuit against the promoters of the 2017 white power rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, accusing them of a conspiracy to commit violence against a racial minority. It was also invoked during the Civil Rights era to try to stop Southern sheriffs from blocking African-Americans from voting, said Peter Joy, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

The St. Louis police union denies all allegations, The Times reports. A spokesperson for the organization said the suit is “frivolous, desperate and pathetic.” They also said Gardner’s decision to file court documents indicates “the last act of a desperate woman.” 

Gardner was voted into office two years after protests erupted following the police-involved killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, Missouri. The Times reports Gardner has “been at war with much of the St. Louis police force and the local legal establishment” since her first day on the job:

She took several steps to make the police department more accountable, including creating a list of more than 50 officers who could not bring cases for prosecution to her office because of concerns over their credibility. She also indicted the state’s governor at the time, Eric Greitens, who had been a rising star in national Republican politics.

The business manager of the local police union, Jeff Roorda, has called for Ms. Gardner’s indictment, and he recently went on a radio show to suggest that she be removed from office “by force or by choice.”

Gardner says this fight is much bigger than what’s happening to her. “We’re not going to let fear and injustice stop the reforms that are needed,” she told The Times. “This is also about the continuing attacks on progressive prosecutors, not just in St. Louis, but around this country.”

District attorneys from around the United States, all Black women, joined civil rights activists on January 14 in St. Louis to support Gardner at a protest rally, The Times reports. Marilyn Mosby, chief prosecutor in Baltimore, attended the rally and spoke fiercely in support of Gardner and the work that must be done. “The keepers of the status quo that brought us mass incarceration, the over-criminalization of poor Black and Brown people, tough sentences, no redemption and no second chances won’t give up their power quietly,” she said.