St. Louis Protests: Everything You Should Know

Protests erupted after former police officer Jason Stockley was acquitted for murder in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith

Protesters have been on the street since September 15th, when a former police officer was acquitted on murder charges in the shooting death of a black man in 2011. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty

Protesters and police are once again flooding the streets of St. Louis, Missouri following the acquittal of a white police officer who shot and killed a black suspect in 2011. Judge Timothy Wilson ruled on Friday that Jason Stockley was not guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith. Protesters, who had been holding vigils in anticipation of the verdict and preparing for the worst for weeks, took to the streets en masse. They were met by police in riot gear armed with military grade technology. Reports of violent arrests, officers using unnecessary force and uncooperative protesters have been steady since the start of the unrest.

With acts of civil disobedience and clashes between activists and police showing no signs of stopping, here is everything you need to know about the Jason Stockley trial and protests.

"We're going to kill this motherfucker, don't you know it."
On December 20th, 2011, Stockley and his partner, Brian Bianchi, stopped to question Anthony Lamar Smith and another man they suspected of dealing drugs at a North St. Louis Church's Fried Chicken. As the policemen approached Smith's Buick, Smith abruptly drove forward into the building before throwing the car in reverse, hitting the police vehicle twice. Stockley testified during trial that he heard Bianchi shout "gun." Stockley fired several shots at the fleeing car before both men returned to their police car.

The chase lasted three minutes and wound through city streets, with the vehicles travelling at speeds of above 80 miles per hour. Audio and video from the police car is garbled throughout, yet Stockley at one point audibly says "we're going to kill this motherfucker, don't you know it." Smith drove into traffic and Bianchi hit him with the police car, ending the chase.

Even with dashboard camera footage, what followed the chase is not entirely clear. In the video, Stockley and Bianchi are seen approaching the Buick. Stockley appears to have his weapon drawn. He leans into the car to talk to Smith and there seems to be some kind of struggle. Stockley then pulls back and fires several shots into the car. In his testimony, Stockley said he saw Smith turning to his right to grab a gun, causing Stockley to fear for his life. After he died, Smith was found to be in possession of a bag of heroin and a handgun.

Stockley then returned to the police car, placing an unauthorized AK-47 in the back seat. In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Stockley said he carried the gun, despite department regulations, "as a deterrent."

Stockley went back to Smith's car, before once again returning to the police vehicle to retrieve something from a duffel bag in the backseat. The prosecution argued that Stockley was grabbing a handgun, which he then planted in Smith's car. Stockley claimed he was retrieving "Quick Clot," which is used to stop bleeding.

During the subsequent investigation, Stockley's DNA was found on the handgun recovered from Smith's car. Investigators could find no trace of Smith's, despite Stockley's assertion that the gun belonged to the victim. Experts cautioned, however, that even though Smith's DNA is not present, it's impossible to say with certainty he had not touched the gun.

In February 2012, a wrongful death and civil rights suit was filed on behalf of Smith's daughter, then one year old, against the St. Louis Police Board and Jason Stockley. The family was ultimately awarded a $900,000 settlement.

In 2013, Stockley was given a 30-day suspension for carrying the unauthorized AK-47 on duty. Shortly after he resigned from the St. Louis Police Department and moved to Texas where he began a management job at an oil company.

FBI investigators declined to prosecute and no further charges were filed until May 2016, when then-Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce charged Stockley with first-degree murder.

"An urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly."
Stockley waived his right to a jury trial, instead opting for a bench trial presided over by Judge Timothy Wilson. The prosecution and defense presented their final arguments on August 9th. Weeks of agonizing silence followed. Then, on August 29th, police began placing heavy metal barricades around the courthouse and police headquarters.

"Once they put those barricades up, I knew what was up," activist Jae Shepherd remembers. "They put those up when we were waiting for the indictment or non-indictment of Darren Wilson when Mike [Brown] was killed. It was just like this building up of anticipation and anxiety."

Nearly two more weeks passed before Wilson announced his verdict on September 15th: not guilty of all charges.

The state had argued that Stockley's statement in the car – "we're gonna kill this motherfucker, don't you know it" – indicated premeditation. They claimed Stockley's DNA on the gun found in Smith's car was proof the officer planted it. On the video from the officer's dashcam, they said you could see Stockley fire several rounds at Smith, pause, and then fire one more – "the killing shot" – which showed he was not actively fearing for his life.

The judge dismissed all of these assertions in his 30-page verdict, saying he did not share the state's certainty and the prosecution team had not met their burden proof. He took specific issue with the State's claim that Smith did not have a weapon on him.

"The Court observes, based on its nearly thirty years on the bench, that an urban heroin dealer not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly," Wilson wrote.

Activist and organizer Cori Bush says hearing Wilson's verdict "broke" her.

"I actually cried. And not because I didn't expect to hear that. Because it was a confirmation that, 'We don't care about you all.' It's like, 'See? I told you we don't care about you, and we don't have to.'"

Within minutes, protesters began gathering in downtown St. Louis.

"For me it feels like Ferguson. Same verdict. Same police. Same tactics."
Protesters have filled the streets of St. Louis every day since the September 15th verdict. Groups have occupied spaces in front of City Hall and police headquarters. They shut down entertainment districts in the tony Central West End and along the Delmar Loop. U2, Ed Sheeren and comedian Mike Birbiglia all cancelled shows due to security concerns.

Actions have largely been peaceful, with far less damage to property than occurred in Ferguson in 2014. Activists who have been in the streets every day are adamant that actions are consistently running smoothly until militarized police show up.

"There's no riot here," Shepherd says of the police's actions. "So why are you in riot gear?"

On Friday, a group of close to 3,000 people peacefully gathered in the streets of the Central West End, blocking the streets for several miles and staging a six-minute sit-in. After the official action was over, some protesters moved down the street towards Mayor Lyda Krewson's home.

Cathy Daniels, an activist who goes by the name Mama Cat, says that was when things began to get out of hand.

"You're always going to get agitators and those types of people that are going to blend into your crowd," she says. "So I don't know who did it, but somebody threw a rock at the Mayor's house through the window. That unleashed all kinds of h-e-double-hockey sticks."

Protesters at the scene report mass confusion as police suddenly mobilized, shooting tear gas at the gathered crowd. Jae Shepherd reiterated several times that the group was not given a dispersal order before the tear gas used against them. People began running down streets trying to get away from the lines of police. Two groups ran into the sanctuary of a neighborhood synagogue and a church at the end of the block.

"The count we got was 250 in the synagogue," Mama Cat says. "The police told them if they come out they would all be arrested. So they was held hostage in there for hours."

Protesters were eventually let out of the synagogue in the early morning hours and no arrests were made.

When asked whether officers warned protesters before deploying chemical weapons, police spokeswoman Schron Y. Jackson replied, "The order to disperse was given on Friday night at Mayor Krewson's house."

On Saturday, after a full day of peaceful protests, organizers ended an action in the Delmar Loop as they saw an increasing police presence in the neighborhood. Mama Cat moved into a nearby restaurant and watched as the situation spun out of control.

"When I tell you that the way people was running down Delmar, it was like watching a scene in a horror flick," she says. "Just to see this militarized presence. It was two of them coming down the street with the guns trained on people and they was shooting gas. And people was screaming, there were people who wasn't involved in nothing that was running."

On Sunday evening, police followed a group of protesters who had left a main action in front of the police headquarters as they marched onto Washington Avenue, a downtown entertainment district. Several people broke planters and windows along the streets. Mama Cat says the perpetrators of those crimes were quickly apprehended by police. Despite identifying and arresting the vandals, law enforcement formed lines on each of the neighborhood's streets. Video from live streamers on the scene show lines of police marching down three streets, effectively trapping a group in an intersection. Media and legal observers on the scene reported the police were chanting "Whose streets? Our streets!" as they moved in on the group. (Krewson has since denounced the officer's actions, saying on Tuesday, "I wish that wouldn't have been said. That's not appropriate for police officers to say.")

On the video, people are seen kneeling on the ground, hands in the air as police spray tear gas in their faces at point-blank range. Police throw several people to the ground, including the man recording, who can be heard yelling for the police to stop kneeling on him.

The next evening, a group held a vigil in the rain, lit by their cell phones, waiting for the release of the rest of the group. Mama Cat says some of the people were still covered in blood from the night before when they were released.

"These people came out of jail, they didn't get no first aid, they bloody," she says. "Blood, just dried blood up in this man's cheekbone they busted up. I was like 'You've got to go to the hospital.' It was a few guys that had bloody ears where they was kicked at. Legal observer, he got his face all beat up."

"For me it feels like Ferguson on the first night," Jae Shepherd says. "The police were super militarized that night and everybody was in riot gear. Same verdict. Same police. Same tactics."

"We owned the night."
The unrest marks the first test for Democratic Mayor Lyda Krewson. Krewson took office in April, following Francis Slay's 16-year tenure in the position. Several of Krewson's opponents, including City Treasurer Tishaura Jones and former Alderman Antonio French, participated in the protests in Ferguson and touted themselves as advocates for social justice reform. Krewson won the election after positioning herself as a more centrist alternative.

Within the first two days of Lyda Krewson's tenure as mayor, she accepted former Police Chief Sam Dotson's resignation and offer to remain with the department temporarily as a consultant. The city is currently in the midst of a nationwide search for a replacement as the force is lead by Acting Police Commissioner Lt. Col. Lawrence O'Toole.

Early Monday morning, after police rounded up residents, journalists and protesters on Washington Avenue, O'Toole spoke to the press.

"I'm proud to tell you the city of St. Louis is safe and the police owned tonight," O'Toole said to the media around 1 a.m. "We're in control. This is our city and we're going to protect it."

Krewson had several town-halls scheduled for this week. On Tuesday, her office announced they would be cancelling those open meetings.

"I read my Twitter mentions and my Facebook posts, I've been reading your emails and your texts, listening to your voicemails, reviewing the hashtags," Krewson said in a press release. "We are postponing our Town Halls for this week because they are happening in the streets and in my inbox and on social media right now. We are listening."

On the state level, Governor Eric Greitens is living up to his platform as a hardline "law and order" conservative. Greitens, who grew up in St. Louis and lived in the Central West End before he took office, has been extremely critical of the way the protests in Ferguson were handled, claiming that former governor Jay Nixon had been too soft on protesters. Even as he gave speeches encouraging "peaceful protest" ahead of the announcement, Greitens pre-emptively activated the Missouri National Guard.

"As Governor, I am committed to protecting everyone's constitutional right to protest peacefully while also protecting people's lives, homes, and communities," Greitens said. "Taking the steps to put the Missouri National Guard on standby is a necessary precaution."

Protesters on the ground feel the governor has been taken an adversarial stance.

"Our governor said we can peacefully protest," activist Michael Hassell says. "But it don't look like our officers are being peaceful."

A pinned Tweet on the Governor's account reads "Saturday, some criminals broke windows & thought they'd get away. They were wrong. Officers caught 'em, cuffed 'em, and threw 'em in jail." Linked to the Tweet is a video of four police officers carrying a handcuffed man through the streets.

"We need politicians that just love people, period," activist Cori Bush says.

"Y'all gon' stop killing us."
When asked what she sees happening in the coming days and weeks in St. Louis, Bush says protesters just want to continue pushing their message.

"Our message is simply 'Stop killing us.' We're telling law enforcement and this is the way we're saying it, using African-American vernacular English, 'Y'all gon' stop killing us.'"

All of the activists agreed they had learned a lot since Ferguson. Many of the organizers have been staging protests and educating other activists consistently since 2014.

"We protested for more than 400 days [after Ferguson] and then we've been active ever since," Mama Cat explains. "All the protests that we've organized have been amazing. The diversity, the love, the strength, the power that has been in these protests has just blown us away."

They say they are now acting in coordination and solidarity with members of the clergy and religious community as well.

"There was an interfaith prayer service and some of us protesters were there and we actually after the service asked everybody to come let's get in the streets, let's march to City Hall and they did," Mama Cat says. "They emptied the pews and we had imams and rabbis and evangelicals and Baptist pastors mixing together, locking arms in 90 degree weather, sweating, marching through the streets of downtown St. Louis with protesters."

"I see [the movement] becoming really a force, that St. Louis government will have to deal with," Cori Bush explains. "A force that they cannot push aside. That it will have a voice and it will have to be brought to the table, brought to the table with a cushioned seat."

Jae Shepherd says that none of the activists have any intention of going home and allowing the status quo to return to St. Louis.

"We're going to keep fighting for this justice, for liberation. And we won't stop until we get it," Shepherd explains. "You know what we say, no justice no peace."