Early this month, Lt. Alex Nelson read “The Heart and the Fist.”
The memoir of Eric Greitens, published in 2011, tells of his work as a Navy SEAL, and as a humanitarian doing volunteer work in orphanages in Cambodia and elsewhere. It offers insight into the leadership philosophies of a man who stunned the political world in 2016 with his out-of-nowhere election victory as governor of Missouri.
Nelson, 27, an Air Force officer who lives in downtown St. Louis and works at Scott Air Force Base, sees some of himself in the governor. Like Greitens, he spent some time overseas, working with orphans. In Nelson’s case it was Kenya and Cambodia. They’re both military officers, though Nelson readily admits he hasn’t been through anything near what Greitens has as a SEAL team leader.
“There’s a lot he said in that book I was able to relate to,” Nelson says. “I see a lot of myself” in his book.
Nelson read the book at the advice of a family friend. The friend was offering guidance after the night that forever changed the young Air Force officer’s life.
It was Sunday, Sept. 17, the third night of protests following the verdict in the Jason Stockley trial. The former St. Louis police officer was acquitted in the 2011 murder of Anthony Lamar Smith.
Nelson and his wife, Iris, went for a walk. They live on Washington Avenue at 13th Street, not far from where some of the protests had been. Hours earlier, some vandals had broken a couple of windows and overturned flower pots a few blocks away. But when the Nelsons went for their walk, just as they do most evenings, they didn’t see any violence.
They saw moms and dads pushing kids in strollers, neighbors walking dogs, and reporters keeping track of the remaining protesters who were peacefully milling about. So the young couple walked along Washington Avenue.
“Never in a million years would I put my wife in a situation where she could be hurt,” Nelson says. There was nothing going on around them that made them feel any sense of danger.
Soon, though, with about 120 others, they were trapped. Without warning, police formed a kettle — a tactic in which police in riot gear close in from four sides, leaving people nowhere to turn.
Nelson’s sense of military discipline kicked in. He knew he and his wife were about to be arrested. They had no way to get back to their home.
“I told Iris: ‘We’re going to get on the ground immediately. We’re going to put our hands behind our backs and we’re going to comply,’” Nelson recalls.
What happened next continues to baffle a man who has committed his life to defending the U.S. Constitution. “It was a wave of compliance,” he says. “I didn’t see a single person resist.”
The violence came, but it was from police.
Multiple videos, including some shot by people who were arrested, show the police kicking people on the ground and spraying them with pepper spray.
“This isn’t a he-said, she-said,” says attorney Javad Khazaeli of Khazaeli Wyrsch LLC, the law firm that represents the Nelsons and several other people who were arrested that night. “It’s abundantly clear what happened.”
“I was on the ground, I kept my face down,” Nelson continues. “A police officer came up to me and Maced me in the face. He grabbed my head and hit me in the eyes a couple of times with the Mace, or pepper spray. My head was smashed on the ground. I was blinded for the next several hours. I was bleeding and I was covered with Mace.”
Iris saw her husband “dragged violently” by police. “I was shocked,” she says.
Protesters whom Nelson had never met helped clean him up and provide medical care while he and his wife were in jail for the next 20 hours.
On Wednesday, Nelson is scheduled to tell his story in federal court, in a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union alleging multiple violations of constitutional rights by police that day. He was also scheduled to go to municipal court to face charges for failure to disperse, but on Monday, the city informed him and other defendants that their court dates had been vacated and the charges were being reviewed, leaving them in what Khazaeli termed legal “limbo.”
The violence Nelson saw and experienced firsthand administered by the fists and boots of police officers is something he “never could have imagined could happen in America. I believe in our Constitution. I believe in our rights. They were violently taken away from us.”
That’s what Nelson wants to talk to Greitens about. After reading the book, he emailed the governor’s spokesman, Parker Briden, seeking an audience with his fellow military officer. When he didn’t hear back, he called the governor’s office in Jefferson City. He emailed Briden again. He even tweeted at the governor. Still, nothing.
Nelson heard the governor praise the police response that night, even after police were caught on tape mocking the very people they were arresting, by chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets.”
As a leader, Nelson wanted to know how Greitens was going to handle the violence administered to innocent civilians by state actors. “I know that he is capable of leading,” Nelson says of Greitens. “I would just like to see him protect our rights and our freedoms.”
Nelson struggles to sleep some nights since his arrest. In part, he lies awake thinking about how this happened in the country — and the city — he loves. He heard an interview Greitens gave during the campaign in which he said if he had been governor in Ferguson he would have put an end to the protests after the second night.
The thought haunts the young military officer, due to be promoted to captain in December.
“I just want to know,” Nelson says. “Was this the governor’s attempt to try to squash the protests?”
From one humanitarian and military officer to another, Nelson would like an answer from his governor.