Tension Builds as St. Louis Awaits Another Police Killing Verdict

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Source:  Talk Poverty/Linda Tirado

On Labor Day, there was a candlelight vigil on the corner where Anthony Lamar Smith was killed. He was shot by Jason Stockley in 2011, who remained a St. Louis police officer until 2013. That’s the year the city paid out a wrongful death settlement to Smith’s family. Now, Stockley’s murder trial has concluded. The city has been waiting on a verdict since August 9.

St. Louis residents are used to being told to wait for justice, and this all feels familiar. In 2014, it took months to get the grand jury’s decision not to charge Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown.

Now, anytime something big happens in St. Louis—like a verdict or an important anniversary—people converge on the city. Activists, journalists, residents, and protesters head back to the same street corners and the same cafes, and everybody speculates, though there’s no telling what might happen next.

This year’s unseasonably early cold snap makes it feel like that November when we all waited for Wilson’s verdict. Again, the waiting has stretched into months, and there’s an edgy monotony of checking the news and reporting on local events and wondering how long tension can build before it bursts.

On September 1, two officers were shot and a woman was killed by a stray bullet near the downtown area. A few hours later, residents who’d gathered in the area spotted heavily armed officers a few blocks away. It turned out to be a search of nearby abandoned buildings, presumably for a suspect in the shooting. Five cruisers and at least as many undercover units gathered and milled about, while residents speculated that it was a raid of someplace nearby.

“I saw the cops converge behind this building for something or somebody,” said Megan Macarey, a yoga teacher at a nearby charity. “Police are militarizing the neighborhood.”

Macarey had been calling her friends, telling everyone they might have to come outside and keep an eye on things. Most neighborhoods that are the target of police in St. Louis are like that, with informal networks and a practiced sequence of events. Cops show up, everyone comes out and videos everything. Macarey said, “Tensions are high, and we know police are putting up the barricades,” which the city had erected earlier that day in anticipation of the verdict’s release.

That is how policing is done in St. Louis: opaquely and usually with a show of force. There are times when the police can be perfectly lovely, such as at the Labor Day parade when they were playing with children. But policing of protests is decidedly less friendly in many instances, and given that two officers have just been shot, few people in the activist community expect the police to be in a conciliatory mood any time soon.

Over Labor Day weekend, there were protests going on at nearly any hour. Sunday night, local activists marched through a bar district, gaining a fair amount of support from patrons who joined them to chant, “Out of the bars and into the streets!” Monday morning, Fight for $15 shut down a local McDonald’s before joining the Labor Day parade, which featured thousands of union workers alongside ads for Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Monday evening was the vigil for Smith, which was supposed to be candlelit until a storm roiled above us and forced everyone to use their cell phone lights instead. Annie Smith, Anthony Smith’s mother, gave a statement: “Why has it taken so long for the verdict?” Smith is, like many people, tired of waiting for justice. “I lost my voice yelling, and I’m tired of yelling,” she said.

The verdict could feasibly come back guilty. But although roughly 11,000 people were shot and killed by police officers from 2005 to 2016, only 77 officers were charged—and only 26 were eventually convicted. It’s more likely that Stockley will be found not guilty. When that happens, the people here will be reacting to not just this verdict, but to every verdict this feels like, each piling on top of one another.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on the trial over the killing of Anthony Lamar Smith.

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