Police seem to think they have the right to mistreat, brutalize and even kill the very people they are meant to serve. (Jeff Roberson / AP)
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.
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.
The St. Louis chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists denounced Faulk’s treatment in a statement, saying, “Journalists already have much to fear in this brave new world. They should not have to fear the police as well.”
In post-Ferguson America police have also taken to co-opting the language of the left when claiming ownership of public spaces. This week, reports have emerged of St. Louis police chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets.” This popular chant has long been used by social justice activists who want to make the point that the streets their taxes pay for belong to the public. When police officers use this language they are reframing the relationship between the public and police in a manner that reflects the slide toward fascism that many Americans fear under Trump.
Similarly, when police counter chants of “Black Lives Matter” with “Blue Lives Matter,” they are reaffirming the higher value that our criminal justice system and even our popular culture places on the lives of police over everyone else. Worse, because “Blue Lives Matter” is meant to counter a plea for respecting black Americans, this chant implies that cops are right to place themselves above African-Americans, whereas the term “Black Lives Matter” was coined to remind us just how little American society values black people.
Likely because of the heightened public awareness of racism against black Americans thanks to BLM, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson felt compelled to address broader issues of inequity in the wake of Stockley’s acquittal. Krewson, a white mayor of a city that is 49 percent African-American, said: “What we are seeing and feeling is not only about this case. What we have is a legacy of policies that have disproportionately impacted people along racial and economic lines.” She added, “This is institutional racism.”
The term “institutional racism” was coined by Black Panther leaders Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in their 1967 book “Black Power.” We would be hard-pressed to hear a high-level city official use such a term out loud before BLM came to prominence, especially from one as pro-police as Mayor Krewson.
Police seem to think they have the right to mistreat, brutalize and even kill the very people they are meant to serve. But with every life taken, law enforcement is exposed bit by bit for being the source of violence rather than its remedy. Instead of “protecting and serving,” as police slogans often declare, far too many officers and their allies have attacked and killed. Members of the criminal justice system are willing participants in this process, refusing time after time to punish murderous cops and give justice to victims and their families. As Smith’s mother lamented after Stockley’s acquittal: “The judge made the wrong decision. No one speaks for Anthony but my family. I have no justice. I can never be at peace.”
People will continue to protest in St. Louis, Ferguson, Los Angeles, Chicago and across the United States for as long as justice for the victims of police killing remains elusive. Until black lives begin to actually matter, there can be no peace.