Three years ago, the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO brought to the surface the brutality faced by the black and poor population of the city of St. Louis and its surrounding suburbs. Now, the city finds itself in the news again with a murderous police officer at the center of the story. Brown’s killing in 2014 at the hands of Ferguson PD officer Darren Wilson was simply the spark that ignited a flame that eventually led to the nationwide prominence of Black Lives Matter, which can trace its origins to the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Today, however, none of the problems which caused this social explosion have been resolved. In fact, they have only worsened.
On December 20, 2011, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD) officer Jason Stockley and his partner were involved in an altercation with a man, later identified as Anthony Lamar Smith, who they claimed had been involved in a heroin deal. As a car chase began, the police dash cam picked up Stockley saying, "We're going to kill this motherfucker." After a brief chase, Stockley and his partner rammed Smith's car at 90 mph, causing Smith’s airbag to deploy, casting doubt on the claim that Smith was alert at the time. Armed with a service pistol and a personal AK-47 that he was forbidden from carrying by department rules, Stockley exited his vehicle with his partner and ran to Smith's driver side window, firing several shots, including a fatal final one from a distance of 6 inches. The dash cam cut out shortly after capturing Stockley running back and forth between Smith’s vehicle and a black bag in the police car, and reaching into Smith's vehicle without gloves, which is in violation of SLMPD protocol.
Stockley later claimed Smith had been armed, but the pistol “found” in Smith's vehicle contained only Stockley's fingerprints and DNA. St. Louis city prosecutors claimed Stockley had planted the gun and charged him with first-degree murder. Stockley waived his right to a jury trial and chose a bench trial, where the outcome would be determined by judge Timothy Wilson. After a long delay, the trial began in 2017. After reviewing the evidence, the judge delayed the issuance of the verdict long enough to begin the process of moving himself from St. Louis to California in order to escape public outrage, while the police and National Guard began preparations for civil unrest, influenced by their experience in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, where the refusal to indict Darren Wilson led to demonstrations and eruptions of violence and property destruction. The state’s preparations and the delays in the trial and issuance of the verdict in the Stockley case are expressions of the cynicism of the capitalist “justice” system, and the ruthlessness of the state against the poor and the working class.
A month before the verdict was actually issued, a series of rumors convinced locals that the announcement was imminent. Many local business owners closed up shop for the day, as they anticipated the most likely verdict, as well as the response such a decision would elicit. On September 15, 2017, the verdict was issued, with the judge finding Stockley not guilty. In the judge’s ruling, he used coded racist language to justify his decision, claiming that in his years of experience, “urban” heroin dealers are usually armed. In the United States, the phrases “coded language” or “dog whistle” refer to language that is used to attach racial indicators to groups or individuals being discussed. Many urban areas in the United States are home to the impoverished black working class and terms like “urban” or “inner city” are meant to signal racial and class background.
Demonstrations against the verdict began almost immediately, drawing large crowds to downtown St. Louis. One such action began in the early morning on Friday and lasted until late in the evening. The demonstration was largely peaceful for the first few hours, until riot cops and police bicycle units cut off and encircled a group of protesters. While the crowd attempted to block riot police from exiting large public buses commandeered for that purpose, bicycle cops cut off escape routes and the riot cops savaged several protesters, including one demonstrator who was significantly injured, and took many into custody.
After both sides tactically retreated, there was a brief period of calm. This was broken when a small knot of police became involved in a heated shouting match with protesters. Riot cops descended on the crowd, several appearing to break discipline, and began deploying chemical sprays that the winds wafted back into police lines. This caused a general breakdown of order and saw individual police officers rush into the crowd to attack demonstrators. Several protesters were arrested at this point on vague charges with numerous incidents of police misconduct, both during and after detention. These included assaults on prone or subdued arrestees, deliberate destruction of personal property, threats of death or harm, detention in sweltering, poorly ventilated vehicles for hours while covered in chemical sprays, refusal of medical treatment and food, use of racial slurs, holding in facilities for hours without being entered into a database, and forbidden contact with the outside world.
The police department later released the names, addresses, and personal information of those arrested, along with their charges, on social media. This action on the part of the SLMPD cannot be viewed outside the broader context of the alt-right’s rabid hatred of all things “Black Lives Matter.” As the world saw in Charlottesville, the danger of individual right-wing vigilante violence is real. If any of these victims of state-sponsored “doxxing” are attacked, the blood will be on the hands of the SLMPD.
Following the protests downtown, demonstrators began a march in the Central West End, a wealthy white enclave in St. Louis city, home to the mayor and some of the city's richest and most influential interests. Though it began peacefully, a small group within the larger march broke off and walked to the house of St. Louis mayor Lyda Krewson, shouting slogans and throwing red paint meant to symbolize blood, as well as throwing bricks through several of the windows. Shortly afterward, in response to these actions, police utilized tear gas and chemical agents against demonstrators. However, despite the outrage of the ruling class and its liberal defenders about the breakage of windows and the destruction of other property at the hands of protesters (where is the same level of outrage at the deaths of black workers and youth?), multiple eye-witness accounts from protesters on the ground report deliberate destruction of property by the SLMPD over the weekend, all of which will be blamed on the protesters.
Following the offensive by the SLMPD, groups of marchers were split off from the crowd and chased by police. These protesters took refuge in the First Unitarian Church and the Central Reform Congregation synagogue which had opened their doors as safe places to rest. Protesters were trapped by police in the synagogue for approximately two hours, while police used rubber bullets and pepper spray outside.
Patrick B., who was inside the synagogue, reported that the police appeared in full riot gear in large numbers as soon as the doors opened, blocking off streets in line formation in every direction. They trapped some protesters against the walls, cutting a group off from the rest. While being walled in, armored vans and reinforcements on public buses arrived with the clear intention of making mass arrests. As the police advanced, the crowd prioritized getting the children safe inside the synagogue first.
Rabbis Susan Talve and Randy Fleisher denied the officers access to the synagogue after nearly 100 protesters had entered. Footage shows a heated argument at the doors between officers brandishing pepper spray canisters during this time. After the rabbis talked the police down from raiding the synagogue, the police refused to let protesters exit and disperse for hours under threat of arrest should they step outside the doors. After the SLMPD “secured” the area and moved on to confront protesters who had left the area, protesters were able to leave. According to Patrick, the Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis’ actions protected nearly a hundred protesters from arrest and bodily harm inflicted by the state.
The following day, September 16, saw hundreds of protesters gathering at and marching through West County Mall, a posh shopping center in the wealthier western suburbs of St. Louis County, which was followed by a medic training for activists in the early afternoon, as well as an evening protest march. The medic training was broken up by 10 to 15 cops who arrested a black male training attendee. It is worth noting that most of the attendees were white. The evening march was widely advertised as starting downtown. Shortly after arriving, protesters were informed via word of mouth that the march was being moved to a location on the other side of the city, in order to confuse the police force most likely hiding inside of a parking garage nearby. The new location was near Washington University in St. Louis, where more than 20% of students are from the top richest 1% of the population. A crowd of about 500 marched down Delmar, a street of small businesses and bars that divides the wealthy campus to the south from the impoverished northern portion of the city, which is over 90% black. The protest ended around 8:30pm after marching for almost 3 hours. Shortly after this, a very small group of people began breaking windows in nearby stores.
Of course, a broken window is nothing compared to the murders carried out by the police and state apparatus. Explosions of outrage on the part of the most oppressed are expressions of the contradictions built up within the system itself. However breaking windows or other destruction does nothing to eliminate the oppression that led to these contradictions and anger in the first place, and is often fomented by the police themselves to discredit the movement and to give them a reason to attack protesters. This further underlines the need for revolutionary organization to channel the collective discontent towards transforming society. In addition, as a general rule, the tactics used during protests should be decided democratically, with all participants aware of what is and is not expected of them and what dangers are involved--not by unelected, unaccountable, and often unknown “leaders.”
On Sunday, September 17, further actions were called. A silent march in the morning and a march through downtown in the evening went off peacefully and without incident. However, following the evening action, an unmarked police vehicle sped in reverse through a crowd of protesters who were milling around after the march had ended. Though no one was hit, this sparked a rise in tension. The media has focused most of its attention on the destruction of property that followed, however, the much larger and more important story is the mass arrests conducted later in the night using the illegal “kettling” tactic.
It should be noted that only a very small number of protesters (or provocateurs) broke windows on Sunday night. In actuality, “protesters” downtown were not protesting at the time the police initiated their maneuvers. They trapped a group of people, not allowing any to leave, and proceeded to arrest around 125 of them, only 25-30 of whom were clearly protesters. In their net, they also snatched civilians, the media, livestreamers, and the movement’s lawyers, who were there as observers, pepper spraying many of these non-protesters. The SLMPD can be seen smiling and laughing while doing so and in one video that has gone viral, they can be seen chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” a popular protest chant, back at the protesters. When in the hands of protesters, this chant has a democratic content, however, when chanted by armed officials of the bourgeois state, it takes on an entirely different content, one that actually lays naked the really existing relations in bourgeois society.
Ultimately, the state, i.e., the military, courts, and police serve the interests of the capitalist class. On the surface, the state apparatus is a mighty force. When witnessing the buildup of police tanks and battalions of officers in riot gear, some conclude that “The state is too massive and powerful! Revolution isn’t possible!” It follows, in their view, that we must “work within the system.” This approach shows its futility when, despite the local government apparatus and even some police officers’ organizations pushing for Stockley to be convicted for murder (the police officers are segregated into essentially white and black unions), the rotten-to-the-core courts still exonerated him! Other reforms pushed since Ferguson, such as police body cameras and “citizen review boards” have all quickly shown their inability to fix anything. Black workers and youth are still being killed by police, who face no consequences. That is because the real problem isn’t just a few “bad apples” in police uniform, but rather the whole capitalist system and its state.
Others draw the conclusion that the state can only be challenged via subterfuge and conspiratorial methods. But this misses the point. While the working class must use all kinds of methods in the struggle against the ruling class, an atomized and disorganized working class is relatively powerless against the ruling class and its state as long as we do not bring the full brunt of our social power to bear. This is why they isolate protesters into “free speech” cages and herd us into “kettles.” The working class has enormous power, but we must move in massive numbers, filling the streets not with 100 people or even 1,000 people, but with 100,000 or a million. It also means that, beyond marching in the streets, we must take the struggle into our workplaces, neighborhoods, schools, and universities. Crucially, we must also break with the parties of the capitalists, and build our own political force, a class-independent mass socialist party.
The working class, once conscious of its own power, will be capable of steamrolling over all of the weaponry and forces of the capitalist state. The unions, the only mass working class organizations we have at present in the US, must play a key role in this struggle, not sit on the sidelines! The example of SEIU’s presence at these demonstrations should be the norm, not the exception, must be expanded, not scaled back. We should also remember that capitalism, particularly American capitalism, rests on racist foundations. Ultimately, only through the destruction of this economic system and the whole social system built upon it can we create the conditions necessary to eradicate racism. At the same time, only through a ruthless struggle against racism can we build the united, multiracial working class movement necessary to destroy capitalism and class oppression. These struggles are mutually reinforcing, complex, and dialectical. United, we can and we will win!
An injury to one is an injury to all!
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