Since the police shooting of Mike Brown, there’s been little progress – as was evident in St Louis as police mocked people protesting officer Jason Stockley’s acquittal
This article titled “St Louis protests: three years since Ferguson, why hasn’t anything changed?” was written by Jamiles Lartey in St Louis, for theguardian.com on Friday 22nd September 2017 14.42 UTC
It’s become a familiar scene in the the city’s metropolitan area, equal parts deja vu and cliche.
Again, protesters marched up and down a stretch of Missouri highway with signs that read “black lives matter” and “say their names”. Again they beat drums, cheered chants and locked arms. Above, helicopters buzzed while police in riot gear cordoned off sections of road. In rolled the armored bearcat, garrisoned with Swat officers.
As if on cue, an hour or so in, the protest was declared unlawful – no reason was immediately given. Threats of arrest and chemical munitions rang over police PA.
For demonstrators and reform advocates in the greater St Louis area, the exhaustion, the wearying sense of repetition was palpable – but so was the resolve.
“When folks stop making a mockery of the justice system, that’s when this stops,” said protester Jay Weaver as riot police slowly but steadily advanced their phalanx towards the crowd. “Until that mock trial mess going on in the courtroom stops, this can’t stop. They’re the ones making things worse, not the people out on the street protesting.”
Three years and some change since the police shooting of Mike Brown and the ensuing unrest burned the name Ferguson into the nation’s consciousness, the visuals persisted a few miles down the road at the St Louis Galleria in Clayton, Missouri. So did the catalyst. This was sixth day of protest since the acquittal of former St Louis officer Jason Stockley, who is white, over the 2011 death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man. Stockley shot and killed Smith after a car chase; he said he thought Smith was reaching for a gun. The defense presented evidence, which the judge in the case ignored, that the gun recovered may have been planted.
Stockley, who wasn’t arrested until four and a half years after the 2011 incident, had precedent on his side. No St Louis police officer had ever been convicted for the death of a suspect. On 15 September, Stockley saw that streak extended, and the ensuing protests raised the question: where was all the change that Ferguson seemed bound to deliver?
All the wrong lessons, all the wrong conclusions
Among the answers is that legally, there was little that was required to change, despite substantial involvement by the Obama-era Department of Justice. One of the most important revelations of the post-Ferguson reckoning was the fractured nature of of law enforcement in the metropolitan area. St Louis County and city bounded by the Missouri and Mississippi rivers has a population of a little over 1 million people, yet it contains 59 separate law enforcement agencies, each in charge of its own staffing, training and policies. Even though the tiny department of Ferguson, with its 40-50 officers was legally bound to make a wholesale changes in the wake of a bombshell DoJ report that uncovered blatant racial bias in the department, that mandate affected a minuscule portion of the region’s law enforcement.
“That’s one jurisdiction and it has no impact on what’s happening to the St Louis police,” said Christy Lopez, a professor of law at Georgetown University and the leader of the DoJ team that produced the Ferguson report. “What you hope with these sorts of agreements is that, as people start to see them work they become more and more imaginable to other departments.”
And there is evidence that in Ferguson, the consent decree – essentially a court order for the department to make certain reforms and adjustments – is working. At a hearing on Tuesday, a federal judge said the city has made “good progress” on its reform efforts and done so in “good faith”. Ferguson’s police chief, Delrish Moss, told HuffPost that “the police department’s outlook and view is vastly different than it used to be. We’re working with the community. We are enjoying that relationship.”
But there is little evidence that this attitude will be contagious to the dozens of other agencies, least of all the St Louis Metropolitan police department, which is 25 times the size of Ferguson.
First, the Trump DoJ under the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has indicated repeatedly that it has no interest in pursuing the type of “patterns and practice” investigations or community-policing oriented initiatives that were launched in places like Ferguson, Baltimore and Cleveland during the previous administration. A collaborative reform effort once under discussion between St Louis county and the DoJ is functionally dead under the new administration.
Secondly, as Lopez puts it, “you can’t legislate goodwill”, something that she was reminded of when she saw St Louis officers mocking protesters on Sunday night by co-opting their chant “whose streets, our streets” as they conducted mass arrests, drawing dismay from some law enforcement organisations and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The interim police chief, Lawrence O’Toole, compounded the brash demeanor by announcing the following day: “The police owned tonight … We’re in control.” It was a display that many who live in the city had a hard time imagining O’Toole’s predecessor, Sam Dotson, who was in command during Ferguson, making. The police were also criticized for “kettling tactics” – blocking protesters into a confined area to make mass arrests rather than letting them leave – and deploying teargas and violent takedowns on compliant citizens as 123 people were taken to jail on Sunday.
There is recent context: in many of the most confrontational scenes from the 2014 Ferguson protests, when militarized cops with tactical vehicles pointed assault weapons at protesters, those officers were almost entirely St Louis city and county cops, not from Ferguson.
“It is worse than if they hadn’t learned anything. It’s more as if they’ve learned all the wrong lessons and drawn all the wrong conclusions,” Lopez said of the officers who engaged in the chant. Rather than providing a sober moment of reflection, the legacy of Ferguson has instead been to make many law enforcement officers in the region feel aggrieved, like their backs are against the wall.
That was certainly the energy at the St Louis fraternal order of police lodge this week, where the words “we won’t be defeated” were taped up on paper signs outside.
The building resembled a storm shelter on Wednesday, with windows boarded up and mountains of bottled water and packaged food stacked all around, donations from community members seeking to offer tangible support to the police in quelling the unrest.
The boards were part necessity, part proactivity. Police said their front two windows were broken by vandals on Monday night who then spray painted “KS” on a wall, which business manager Jeff Roorda believed stood for “kill Stockley”. He said they figured they might as well board the rest of them up until the demonstrations blew over.
“We think it was in retaliation for the fact that we were trying to feed and water our officers which is a real shame. Those guys are doing a hard job,” Roorda said.
He had no regrets about the tactics police used on Sunday night, despite all the criticism, calling the arrests a “completely appropriate reaction”.
“Those folks had been asked to disperse for an hour and a half. So it was time for them to go to jail.”
As for the provocative chants from uniformed officers, Roorda demurred. “I’m not saying that I condone those statements but they were made after 12 hours of dealing with very harrowing protests, and, I don’t see the harm.”
They came for nothing but my son’s body
Meanwhile, across town at city hall, a small group of demonstrators had gathered to celebrate what should have been the 22nd birthday of Isaiah Hammett, who was shot and killed by police in June. Authorities said Hammett “fired numerous shots at police officers” with a high-powered rifle from his home before being gunned down by Swat officers in a “no-knock” raid. His family countered that a private forensic analyst found no sign of gunfire coming from inside the house. The rifle which police said Hammett fired, his family said was legally owned and non-functional, in the box waiting to be returned.
In their version, Hammett pulled his elderly grandfather to the floor when they heard someone breaking into the home, and when Hammett got up, he was shot in cold blood, targeted by police who had been after him for years. It was the same type of grudge that activists believe motivated Stockley to kill Smith in 2011.
“They came for nothing but my son’s body,” said Isaiah’s mother Gina Torres. “They’ve harassed my son since before he turned 17.”
Police said they found more than a dozen guns and “a quantity” of marijuana in the home, but the family countered that all the weapons were owned legally, and that marijuana is decriminalized in the city of St Louis under 35g – police have not yet disclosed how much “a quantity” was, and the investigation is ongoing.
And while demonstrators handed out literature outside, inside city hall, Torres was one of dozens there backing demands for the city to adopt a body camera program for police. St Louis is one of the few major city departments in the US to not have already begun at least trialling a body camera program in the aftermath of Ferguson.
When the measure passed, opening the way for a one-year trial of body cameras for every officer, Torres’s celebration was short – she will only believe it when it happens. “Missouri is the ‘show me’ state, you can talk, but you’ve got to show me,” she told the Guardian. More than that, neither she, nor most of the area’s activists, really see body cameras as an answer. Nationwide, they have not led to a single police conviction since they started being rapidly adopted.
What Torres really wants is an independent investigator for police killings. “How can you have an investigation by the same police that murdered your kid? We need other people for investigations, because they’re going to write what they want. They’re going to sit there and say that they were innocent. We need people to investigate these killings who are not police officers.”
That’s unlikely. If anything, the state is bending towards more protections for law enforcement from the general public, not the other way around. Shortly after Republican governor Eric Greitens came into office, replacing Democrat Jay Nixon, he signed a so-called “blue lives matter” bill , essentially making police and their families a protected class in the state, making penalties for crimes against them longer and harsher – even though they were already more severe than for crimes against civilians.
Last year, the state legislature passed a law limiting public access to body camera footage, meaning that even if the city adopts them, people like Torres will face daunting legal hurdles if they are trying to make sense of what happened to their loved ones in a fatal police incident.
Asked if she believes meaningful reforms are really possible in St Louis, or whether she’ll ever feel safe there again, Torres said, her voice breaking: “All I can do is hope, pray.”
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