On our last day in St. Louis, after nearly a month in the field, Dominic Gwinn and I walked up Delmar Boulevard, where windows had been boarded up and painted with murals after a few people went on a window-smashing spree last weekend. We had to walk into the street to get around a gaggle of middle-class teenaged girls taking Instagram photos of themselves in front of one painting. It’s unknown if any of them could have told you why exactly there was plywood where windows should be except that there’d been some kind of Black Lives Matter thing.
What had actually happened was the Stockley verdict, in which ex-SLPD officer Jason Stockley had killed Anthony Lamar Smith after saying he was going to kill him but a judge found him not guilty anyway. It set off waves of protest in the city. Some evenings that’s meant broken windows, which has certainly annoyed people! People in St. Louis are Very Concerned about the safety and health of their local windows because of Law And Order and Respect and things! And after they have secured the safety of the windows they will think about securing the safety of the black residents!
I’ve been thinking about how I should frame this, how to explain this impossible place, but I don’t think I can do it in a blog post. So instead, here are some things that I’ve seen in the last four weeks. The pictures are Dom’s. (You should hire him, by the way, if you are a photo editor! He is the guy you want out getting your shots, because he is patently insane and sees nothing wrong with lying in the street while a group of a thousand people marches around him.)
I walked with a few hundred protesters through St. Charles, which does not think of itself as St. Louis. It’s over the Missouri river from the city proper and features an unexpectedly manicured casino, an artisanal dog biscuit bakery and, on that evening, a beer festival. Oh, and also it’s where the white flight settled. So drunk racist white people of course were screaming things like “All lives don’t matter” or “Your life doesn’t matter” or “We back the blue.” I also heard things that I will not reprint here because nobody needs to read that, and I am a woman who will happily print phrases like “racist dickweasels” or “motherfucking waste of goddamned space” and who takes the British position on the word “cunt,” which may or may not be edited out of wonkette even! So when I tell you the words were disgusting, you will know that it was drunk white people talking to black people with their most boisterous racist vocabularies. I might have even learned new words that night.
I watched police object to protesters carrying guns, though the state just this year passed a law underscoring how totally okay it is to carry guns in Missouri. The state is having a moment in which it is having to confront the fact that open carry means open carry, and that if you want to stop black people from having guns you need special legislation for that. (The felony incarceration rate does a PRETTY good job of making guns a White People Only thing, but it’s not 100%. Police can only find so many broken taillights a day, after all!) Since non-lethal force is authorized when police are confronted with potentially deadly threats, like guns or something, we all watched police spraying chemicals at protesters and residents alike with joyful abandon. Just, into the air for fun like cowboys would shoot the air in old Westerns. Only the cowboys were riot cops with low-budget Star Wars uniforms on.
Journalists from local papers were arrested while they were wearing press tags and carrying notepads when police surrounded them, ordered them to leave the area without giving them a path and then booked them for unlawful assembly. This looks in the video to be intentional on the part of police, who have been known to target journalists in order to stop them taking pictures. They use a strobe light at night as well to disrupt shots, no matter how many seizure-prone people might be nearby.
White people held a demonstration outside a Billy Joel concert, which is such a very interesting thing that I will leave it to you to editorialize in your own head.
At least five cars that I saw drove into crowds of protesters at low speeds. One did so at high speed and the driver turned out to be a police officer. Nobody was injured in that incident, but one woman had minor injuries from a guy who backed into her with his truck in another.
Police have body-slammed protesters in a full-on WWE audition. They’ve published their arrest list on Twitter. They’ve knocked down and choked old ladies. They’ve chanted “whose streets, our streets!” They have arrested hundreds of people, many for the crime of “being near people who cops think look like protesters.”
We went to cover this story a month ago. The first two weeks were tense waiting, with everyone feverishly speculating on what the city might do. In the last two weeks I was tear gassed, caught a rock to the back of the head, marched nearly two hundred miles and watched dozens of grown people dissolve into tears of rage and grief. I learned new things about racism, because it’s St. Louis and it’s the sort of place where the metaphors write themselves: I actually saw a drunken Missourian tell his buddy “hold my beer” so he could more effectively scream racial epithets at passing black people.
There is a beauty to be found in anything; shattered glass will sparkle in starlight. There isn’t much that’s good that will come out of this not-guilty verdict but there is one moment that burned into my retinas because it was so unexpectedly powerful: a homeless man walking out of a gas station with six bottles of water to give to protesters. I asked him how much he’d spent, and he told me “everything I had.” And that’s the movement in St. Louis, a sometimes powerful and sometimes futile attempt to right wrongs that is undertaken because it is right, not because it is easy.
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