Despite three years of intense public pressure, fatal police shootings of black Americans continue to go unpunished.
Three years after the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement rose to prominence in Ferguson, Mo., protests over a police killing of a black man have once again garnered national attention—this time in the neighboring city of St. Louis. The acquittal of a white former police officer, Jason Stockley, over the killing of a 24-year-old black man named Anthony Lamar Smith shows that justice is still elusive for black victims of police officers. However, the subsequent days of protests by St. Louis residents show that the power and influence of BLM has only grown.
The fact that it took nearly six years for a trial and verdict in this case is quite telling. Smith’s fatal encounter with police took place in December 2011, three months before Trayvon Martin was shot in Florida and the term “Black Lives Matter” was coined. During the high-speed chase that ended Smith’s life, Stockley was recorded saying he was “going to kill this motherfucker, don’t you know it.” After directing another police officer to hit Smith’s car, Stockley walked up to the young man’s vehicle. He fired five times into the car, killing Smith. Stockley claimed Smith had a gun in his hand and that he killed him in self-defense. But prosecutors suspected that the gun found in Smith’s car was planted by the officer since it had only Stockley’s DNA on it, and none of Smith’s. It took the state more than four years just to bring charges against the man who took Smith’s life.
We live in an even more polarized country than the one in which Mike Brown’s killing at the hands of Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson galvanized Americans. Despite three years of intense public pressure over the fatal police shootings of black Americans, district attorneys, judges and juries around the country have rarely held law enforcement accountable. And so the shootings and acquittals continue.
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To top it off, Donald Trump has sent a clear message that his Justice Department, led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, will not be investigating police departments’ alleged abuses. In fact, the president has cozied up so blatantly to the notorious police union, the Fraternal Order of Police, and embraced officers, that it is no wonder that in Charlottesville, Va., reports emerged that police simply watched radical right-wingers and self-proclaimed fascists assaulting counterprotesters. In effect, the police have become allies and protectors of the president’s supporters.
The actions of Lawrence O’Toole, interim chief of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, should be viewed in a national context: Under Trump, America is even more pro-police than it was before he took office. On Monday night, four days after Stockley’s acquittal and subsequent protests, O’Toole said,“The police owned tonight.”
“We’re in control,” he added. “This is our city.” The interim chief appeared to have turned the idea of police as public servants on its head, and instead embraced the type of mentality that dictatorial regimes encourage when using militarized forces to control an angry populace.
The Sunday after Stockley’s acquittal was announced, police used a controversial tactic of mass arrests called “kettling,” ultimately taking more than a hundred people into custody through savage force. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch interviewed one activist who was arrested so roughly that he couldn’t breathe, telling the newspaper, “It was the most brutal arrest I’ve ever experienced in my life. I thought I was going to die.”
Mike Faulk, a reporter for the paper, was also among those arrested. His experience was described thus:
Multiple officers knocked Faulk down, he said, and pinned his limbs to the ground. A firm foot pushed his head into the pavement. Once he was subdued, he recalled, an officer squirted pepper spray in his face.