The storms after the Stockley verdict

by David Ragland

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Our hemisphere is enveloped by an unending series of storms of our nation’s making. The same destructive mentality that has created a climate primed for super hurricanes in the Gulf is also responsible for the climate of police violence in places like St. Louis, where protests have erupted in the last week.

In December 2011, Anthony Lamar Smith was murdered by then-St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley. With his partner joining him in a car chase, Stockley pursued Smith three miles through St. Louis, rammed Smith’s vehicle, approached with an unauthorized automatic weapon, and fired five deadly shots. Despite audio evidence establishing premeditation, in which Stockley boldly declared “I’m going to kill this motherfucker,” he was found not guilty in a verdict announced on Sept. 15, 2017.

Since the acquittal, protesters have taken to the streets throughout the city to disrupt business as usual. This region fostered the nonviolent resistance of Ferguson protesters who provided the pedagogy of resistance for the current wave of social movements in the United States.

Following the not-guilty verdict, the police presence swelled, and heavy-handed tactics were used to intimidate protesters. While the intention was to draw support to the police agenda, these tactics have angered many St. Louis residents and attracted new supporters to the protesters’ cause.

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As a St. Louis native, I was compelled to return home once again, as I have on dozens of trips over the past three years. I landed at St. Louis Lambert International Airport on Sunday afternoon, and walked out of the terminal to the warm embrace of Mama Cat, a.k.a. Cathy Daniels. Mama Cat, a professional chef, joined the protests in Ferguson in the immediate aftermath of Michael Brown, Jr.’s murder, providing constant food and sustenance for the activists in the streets.

Mama Cat and I then went to pick up donated supplies at Bishop Derek Robinson’s church, which is part of the Kingdom International denomination. As we entered the sanctuary, Bishop Derek was in mid-sermon and was distributing small pieces of paper to the worshipers. We were instructed to write three of our deepest hopes and prayers. One thing I wrote down was justice for black people. We were then asked to tear apart the papers and drop them into a wastebasket. We all did.

Bishop Derek announced that he had been moved to tell us that the things on our heart would be answered. While I’ve never been one to believe in miracles, this led me back to one of the protest chants, where the call-and-response proclaims “I know that we will win!”

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We picked up food for the protesters and headed out to an action downtown at the St. Louis Police Department headquarters. There were over 500 people, with lines of white allies blocking the intersections at both ends of the block. On the street, immediately in front of the police station, Pastor Cori Bush — a frontline protester in Ferguson who is one of the co-directors of the Truth Telling Project — spoke to the massive crowd. She called for a moment of silence and spoke to the serious nature of our gathering. After other activists and clergy spoke, we began a peaceful march toward St. Louis University.

Later that night, the police — using a method called “kettling” — moved in, trapping not only activists, but also residents and those passing through the Washington restaurant district in downtown St. Louis. With an increased police force, including the Missouri state police and the National Guard, over 100 people were blocked in on all four sides. The police closed in, pepper-spraying and dousing protesters with chemicals, before making numerous arrests.

During this police action, law enforcement provokingly chanted “Whose streets? Our Streets!” This chant has been used regularly by Ferguson protesters during the past three years, noting that the police and government work for us, the people. Among those arrested were journalists and legal observers, and we have now learned that a number of those arrested were ordinary residents not involved in the protests. As people emerged from the jail after being charged and locked up, many (who did not want to be identified) said their property was not returned and conveniently “lost.” A common refrain among residents, who initially supported police, was that they were now protesters. These actions have led to diminishing support for the police and provoked widespread calls for a change in police tactics.

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With acting police chief Lawrence O’Toole, a Republican-controlled legislature, governor and a mayor supported by the police union, there has been a concerted push throughout the mainstream media in St. Louis to support police. Gov. Greitens told reporters that citizens should be supporting the police because they have families and children at home. He mentioned nothing of the families who lost their sons and daughters to police violence or the protesters brutalized for speaking out. Police groups have also tried to intimidate businesses that support protesters in any way.

Law enforcement has also moved to silence dissent with their heavy presence throughout the St. Louis region and by intimidation — through arrests of both non-protesters and members of the media — as well as interference with protesters’ electronics.

Yet another important story that lies beneath the headlines is the militarism fueling gentrification, which stokes anger and poverty throughout the country. In St. Louis, many black residents are facing an existential crisis as their communities are displaced to make way for the creation of the new 100-acre National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency headquarters immediately north of downtown. Clearing these neighborhoods has wreaked devastation on the city, and the damage has disproportionately affected black residents and the homeless.

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After the daily protests in Ferguson slowed, many protesters shifted their focus to poverty. On a weekly basis, Mama Cat and Pastor Cori Bush would go downtown to feed and provide clothing for the homeless. Rev. Larry Rice’s New Life Evangelistic Center was recently forced to stop its direct services in the wake of ramped-up plans for gentrification, which followed the clearing of land for the federal agency.

With over 6,000 people expected over the Sept. 22-24 weekend in St. Louis for a national conference of police chiefs, it seems clear to me that the response to protesters is rooted in securing millions of dollars in tax revenue, jobs and new residents. All of this depends on eliminating the undesirables (poor people and black folks) who are not included in this development. The underlying sense that corporate profit and the police who protect it are more important than people is a glaring example of the intersection of Martin Luther King’s “triplets of evil” — materialism, militarism and racism. This moral deficit reinforces the problematic path of the current administration in Washington, which continues to wage war against people domestically and abroad to bolster the economy and put “America first.”

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Protesters are calling for as many as possible to join us in St. Louis this weekend and for the foreseeable future. If local and national administrations friendly to police can subvert the rights of protesters and the media without mass resistance and broader coverage by the national media, the police state that Washington is trying to usher in will have a more complete hold.

At a time where we are experiencing the most devastating effects of climate change to date, the possibility of mass deportation of DACA dreamers, and systematic violence against peoples of color and queer folk, our society is being called to effectively respond. We must choose between a police state — one that represents our addiction to war, the extreme materialism of capitalism and white supremacy — and nonviolent protestors in St. Louis who declare, “If there is no justice, there will be no profits.” While the storms we currently face might push some to bury their heads in the sand, many are resisting to support possibilities for transformation and provide hope for justice.