Back in 2014, the city of Ferguson made national news. We all know the tragedy: a white policeman named Darren Wilson killed an unarmed Black man named Mike Brown. Darren Wilson was not punished, and he was never tried for murder. In its aftermath, Ferguson, and all of surrounding St. Louis, erupted in protest. Thousands of St. Louisans marched in the streets, chanting “No justice, no peace! No racist police!” And the police responded brutally, bringing in riot police and tear gassing civilians.
Now, it’s happening again. This past summer, Jason Stockley, a white policeman, was brought to trial for shooting Anthony Lamar Smith, a Black man, in 2011. This time, we thought things would be different. Unlike the case of Darren Wilson, this policeman was actually brought to trial.
However, convicting him was another story altogether. I covered the trial for a local newspaper and watched two weeks’ worth of witnesses talk about how Stockley had seen a ‘suspicious transaction’ between Smith and a friend in a Church’s Chicken parking lot. This somehow escalated to Stockley pursuing Smith down the street at 87 miles per hour; then, after both his and Smith’s vehicles had crashed, Stockley walked up to Smith’s car and shot him several times through the driver’s side window.
In the trial, a forensic expert confirmed that Stockley did indeed shoot Smith at point-blank range and that one of the shots was from less than six inches away. The defense Stockley used was the defense that white police officers always seem to use in these cases: that he saw Smith as a threat and therefore he had no option but to shoot him five times.
The judge ruled not guilty. In his verdict, he referred to Smith as an ‘urban heroin dealer,’ although Stockley couldn’t have known that, and there’s no proof that it’s true. All that is known is that one small baggie of heroin was found in Smith’s car after he was dead. The judge believed that Stockley’s actions were justified, because, as he put it, “the Court observes, based on its nearly 30 years on the bench, that an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly.” This was a verdict based on broad stereotypes. This was a verdict that left yet another Black family bereaved and without justice for their loved one.
As a result, St. Louis residents have been protesting constantly for the past 16 days. The police have responded with the same excessive use of force that the protestors are speaking out against. My friend Chris, age 18, has taken mace to the face for standing in the street a second longer than a police officer asked him to. Another friend, Josh, had to miss some of his high school classes one morning because he’d been jailed for ‘failure to disperse.’ The police told the crowd to disperse or risk arrest, but then surrounded the crowd, making it impossible for people to comply. Josh did make it to school the next day because he had a college counseling meeting he didn’t want to miss; but being aggressively arrested and spending the night in jail isn’t something he should have had to go through.
The list unfortunately continues. Last night, a woman named Heather de Mian, a well-known livestreamer who uses a wheelchair, was pepper sprayed in the face and had to spend hours at home getting the pepper spray out of her face, eyes and hair. Pepper spray is not an easy thing to take – at first, it burns you so bad that you can’t see, and it reduces grown people to crying, screaming messes. Then, the pain comes back in waves for hours on end. It can take days to recover.
A few days before that incident, Karla Frye, a grandmother and local reverend, was put in a chokehold and arrested while trying to put herself between her grandson and the policemen trying to grab him.
The sole job of the police force should be to protect and serve. They are legally allowed to use necessary force, but by no definition can these displays of force I have described be called necessary. They are unneeded, and they are excessive.
These protests show that the St. Louis police force and justice system have learned nothing from Ferguson. If the court had convicted Stockley, maybe they could have shown that they have learned that Black lives do matter, three years after Mike Brown’s death. If, even after the acquittal of Jason Stockley, the police force and the local government had allowed people to protest, instead of responding with force, perhaps they could have shown that they do not condone violence against Black bodies anymore. What they have shown has been the opposite. They have shown that they do not value justice – so why should they get peace?
A movement is once again growing in St. Louis. My friends and family there are protesting to show the world that, even if the justice system won’t admit it, Black lives matter. And the protests will continue until the rest of the world pays attention, and the system changes to reflect that truth.