Noisy demonstrators marched through two malls in an upscale area of suburban St. Louis Saturday to protest the acquittal of a white former St. Louis officer in the shooting of a black man, picking up after a night of mostly peaceful demonstrations that escalated into scattered acts of vandalism and violence.
A few hundred people walked through West County Center in Des Peres, an upscale community west of St. Louis, loudly chanting slogans such as ”black lives matter” and ”it is our duty to fight for our freedom” to decry the judge’s verdict Friday clearing ex-St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley of first-degree murder in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith. A short time later, they demonstrated at Chesterfield Mall and at a festival featuring restaurant food from across the region. No arrests were reported at any of the demonstrations.
The mall protests followed raucous daytime marches in downtown St. Louis and through the city’s posh Central West End area during the night. Protesters were making it clear, they said, that the entire region, not just predominantly black areas of St. Louis, should feel uncomfortable with the verdict and its impact.
”I don’t think racism is going to change in America until people get uncomfortable,” said Kayla Reed of the St. Louis Action Council, a protest organizer. Susanna Prins, a 27-year-old white woman from University City, another St. Louis suburb, carried a sign reading, ”White silence is violence.”
”Not saying or doing anything makes you complicit in the brutalization of our friends and neighbors,” Prins said. Smith’s death is just one of several high-profile U.S. cases in recent years in which a white officer killed a black suspect, including the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson that sparked months of angry and sometimes violent protests.
The U.S. Department of Justice said Saturday it will not open a new civil rights investigation into the case. The head of the NAACP St. Louis had asked for a federal investigation. Justice Department spokeswoman Lauren Ehrsam said the department concluded in September 2016 that evidence did not support prosecution under criminal civil rights statutes, but did not announce it publicly until now to avoid impacting the state criminal case.
Republican Gov. Eric Greitens was highly critical during his 2016 campaign of how former Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon managed the Ferguson protests, suggesting that with the right presence and leadership there could have been peace by the second night.
In advance of the Stockley verdict, Greitens met with Smith’s fiancée, black state lawmakers, black St. Louis faith leaders and law enforcement in the hopes of projecting a shared message that peaceful protest would be tolerated but violence wouldn’t.
Before the verdict, Greitens put the National Guard on standby, and some troops were deployed Friday night to guard fire stations and other ”critical infrastructure” that Greitens didn’t specify. He was in St. Louis Friday night and met with local law enforcement officials.
Police erected barricades around their own headquarters and the courthouse and dozens of officers in flak jackets and helmets who wielded batons and shields corralled demonstrators throughout the day and evening. Demonstrators occasionally lobbed objects into the fortified line of officers, who used pepper spray to repel the crowd.
Tensions flared several times, including when protesters blocked a bus full of riot officers, damaged a police cruiser with rocks and later broke a window and spattered red paint on the home of Mayor Lyda Krewson. After a tense standoff at the mayor’s home, police used tear gas to clear the area.
Police said they made nearly two-dozen arrests before dark and more in the evening, though they still hadn’t provided an updated figure more than 12 hours later.
Police reported that 10 officers suffered injuries by the end of the night, including a broken jaw and dislocated shoulder, and some journalists reported having equipment damaged and being threatened by protesters. Anticipating more demonstrations Saturday, the band U2 canceled its evening concert in St. Louis because the police department said it wouldn’t be able to provide its standard protection for the event, organizers said.
Police generally stayed a step ahead of protesters on Friday, preventing them from efforts to block an interstate highway or storm the city’s convention center.
Protesters seemed to be taking a different tact on Saturday. During a morning gathering in a suburban park they forced members of the media to stand away from them, over the objections of reporters, including one from The Associated Press. At that meeting, they devised the plan to meet at the malls. The civil disobedience followed the acquittal of Stockley for fatally shooting Smith, 24, after the suspected drug dealer crashed his car following a chase.
Stockley testified that he saw Smith holding a silver revolver as he sped away and felt he was in imminent danger as he was approaching the vehicle later. Prosecutors said Stockley planted a gun in Smith’s car after the shooting – Stockley’s DNA was on the weapon but Smith’s wasn’t. Dashcam video from Stockley’s cruiser captured him saying he was ”going to kill this (expletive), don’t you know it.” Less than a minute later, he shot Smith five times.
Stockley’s lawyer dismissed the comment as ”human emotions” uttered during a dangerous pursuit and the judge said it could be ambiguous. St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson said prosecutors didn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Stockley murdered Smith or that the officer didn’t act in self-defense.
In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after the verdict, Stockley, 36, said he understands how video of the shooting looks bad, but that he did nothing wrong. ”I can feel for and I understand what the family is going through, and I know everyone wants someone to blame, but I’m just not the guy,” said Stockley, who left St. Louis’ police force in 2013 and moved to Houston.