If St. Louis reminds you of Ferguson, that should tell you something

The acquittal of ex-police officer Jason Stockley has primed St. Louis, MO to become the scene of the next Ferguson.

Civil unrest has erupted in the city, after Stockley was exonerated of murder charges in connection with the death of 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith, who was killed after attempting to elude police officers.  Smith died on the scene after being shot five times by Stockley, who stated he thought Smith was reaching for a gun and feared for his life. Video and genetic evidence, however, seemed to contradict the officer’s account of the events.

The chase began at a Church’s Chicken where the encounter was recorded by a store camera. Smith is seen dangerously maneuvering around a police SUV, barely missing the officers as he made his escape. As Smith fled the parking lot, Stockley appears to discharged his weapon in the direction of the fleeing vehicle before returning to the suv to pursue the suspect. Upon returning to the vehicle, he is recorded saying “I’m gonna kill this motherf*cker, don’t you know it.” After crashing into a tree, the officers eventually ram Smith, immobilizing his vehicle. Moments after engaging the suspect, Stockley reportedly discharged his weapon into the vehicle five times; however, only four shots could be heard in the police unit’s audio recording.

After the shooting, police video, as well as eye witness footage, recorded Stockley returning to the police SUV twice. He returned once to store a confiscated rifle, but in the second instance the officer is seen climbing awkwardly across the backseat of the SUV, blocking the camera inside the vehicle, to fumble through a duffel bag. It is at this point, prosecutors of the case make the claim that Stockley planted a revolver inside the vehicle to justify the shooting. A genetic analysis was performed on the firearm and the DNA that was found belonged solely to Stockley, and not the victim.

No one saw Stockley plant the gun, but no other officer, on the scene at the time, witnessed the gun inside the vehicle either. As a matter of fact, one fellow officer ,Elijah Simpson, testified that he lifted up the airbag and didn’t see a gun in the vehicle when he looked. Simpson also pointed out how strange it was for Stockley to be allowed to go back and forth from his vehicle to the scene of a shooting. He also added that Stockley was the only officer not wearing gloves during the gathering of evidence.

In St. Louis, a cloud of doubt looms over police accounts in the eyes of the black community, due in particular to recent incidents such as where a St. Louis youth was able to record a police officer’s attempt to get him to frame someone or face extensive jail time. The policewoman was suspended and later arrested after drugs were found in her home on a separate occasion.

Despite the seemingly insurmountable evidence against the officer, the judge ruled that the prosecution had not proven beyond a “reasonable doubt” that the officer had not acted out of self-defense. “This Court, in conscience, cannot say that the State has proven every element of murder beyond a reasonable doubt, or that the State has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense,” St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson wrote in his ruling.

Immediately after the verdict was passed on Friday, Sept. 15, protests erupted in the streets of St. Louis. The actions were brimming with the same intensity that was displayed in Ferguson after the acquittal of Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown, and continued throughout the weekend. Just like Ferguson, protests during the day were peaceful for the most part, but as night fell hundreds of demonstrators still remained in the streets as the protest became more aggressive. Protesters faced-off with law enforcement in the streets, destroying stone flower pots and launching the fragments at police and through windows of city buildings.

 

One major difference between Ferguson and the uproar in St. Louis, however, is that it seems most of the more reckless behavior is being aimed at city property rather than black community structures. Police are receiving hostile responses from demonstrators, but the narrative has shifted from blaming the police to attacking the system that allows some officers to abuse their power. Protests are targeting more affluent parts of the city, such as the Delmar Loop area of University City, a suburb about 10 miles west of St. Louis near Washington University where there is a host of concert venues, restaurants, shops, and bars. In one instance, a small group attempted to block a bus filled with officers in riot gear, which ended in the violent arrest of the individuals. The melees from Friday and Saturday night alone resulted in over 33 arrests, by Sunday that number had risen to over 80 arrests.

In the aftermath of the controversial decision handed down by Judge Wilson, Twitter has been ablaze the entire weekend with emotional responses and graphic video on the verdict and the unrest that followed in it’s wake. There are reports of police officers chanting “whose streets, our streets” as they pushed the groups of people from one street to the next.

In the wake of the backlash on Twitter, the St. Louis Police Department has taken to the social media website and to reveal the name, age, sex, home address, charges, and place of arrest of every individual that was taken into custody throughout the weekend, using a popular hashtag for maximum exposure. The department sites the Missouri Sunshine Law as authorization to posts individuals information, who are arrested, onto social media sites.

St. Louis, Missouri has revealed the powder keg of racial tension that this country has been hoping won’t explode in all of our faces. It feels as if lightning has struck twice in Missouri, in particular, as the events that have unfolded there have only reaffirmed the need for a drastic reassessment, within police culture, on not only how police perceive black suspects, but how they carry out the law in instances involving minorities. Highly publicized events where extremely violent white suspects, such as Dylan Roof for example, are apprehended alive, only prove that police can carry out the arrests of hostile subjects with some form of restraint or regard for human life.

According to a study by The Huffington Post, black people are 2.8 times more likely to be killed by police than white people. This statistic is fed by the fact that police officers only need to prove that they “reasonably” perceived their lives were in danger and not if the actual suspect was a threat. Police justify the use of deadly force under two loosely defined circumstances, “defense-of-life” and to prevent a suspect from escaping. The keynote to both of these legal standards is that it doesn’t matter if there is an actual threat, what matters is the officer’s “objectively reasonable” belief that there is a threat. Both standards essentially add together to become a license to kill unarmed citizens.

 

Steven E. Johnson is a journalist who covers social injustice and political issues. You can contact him at stevejlive at gmail dot com. Follow on Twitter: @stevenjtweets