By Sean Duffy | Photo by Richard Reilly
ST. LOUIS — In September before the Stockley verdict had even been passed down, Missouri Governor Eric Greitens was preparing for the fallout. Greitens readied the state’s National Guard the day before the trial concluded, stating that he was “committed to protecting everyone’s constitutional right to protest peacefully while also protecting people’s lives, homes and communities.”
The governor’s remarks not only signaled that Stockley was likely to get off—as most cops do in these kind of cases—but also that the state was ready to stand by and defend that decision by any means necessary.
Months later, the civil unrest that has resulted in St. Louis shows no sign of slowing down. Police retaliation to demonstrators has proven to be an ineffective deterrent even as local law enforcement has become more punitive and violent in its response. Tensions continue to rise, and the St. Louis police have actively escalated conflict at every turn.
This was especially clear a few days into the unrest when police celebrated taking control of the city back from protesters. After more than 100 demonstrators were arrested, St. Louis’ Interim Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole said that police “owned tonight,” according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch. The paper reported that he told a news conference, “We’re in control. This is our city, and we’re going to protect it.”
The police, after finally clearing the city in the early hours of the morning, celebrated by reciting a favorite chant of protesters: “Whose streets? Our streets!”
St. Louis DSA has been involved in the upheaval since the verdict was first handed down in the last days of the summer. The chapter is young—it was only founded at the beginning of 2017— but has already grown to 200 dues-paying members. The local is part of a growing coalition of activists groups, including Missouri Jobs with Justice, Metropolitan Congregations United, the #ExpectUs organizers, other local socialist groups and more that are working together to challenge the systematic racism and police brutality that’s been etched into the fabric of the city on every level.
“The direct actions in St. Louis against state violence, police brutality, the egregious racial injustices and treatment of black folks have built Y’allidarity across this region,” said St. Louis DSA electoral chair Ben Conover.
Conover defines “Y’alladarity,” a term popularized by DSA chapters in the South, as a “portmanteau of the classic Southern pronoun ‘y’all’ and the classic organizing principle of solidarity.” It’s a rallying cry for Southern socialists.
But the St. Louis demonstrations didn’t just build camaraderie among protesters. They also “forced our Mayor to appoint a new public safety director, who is likely to fire the interim police chief,” Conover said. “We believe we are making serious progress towards implementing the Ferguson Commission‘s recommendations across the region and starting to build a culture that #YallGonStopKillingUs. The mass mobilization of our region has done this.”
Conover and other DSA activists across St. Louis and the South see their hometowns as prime territory for DSA to organize within.
“The material conditions of rural, working-class Missourians are ripe for socialist organizers, even if there is still lingering animosity toward the ‘S’ word,” Conover said. “They’ve been used and abused by the bourgeois through corporations and trade policies that don’t [improve] their lives materially. They don’t have health care. They hate the liberal establishment. They voted for Trump. Our chapter in St. Louis sees an opportunity to build a coalition of working class people, and we’re working to see that happen.”
Case in point: organized labor in the state led a historic ballot campaign to put a stay on right-to-work legislation pushed by the governor, smashing signature expectations in the same rural areas that had voted heavily for Trump.
The local has seen its own confrontation with the St. Louis police. During an October 3rd protest put on by the #ExpectUs organizers, demonstrators stopped traffic on Interstate 64 (known locally as Highway Forty, or “Fawty”). Police arrived and began arresting participants of the action en masse, including many members of St. Louis DSA.
“The officers decided they were arresting everyone in [our] group,” Conover said. “They had us sit down on the street and zip-tie cuffed us, including hitting an older woman with a riot shield in the wrist, causing significant bruising. We were taken from South Jefferson to the Justice Center downtown, where we were processed.”
Police processed 143 arrests for Conover’s group. Law enforcement’s treatment of the arrestees while in custody was no better than their treatment on the streets.
“Many protesters never saw a nurse, and at one point they put over the maximum number of women in a holding cell,” he said. “Transfolks were misgendered repeatedly, including an officer asking ‘What even are you?’ to one of them.”
It’s worth noting that none of the arrested have received charges from the action and they were released without bonds or bail.
The different acts of vandalism the city has seen in the wake of the verdict are often highlighted as justification for the militarized police response. For many, those small acts of vandalism seemingly present a larger moral conundrum than the continued state-sanctioned murder and violence. To them, a need for the state to preserve order will always trump any need to protect freedom of expression and dissent.
But it is not order that the state is after. Rather, the state seeks continued control and the return of public obedience. To reform or address the causes behind the continued civil unrest in the city would be an admission of wrongdoing and unlawfulness—everything that police and our governing bodies supposedly stand against. What they care about is preserving the illusion of order, and those who openly question the legitimacy of their power—who challenge their authority to decide what is and what is not lawful—stand squarely in the way of enforcing that illusion.
But while the dead have long been buried and those responsible acquitted, layers of freshly shattered glass line the streets. That present-and-visible reality is not so easy to ignore.
Is there an end to the protests in sight? “No,” Conover said.
“#ExpectUs organizers have called for a minimum of 100 days of protests, and in fact a #NoJusticeNoProfit boycott was just announced. The establishment can continue to #ExpectUs.”
Police violence and state oppression is not foreign to Chicago, nor to any other American city. It is not some epidemic that’s mysteriously spread across our humble nation vis-à-vis the camera phone. Rather, it is endemic to the very foundation of law enforcement in our country, a foundation that is crumbling fast under the weight of increased public visibility and demand for accountability.