ST. LOUIS COUNTY ― There are a couple of ways you could describe what happened Wednesday night as demonstrators once again took to the streets to protest last week’s not-guilty verdict in the murder trial of Jason Stockley ― a former St. Louis Metropolitan Police officer who in 2011 shot and killed a black man fleeing a drug stop.
One version is that officers from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and the St. Louis County Police Department patrolled a peaceful demonstration without making any arrests, and that the night ended without any property destruction or violence.
The other, more precise version, is that officers suppressed a peaceful demonstration by declaring it an unlawful assembly long before the sun went down and by ordering protesters not only to leave the street, but to evacuate the area altogether. Unprompted by any acts of violence or property damage, cops in riot gear shut down a protest.
The tone of the night was set early on. St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger issued a statement declaring that the streets belonged “to those who respect each other and the law” and “those who travel them in the course of their daily lives,” as well as “those who wish to exercise their rights as Americans to speak their minds and to protest” in a lawful manner.
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He continued: “As to those who would ignore the law, who would violate the rights of their fellow citizens and wreak senseless harm and havoc, I want to send a clear message: these are not YOUR streets. And they never will be.”
Later in the day, as protesters gathered by the St. Louis Galleria in St. Louis County, police officers arrived quickly. Most held batons. Some sported rifles. Others were wielding less-lethal weapons. The number of officers clad in riot gear nearly rivaled the size of the crowd. An armored vehicle pulled up. And after police blocked demonstrators who were headed in the direction of a nearby highway, a St. Louis Metropolitan Police sergeant — who is a partner in a police tactical company and who helped lead the mass arrest of demonstrators and journalists in the downtown area on Sunday night ― declared the whole protest unlawful and threatened to lock up anyone who didn’t leave the area.
In an email, a spokesman for the St. Louis County Police Department explained: “When they [were] ordered to leave the roadway, they went onto private property. The owner of that property did not want them on their property, so they [were] given the order to disperse.”
In many ways, the response to a peaceful daytime demonstration resembled the response to daytime demonstrations in Ferguson three years ago, following the death of Michael Brown. The tactics that officers used then came under criticism in an after-action report compiled at the request of federal authorities, with the report saying it was “problematic” for peaceful demonstrators to be exposed to potential arrest for exercising their First Amendment rights. (I was arrested along with a reporter from The Washington Post during one such peaceful protest.)
But three years after the Ferguson unrest, with the Justice Department abandoning the collaborative reform effort it had entered into with the St. Louis County Police Department, things looked more or less the same in another part of the county. About all that was missing were the arbitrary arrests and the sniper pointing at the crowd.
Protesters didn’t appreciate the cops’ display of force. “Why are you in riot gear? We don’t see no riot here,” they chanted at one point.
There’s been some pushback to the police tactics on display this week. St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson criticized cops who’d chanted “Whose streets? Our streets.” The American Civil Liberties Union in Missouri is planning a lawsuit.
But the heavy-handed approach has become so normalized in St. Louis that Wednesday’s quashing of a peaceful demonstration on a flimsy pretext seems to have barely raised an eyebrow. And why would it? Politicians are hesitant to criticize the ways police handle demonstrations. Cops haven’t really altered their tactics. One difference between Wednesday and 2014, on the other hand, is that protesters have adjusted their expectations.