Outrage over police shootings and accountability boils over again in St. Louis

Protesters gathered for a fourth straight day in downtown St. Louis to denounce the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white former St. Louis police officer who was tried for the 2011 fatal shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith. William Brangham talks to Tony Messenger of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the case and the broader concerns about police brutality that are driving these protests.

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    Anger over police shootings and whether officers are being acquitted too easily in some cases is boiling once again.

    For a fourth straight day, there were protests in Saint Louis over a judge's decision that was issued Friday. It's at least the fifth case around the country since May where an officer was not convicted or found guilty in a high-profile shooting.

    Protesters were out early this morning in downtown Saint Louis. A racially mixed crowd marched quietly and carried signs denouncing Friday's acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white former Saint Louis police officer. Stockley had been accused in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith back in 2011.

    Stockley and his partner tried to arrest the 24-year-old after a suspected drug deal, an incident that was caught on surveillance and dash-cam video. Smith took off in a silver sedan, and the high-speed car chase ended with his being shot at close range. The dash-cam recorded Officer Stockley saying he would kill Smith, and prosecutors argued he planted a gun inside Smith's car after the shooting.

  • JASON STOCKLEY, Former St. Louis Police Officer:

    I didn't murder Anthony Lamar Smith. I didn't plant a gun.


    In an interview Friday with The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, Stockley insisted again that he acted in self-defense.


    I can tell you with absolute certainty there was no plan to murder Anthony Smith during a high-speed vehicle pursuit.


    The not-guilty verdict touched off a weekend of protests by thousands of people. Most were peaceful, but smaller groups have turned violent after nightfall.


    A group of agitators stayed behind, apparently intent on breaking windows and destroying property. This is not acceptable. We have work to do here in the city. We need more and better opportunities for all of our citizens. But destruction cannot be tolerated.


    More than 80 people were arrested in Sunday's trouble, as police in riot gear confronted the crowd.

    Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence O'Toole is the city's acting police commissioner.

  • LT. COL. LAWRENCE O’TOOLE, Acting Police Commissioner, St. Louis Police Department:

    These criminals we have arrested should be held accountable and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. We're in control. This is our city, and we're going to protect it.


    It's all reminiscent of another case in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, where a black teenager, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by a white officer who was also not indicted.

    And it comes on the heels of several other cases nationwide where black men have been shot by white officers. Now Saint Louis faces a fourth night of tension, with protesters turning out again, and police out in force.

    For the record, we invited a representative from the Saint Louis Police Department on the program, but they didn't respond in time.

    For more about the situation in Saint Louis and what's fueling the protests, I'm joined now by Tony Messenger. He's a columnist at The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch and has been following these events closely.

    Mr. Messenger, I wonder if you could just give me a sense, what is your sense of what is driving these protests? Is it this particular case or is it something broader?

  • TONY MESSENGER, Saint Louis Post-Dispatch:

    It's the combination of the details in this case combined with ongoing concerns both locally and nationally about police brutality towards blacks.

    And specifically in Saint Louis, there has been a history of a disparity between black and white, blacks living in poverty and feeling that they're just not getting a fair share, that that feeling that the nation saw in the days after Ferguson continued over the last three years and is manifesting itself on the streets one more time.


    One of the facts of the case here was the allegation that the police officer planted the gun after the shooting. The judge looked at the evidence and said it didn't meet the standard of guilt.

    And I wonder, what's been the reaction of that?


    I think what happens in a case like this is, those details, regardless of whether or not the judge determines that the prosecution met its burden, stick in the minds of black people who believe that they have been discriminated against by police, whether it's Saint Louis police or other local police departments, growing up.

    And so you have the detail of the police officer being caught on tape threatening to kill the person that he's chasing, as well as the allegation from the prosecutor that the gun was planted. Those things add up to some details that really matter to the folks who are protesting on the streets, regardless of the judge's determination of burden of proof.


    These were, as we reported, largely peaceful protests. There were a few instances of people breaking off and causing some destruction.

    What's your sense of what's driving that particular slice of the protests?


    I think there's a couple of things.

    First of all, there's always going to be agitators, people that are hanging, that are looking to create trouble that aren't necessarily connected to the protest. In each of the first three nights of protests, the organizers of the protests have said, it's time to go home.

    One protest leader who's a state representative said, let's leave as a family. But, obviously, not everybody left. And one of the things that I'm hearing from people and seeing in social media and other things is that some of the violence is a reaction to the police militarizing. It's a reaction to an aggressive police stance, with police officers in riot gear circling around and arresting anybody who gets in their way.

    And so some of the reaction that you're seeing is, at least according to some of the protesters and folks on the street, a reaction to how the police are treating them.


    One of the pastors who was involved in organizing some of the more peaceful protests said that the goal of these protests were disruption, not destruction.

    Can you help us understand what that means?



    Disruption to the economy. One of the chants the first night, Friday night, when I was out there in the Central West End, was talking about disrupting the economy, letting the city feel their pain in the pocketbook, so to speak.

    And so when they talk about disruption, they're talking about the idea of U2 and Ed Sheeran canceling their concerts, and the city reacting to that by losing money and saying, we can't lose money. So, what are we going to do?

    Well, what the protesters hope they do is talk to them, and meet to them and hear their grievances. That's where they're trying to hurt the city is in an area that will get them to the negotiating table to talk about, how are we going to fix generations of grievance from people of color who believe they have been discriminated against in this city by police?


    Is it your sense that those protests, the economic pressure on the city, will both continue, and will they work?


    My sense is that it's going to continue.

    There were some high school walkouts today. There are other protests planned tonight. There has not been, to the best of my knowledge, any discussion between community leaders, activists, protest leaders and elected officials. And my sense is, similar to Ferguson, until those discussions start to take place, that what we have been seeing on the streets over the last two or three nights is going to continue for a period of time.


    I know you have been covering this and Ferguson and other types of protests for a long time.

    What is your sense about, when does this cycle end? It seems like we have been having this argument. The communities feel they're not trusted, they're treated poorly by the police. These horrible incidents occur. Police don't seem to be held responsible. And the community erupts.

    How do we interrupt that cycle?


    Well, if you listen to the protesters, one of the things that they frequently chapter is, "No justice, no peace."

    And so what they say is, it will end when there's justice, it will end when police stop killing young black men.

    That's what they're telling us. The sense that I get, three years after Ferguson, is that not a lot has changed in our community. There have been some efforts at reconciliation and education, but the poor black people that I talk to regularly, that I write about in my column on a variety of issues don't believe that they are a part of this economy, don't believe that they are full members of the community in some regard.

    And until that happens, until there's more trust between white and black, between police and the communities of color that they serve, then this sort of cycle is going to continue.


    As we mentioned, we asked to talk to someone in the police force, and they didn't get back to us in time.

    What is your sense of how the police view all of this, this particular case, but also the protests that have followed?


    There is a split within the police department as well between black and white. There is a split between those quality police officers who believe in a higher level of training and some of those who give the police department in Saint Louis or Saint Louis County or the multiple municipalities that we have around here a bad name.

    So, within the police department, there is somewhat of a split. But there is very much a divide between police and protester here. Last night, the police — the interim police chief for Saint Louis said that police owned the night.

    And, last night, police were recorded on video chanting themselves — "Whose streets? Our streets" — after they arrested some protesters, some reporters, some live-streamers, and other people.

    So, that divide between protester and police is very stark still.


    Tony Messenger of The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch, thank you so much.


    Thanks for having me.

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