'Militaristic and intimidating': St Louis police criticized as protests stretch on

Demonstrations against the acquittal of officer Jason Stockley over the death of Anthony Lamar Smith enter fourth night

Demonstrators protest the acquittal of Jason Stockley in St Louis, Missouri.
Demonstrators protest the acquittal of Jason Stockley in St Louis, Missouri. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

As protests over the acquittal of the former St Louis police officer Jason Stockley moved into their fourth night, some observers said the response from law enforcement had grown heavy-handed, and that local and state authorities had learned little from their actions during the Ferguson protests.

Stockley, who is white, was accused by prosecutors of murdering Anthony Lamar Smith, who was black, following a high-speed car chase.

During intense demonstrations on Sunday night in downtown St Louis, police were accused of co-opting and chanting the popular protest slogan “whose streets? Our streets”. The interim police chief, Lawrence O’Toole, whose department made more than 120 arrests, said at a press conference that St Louis police “owned the night”.

Cara Spencer, alderman for the city’s 20th ward, said she was “deeply disappointed” by the rhetoric.

“The chants were disheartening and ‘we own the night’ sets a bad tone,” she said.

While acknowledging the need to protect the safety of officers, Spencer also criticized law enforcement’s response for its militarized overtones.

“Seeing troops marching down the street and in tanks or humvees is a horrifying scene to behold,” she said. “The protest leadership deserves kudos for asking everyone to disperse at a reasonable hour. The people who remain are agitators with different goals.”

Marching in unison through the downtown streets and dressed in riot gear, police seemed to take a firmer approach on Sunday, after several evenings of intense protests, arrests and property damage around the city.

Downtown resident Christian Misner, who watched some of the street scenes unfold in front of his home, said he was taken aback by the tone of the police response.

“It was militaristic, coordinated, antagonistic and intimidating,” he said. “They were chanting and hitting the ground and their shin guards in unison with sticks.”

Misner said there was a disconnect between the behavior of the crowd and the response of the police officers.

“I saw no bottle-throwing, spitting or anything else,” he said. “Everyone was hanging out, talking, taking photos and video. Only two people were loudly vocalizing their frustration.”

On Friday evening, protesters surrounded the home of the St Louis mayor, Lyda Krewson, breaking windows and throwing paint.

Protest leaders, encouraging use of the chant “you kill our kids, we kill your economy”, have vowed to sustain large public demonstrations in an effort to disrupt the city’s economy. While protests after the teenager Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson were largely confined to a few blocks within that small St Louis suburb, these demonstrations have targeted areas of the city with concentrated wealth and business activity.

These tactics have already borne fruit: the rock band U2 and singer Ed Sheeran both canceled scheduled concerts in St Louis as a result of the protests. Protests have also resulted in shortened business hours, canceled hotel bookings and depressed retail and restaurant activity.

Many protesters believe economic disruption is the best option for effecting change.

“This was a bad verdict,” said one, Percy Woodbury. “Right is right and wrong is wrong, and there is no justice here.”

On Monday evening, protesters reassembled in the city’s Delmar Loop district, the scene of Saturday’s protests, hoping to continue their momentum. As the day turned to night, the protests remained peaceful, following the pattern of early demonstrations.

After a brief demonstration there, protesters moved on to downtown St Louis, where they gathered outside city hall.

A crowd of several hundred people chanted Smith’s name and held two minutes of silence in his memory.

Shortly thereafter, heavy rains began to pour, though the crowd grew louder in response and did not disperse. Protests remained peaceful.

Spencer, who said St Louis police officials in her ward had had some success at deepening community links at a neighborhood level, called for better communication between those coordinating law enforcement activity and local leaders.

“A lot of people aren’t part of the conversation,” she said. “We need to bring in people who are working to change the system.”