Protests in St. Louis spark debates about race

On Sept. 15, Judge Timothy J. Wilson of St. Louis ruled that former police officer Jason Stockley was not guilty of first degree murder in the 2011 fatal shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith.

Local activists who had been carefully watching the proceedings quickly executed plans to protest. Over the past week, thousands have taken to the streets in marches calling for reform.

Anthony Lamar Smith, an African-American man, was shot by officer Jason Stockley after a chase over an alleged drug deal. Stockley claimed that he saw Smith reach for a gun. The prosecution argued that Stockley planted the gun in the car in order to frame Smith. A revolver with Stockley’s DNA was found in Smith’s car, and video surveillance shows a moment when Stockley went into Smith’s car.

Stockley was not arrested until four years after the shooting. He waived his right to a jury trial, allowing Judge Timothy Wilson to independently decide the case. No St. Louis police officer has ever been found guilty for the death of a suspect.

Wilson stated that since Smith was a drug dealer, it was fair to assume that the revolver was indeed his.

“Finally 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,” said Wilson.

Audio from the police car records Stockley saying “We’re going to kill this motherfucker, don’t you know it.”

Because of the verdict, and rationale used to justify it, observers note that the court viewed Smith with a lack of humanity.

“Anthony Lamar Smith is just another urban heroin dealer in the eyes of the court,” said Washington University social work professor Jason Q. Purnell.  “It’s also what they heard in the recording in which the officer who shot him said that he was going to kill this motherfucker.”

A group of nearly 3,000 protestors gathered in the central west end, blocking streets for several miles. With many chanting, “no justice, no peace” and carrying Black Lives Matter signs, the scene mirrored the Ferguson, Mo. protests which happened three years ago over the acquittal of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown.

Incidents such as St. Louis and Ferguson are drawing more attention to the racial divide in the United States.

“Racial relations are worsening,” said political science professor George Guo. “There is also more tension between the people and justice system and the police. I’m not optimistic this situation will improve because the political situation is so polarized.”

Minority communities all over the country have been wary to trust law enforcement.

“Being a person of color, I do feel I am targeted more, and discriminated against more than people who look Caucasian,” said Early College senior Shawn Mathew. “There’s different ways, other than reaching for a gun. Cops need to approach people with love. If it comes down to it, cops need to use force. Cops just need to realize that everyone is human, and find other ways to deal with situations other than reaching for a gun.”

The Sunday protests began peacefully, but devolved into violence after nightfall with broken store windows, plants and trash cans. Protesters also threw chemicals and rocks at police.

Although some protestors resorted to violence, the police response was seen by many as overly vindictive. According to reports by activists and some live streams, protesters were “kettled” in between police lines, not allowed to disperse, then arrested for not dispersing. According to CNN, over 120 arrests were made on Sept. 17 alone.

Many protesters disagree with the way they are being portrayed in the media.

“On the news, you saw broken windows, trash, and vandalism. You didn’t see the six minutes of silence when hundreds of people peacefully sat in the intersection of Maryland and Euclid. The justice beats drums, the business owners handing out water and snacks,” said St. Louis resident Lisa Clancy.  “I saw love and beauty rise out of some very real pain. I saw the pain, too. And that was important for me to witness.”

Many in the Guilford community are hoping for widespread change.

“I think for racial tensions to heal, more people need to get together talk, one person will not get the job done,” said freshman George Stockton. “There needs to be more people in the world who are concerned about racism, a few people cannot change anything.”