When Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act in 1871, its goal was to empower the federal government to crack down on vigilante groups that had been sowing terror throughout the South.

Now, in a lawsuit filed Monday, St. Louis’s first black chief prosecutor is attempting to use that same law to go after “entrenched interests” in St. Louis, including the police union and the city itself, which she says are blocking her from doing her job.

When St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner was elected in 2016, she became one of several progressive prosecutors nationwide who successfully campaigned on promises to rethink tough-on-crime policies and aggressively investigate police violence. Her lawsuit, which she filed in her individual capacity, alleges her agenda “to redress the scourge of historical inequality and rebuild trust in the criminal justice system among communities of color” has been thwarted by a “broad campaign of collusive conduct” aimed at removing her from office.

“The Ku Klux Klan Act was adopted to address precisely this scenario: a racially-motivated conspiracy to deny the civil rights of racial minorities by obstructing a government official’s efforts to ensure equal justice under law for all,” the lawsuit states. “The stakes are high. This case cries out for federal enforcement.”

The St. Louis Police Officers’ Association pushed back against those claims on Monday night, describing the lawsuit as “the last act of a desperate woman.” In a statement to St. Louis Public Radio, officials said that the city also “vehemently” denies what it considers to be “meritless allegations."

Gardner was swept into office after police shootings of black men and allegations of racial profiling rocked St. Louis and its surrounding suburbs. Since taking office, she has fought to overturn convictions marred by claims of prosecutorial misconduct, ended the prosecution of most low-level marijuana charges and created an “exclusion list” of police officers not deemed credible witnesses. Her lawsuit notes the city “has a long history of racial inequality and prejudice in its criminal justice system generally, and within its police force particularly,” and cites a 2017 report that found African Americans were disproportionately likely to be stopped or searched by police.

But Gardner’s attempts to overhaul the criminal justice system from the inside have been stymied, the lawsuit alleges. In 2017, former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley, who reportedly told another cop he was “going to kill this motherf-----" before fatally shooting a black driver, was acquitted of murder charges. The verdict led to mass protests, and Gardner announced her intention to create an independent panel that would investigate all police-involved shootings. The St. Louis Police Officers’ Association expressed “serious concerns” about her proposal, the lawsuit says, and elected officials ultimately scuttled the plan, “due in significant part to the SLPOA’s opposition.”

The lawsuit — which is being financed by the nonprofit group Mothers Against Police Brutality, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — is also focused on the ongoing legal battle involving the criminal prosecution of former Missouri governor Eric Greitens (R), who resigned in June 2018 amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

That same year, KMOV reported Greitens, who was seen as a rising Republican star, had taken compromising photos of a woman during their extramarital affair, then tried to leverage them as blackmail to prevent her from speaking out about their relationship. Gardner subsequently announced her office would launch an inquiry into the allegations, and, in what proved to be a controversial move, tapped former FBI agent William Tisaby as an outside investigator.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner dismissed a computer tampering charge against Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R) on May 30, 2018. (Reuters)

After Greitens was indicted on felony invasion of privacy charges in February 2018, his lawyers began questioning how the case was handled, and claimed Tisaby lied during a deposition. Gardner’s office abruptly dropped the charges, and police launched their own investigation into the perjury allegations, St. Louis Public Radio reported. Last June, Tisaby was charged with perjury and evidence tampering, and pleaded not guilty. The case is ongoing.

Gardner’s lawsuit contends Gerard Carmody, the special prosecutor tapped to oversee the perjury investigation, had openly supported her opponent in 2016, and used the investigation as an excuse to ransack her office and hand all her files over to the police. (Carmody, who is named a defendant in the lawsuit, has not yet commented on these allegations.) She also claims her political rivals seized the opportunity “to set up many of the trappings of a legitimate criminal investigation, complete with subpoenas and a grand jury,” despite knowing she hadn’t committed any crimes.

The goal, Gardner’s lawsuit alleges, was “to thwart and impede her efforts to establish equal treatment under law for all St. Louis citizens at every turn; to remove her from the position to which she was duly elected — by any means necessary — and perhaps to show her successor what happens to Circuit Attorneys who dare to stand up for the equal rights of racial minorities in St. Louis.”

In a Monday statement, the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association said the lawsuit was “nothing more than a frantic ploy” intended to distract the public from the fact that Gardner was slated to testify against Tisaby in a coming deposition. “She’s turned murderers and other violent criminals loose to prey on St. Louis’s most vulnerable citizens,” the union added. “The streets of this city have become ‘the Killing Fields’ as the direct result of Gardner’s actions and inactions.”

Though it dates back to the 19th century, the Ku Klux Klan Act, which provides a civil remedy for racial abuse, has been invoked in several high-profile cases in recent decades — most notably against the white supremacist protesters who helped organize the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. Gardner’s lawsuit against her own city, which she described as the first of its kind, cited as evidence a slew of racist Facebook posts that led to the firing of two St. Louis police officers after they were unearthed by a watchdog group last year. It also highlights how the police union posted bond for Stockley, the officer who was charged with murder, and that its president has expressed support for Darren Wilson, who shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

“This is about the will of the people being silenced by a concerted effort to stop reform in the city of St. Louis, and this has to be addressed,” Gardner told the Associated Press. “This is saying, ‘No more are we going to let the powerful few who want to hold onto the status quo prevent an elected prosecutor from doing her job.”’