On Friday the 15th September, protests erupted in St. Louis following the acquittal of white ex-police officer Jason Stockley over the 2011 murder of a young black man, Anthony Lamar Smith, in a judge-alone trial. Stockley claimed he shot Smith five times in ‘self-defence’ following a high-speed car chase where police tried to arrest Smith in relation to an alleged drug deal. In his pursuit of Smith, Stockley was recorded on police dash cam saying he was “going to kill this mother**ker,” which Stockley’s attorney characterized as “human emotions” and Judge Wilson dismissed as “ambiguous.” Prosecutors accused Stockley of planting a gun in Smith’s car, as Stockley’s DNA was found on the weapon whereas Smith’s was not. A group of over one thousand racially-mixed demonstrators protested the acquittal, chanting “No justice, no police, no racist police” and carrying signs that read “We are not free when we live with state-sanctioned murder.” On Saturday, the crowd reduced to around one hundred people, some of whom took to smashing shop fronts and throwing red paint on the home of St. Louis Mayor, Lyda Krewson. Police made around eighty arrests, accusing demonstrators of destroying public property.
Al Watkins, the attorney representing Smith’s family voiced their anguish at the sense of injustice brought by Stockley’s acquittal. Watkins anchored the verdict to the long history of police brutality towards the black community, as inferred by the judge’s statement that “the Court observes, in its nearly thirty years on the bench, that an urban heroin deal not in possession of a firearm would be an anomaly.” Speaking to the judge’s euphemistic diction, Watkins said, “We all know what ‘urban’ means. Urban means ‘black’. I find that to be offensive…I find that demonstrative of a judge who thinks that those who are reading this verdict are morons.” Watkin’s sentiments were echoed by the crowd outside St. Louis city hall, with protest organiser Anthony Bell stating, “I don’t say the (violent) demonstrators are wrong, but I believe peaceful demonstrations are the best.”
While Judge Wilson may contend that it ‘would be an anomaly’ for a man of Smith’s demographic not to carry a gun, police violence towards the black community is not anomalous either. The year of 1892 is often appraised as one of the most violent years in black American history, as it saw the lynching of 161 black people. In 2016 alone US police are reported to have killed 258 black people. Ostensibly, the pursuit of the post-Civil Rights movement generation is affirming de facto equality as much as de jure equality. However, black Americans continue to face systematic bias in the face of the law. Judge Wilson seemingly inverted the direction of this bias when he stated he would not be swayed by “partisan interests, public clamour or fear of criticism.” The acquittal of Stockley echoes the refusal of a grand jury to indict police officer Darren Wilson in relation to the shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown, in the nearby town of Ferguson in 2014.
Following the election of the first black President, Barack Obama and his two consecutive terms in office, one might have thought that great progress would be made in improving the quality of life of the average black individual. Nevertheless, the New York Times found that one out of every six black men who are 25-54 have ‘disappeared from daily life’, whether due to early death or incarceration. This lack of progress cannot be attributed to Obama’s lack of engagement with the subject; after the murder of young black man Trayvon Martin in 2012, he said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” However, the political domain is so extensively thwarted in agitating for progress that advocates must return to the grassroots, methods of past Civil Rights movements. Ultimately, the system must figure black people within the dual rights of fair representation and freedom to protest.