A racially mixed crowd of demonstrators locked arms and marched quietly through downtown St. Louis Monday morning to protest the acquittal of a white former police officer in the killing of a black suspect, following another night of unrest and more than 80 arrests.
The latest action follows three days of peaceful protests and three nights of violence in the city that has been rocked since Friday, when a judge announced he found Jason Stockley not guilty in the 2011 death of Anthony Lamar Smith.
Hundreds of riot police mobilized downtown late Sunday, arresting more than 80 people and seizing weapons amid reports of property damage and vandalism. The arrests came after demonstrators ignored orders to disperse, police said.
“I’m proud to tell you the city of St. Louis is safe and the police owned tonight,” Interim Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole said at a news conference early Monday.
Earlier Sunday, more than 1,000 people had gathered at police headquarters then marched without trouble through downtown St. Louis, the posh Central West End, and the trendy Delmar Loop area of nearby University City. Protesters also marched through two shopping malls in a wealthy area of St. Louis County.
By nightfall, most had gone home. The 100 or so people who remained grew increasingly agitated as they marched back toward downtown. Along the way, they knocked over planters, broke windows at a few shops and hotels, and scattered plastic chairs at an outdoor venue.
According to police, the demonstrators then sprayed bottles with an unknown substance on officers.
One officer suffered a leg injury and was taken to a hospital. His condition wasn’t known.
Soon afterward, buses brought in additional officers in riot gear, and police scoured downtown deep into the night, making arrests and seizing at least five weapons, according to O’Toole. Later, officers in riot gear gathered alongside a city boulevard chanting “whose street, our street” — a common refrain used by the protesters — after clearing the street of demonstrators and onlookers.
“We’re in control. This is our city and we’re going to protect it,” O’Toole said.
Mayor Lyda Krewson said at the same Monday news conference that “the days have been calm and the nights have been destructive” and that “destruction cannot be tolerated.”
Early Monday, more than 150 protesters marched arm-in-arm, some carrying signs, to city hall. Police turned traffic away as the marchers blocked a busy St. Louis street during the rush hour crush. Once at city hall, they found their voices, chanting: “I know that we will win.” The protesters then marched four blocks to a city court building, where they chanted again, then dispersed. The next protest is scheduled for Monday evening in University City.
The recent St. Louis protests follow a pattern seen since the August 2014 killing of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson: The majority of demonstrators, though angry, are law-abiding. But as the night wears on, a subsection emerges, a different crowd more willing to confront police, sometimes to the point of clashes.
Protest organizer Anthony Bell said he understands why some act out: While change can come through peaceful protests, such as those led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., years of oppression has caused some to turn violent.
“I do not say the (violent) demonstrators are wrong, but I believe peaceful demonstrations are the best,” Bell said.
Many protesters believe police provoked demonstrators by showing up in riot gear and armored vehicles; police said they had no choice but to protect themselves once protesters started throwing things at them.
Stockley shot Smith after high-speed chase as officers tried to arrest Smith and his partner in a suspected drug deal.
Stockley, 36, testified he felt endangered because he saw Smith holding a silver revolver when Smith backed his car toward the officers and sped away.
Prosecutors said Stockley planted a gun in Smith’s car after the shooting. The officer’s DNA was on the weapon but Smith’s wasn’t. Dashcam video from Stockley’s cruiser recorded him saying he was “going to kill this (expletive).” Less than a minute later, he shot Smith five times.
Stockley’s lawyer dismissed the comment as “human emotions” during a dangerous pursuit. St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson, who said prosecutors didn’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Stockley murdered Smith, said the statement could be ambiguous.
Stockley left the police department and moved to Houston three years ago.