Demonstrations continued Monday in St. Louis over the acquittal of a former police officer charged with murder, as marchers gathered for a protest just hours after authorities said they had arrested more than 80 people during a third consecutive night of unrest.
The protests, which authorities say have shifted toward vandalism and violence at night, have rocked St. Louis, where memories remain fresh of the mayhem that erupted in 2014 after a white police officer fatally shot a black teenager in suburban Ferguson. That shooting, and a later decision not to charge the officer, set off intense, sometimes violent protests, and it also marked the beginning of a wave of demonstrations against police use of deadly force that gripped cities across the country in recent years.
The latest protests began almost immediately after Jason Stockley, a former St. Louis police officer, was found not guilty Friday morning. Stockley shot and killed Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011 after a car chase.
Authorities said that during the chase, Stockley could be heard saying he was “going to kill this motherf‑‑‑er, don’t you know it.” Prosecutors also accused Stockley of planting a gun in Smith’s car, noting that the weapon was found with only Stockley’s DNA on it.
Stockley said he had no plan to kill Smith and could not recall making the comments about killing him, and he denied planting the gun, saying that he was trying to find the weapon when he went into Smith’s car.
Judge Timothy Wilson, the circuit judge who heard the case in a bench trial rather than one presented to a jury, released a 30-page opinion Friday saying he was “simply not firmly convinced” of Stockley’s guilt.
Wilson said he “agonizingly” went through the evidence, which included video footage captured inside the car as well as recorded from a restaurant surveillance camera and a witness’s cellphone. Ultimately, Wilson said, prosecutors did not convince him that Stockley “did not act in self-defense.”
After Wilson’s order was released, marchers began gathering in the streets of St. Louis, which had tensed up Friday as the verdict was expected to be announced. Demonstrators pledged “mass disruption,” and they grew in size throughout the day Friday but remained largely peaceful, according to authorities and media accounts.
However, St. Louis police Chief Lawrence O’Toole said that after nightfall, the calm demonstrations had given way to “agitators” who “began to destroy property and assault police officers.”
The same pattern would recur Saturday and Sunday: Peaceful protests during the day giving way to smaller groups and acts of violence at night. Accounts from the scene described people hurling water bottles, rocks and chairs, smashing windows and damaging numerous businesses in the city.
Police decried the vandalism and sought to project a sense of command over the unrest. In a news conference early Monday, O’Toole said more than 80 people were arrested late Sunday and called them “a group of criminals [who] set out to break windows and destroy property.”
O’Toole outlined damage to property, including broken windows and flowerpots, and said law enforcement officers were hit with “chemicals and rocks,” adding that these officers suffered minor or moderate injuries and would return to duty soon. He also said police confiscated five unused weapons from demonstrators.
“The city of St. Louis is safe and the police owned tonight,” O’Toole said of the Sunday night protests. He said later: “We’re in control. This is our city, and we’re going to protect it.”
Protesters on the ground, though, have criticized police for responding to the demonstrations with riot gear.
“Do they think this will make us feel safe?” Keisha Lee of Ferguson told Reuters.
Police have announced more than 100 arrests since the demonstrations began Friday, and they have also described injuries to a number of law enforcement officers. Some of these injuries were minor, O’Toole said, but his department also said some were more serious, including a 26-year-old female officer whose jaw was broken, and a 43-year-old male officer who had his shoulder dislocated, both after being struck by bricks.
Some of the local and state officials responding were not in office during the Ferguson unrest, including Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R), elected last year, and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, elected earlier this year. Greitens, who appeared with Smith’s fiancee to plead for peaceful protests and called up the National Guard before the verdict, also appeared to draw a direct, critical comparison with those in power during previous protests.
“In the past, our leaders let people break windows, loot, start fires,” he wrote on Facebook over the weekend. “They let them do it. Not this time. Tonight, the police arrested the vandals.”
Krewson, whose home was damaged Friday night, said during the briefing early Monday that “the vast majority of protesters are nonviolent, but for the third day in a row, the days have been calm and the nights have been destructive.”
At least one of those arrested was Mike Faulk, a reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, according to that newspaper. Faulk was released on Monday afternoon, more than 13 hours after his arrest, the Post-Dispatch reported.
A photographer for the Post-Dispatch, a veteran of protest coverage, also reported early Monday that after police made arrests, officers could be heard chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets.”
Police just chanted “Whose Streets, our streets” on Tucker Blvd after making arrests
— David Carson (@PDPJ) September 18, 2017
He also reported that the same thing was heard by several other people at the scene.
After the sun rose Monday morning, just hours after O’Toole and Krewson spoke, demonstrators had gathered at the St. Louis City Hall. The group chanted and clapped, and at least one held aloft a sign saying: “No justice, no peace.”
While in front of City Hall, a group of demonstrators could also be heard chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets.”
The protesters paused Monday morning and moved from the roadway to allow a firetruck and ambulance to respond to a call, after which the marchers gathered once again in the middle of the road.
These demonstrations, which have extended for a fourth day and show little sign of abating, are the latest to erupt after a deadly shooting by law enforcement, a decision by prosecutors not to pursue charges or a verdict acquitting an officer involved.
In many cases, these eruptions follow relatively quickly on the heels of a shooting, though there are exceptions, like the protests that followed the November 2015 release of video footage showing a Chicago police officer fatally shooting a teenager more than a year earlier.
This shooting occurred in 2011, well before Ferguson became the first of many cities — including Baltimore, San Francisco, Cleveland, Baton Rouge, Seattle and Charlotte — where deaths involving police officers prompted intense unrest and drew nationwide scrutiny.
Charges against officers for on-duty shootings or other uses of deadly force are rare, though prosecutions have increased in recent years, which experts attribute to a combination of political pressure and more video evidence. Convictions, though, are still very rare. In June, three trials involving officers charged in controversial shootings captured on video ended without convictions; officers in Minnesota and Wisconsin were acquitted, while an Ohio jury deadlocked in the third case.
The St. Louis case prompting the ongoing protests surged back into the public consciousness Friday when Wilson, the circuit judge, released a 30-page order explaining why he acquitted the officer of a murder charge as well as a charge of armed criminal action.
Wilson wrote that Smith’s car crashed into a police vehicle before driving off. Stockley fired shots at Smith’s car before pursuing him in a high-speed car chase that Wilson said endangered drivers and pedestrians and was “stressful” for the officers involved.
It was this stress that Wilson cited when discussing Stockley’s comment about killing Smith, writing in his opinion that “people say all kinds of things in the heat of the moment or while in stressful situations.”
Wilson also wrote that he did not believe Stockley’s actions after the chase were “consistent with the conduct of a person intentionally killing another person unlawfully.” He wrote that Stockley was told Smith had a gun and did not immediately open fire as he approached Smith’s car.
Wilson also wrote that Stockley approached Smith’s car with his hand on his holstered gun and appeared to wrestle “with something or someone at the window” before drawing his gun and firing. Smith was shot five times, with one bullet going through his heart, Wilson wrote.
Neil J. Bruntrager, an attorney for Stockley, praised Wilson for outlining his decision in great detail, which he said allowed the public to fully understand what factored into the acquittal.
“This is Tim Wilson’s best effort in that regard to make sure people understand why he did what he did,” Bruntrager said. “That to me is invaluable. Because if you read this, if you truly read this, you can’t come away with any other conclusion other than what he concluded.”
Stockley left the St. Louis police force in 2013 and has moved to Texas. After his acquittal, he detailed his side of what happened.
“I can feel for and I understand what the family is going through, and I know everyone wants someone to blame, but I’m just not the guy,” Stockley told the Post-Dispatch in an interview Friday.
Federal authorities said they had already considered Stockley’s case and opted against prosecuting him. According to Lauren Ehrsam, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute the case in 2012.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division concluded its own review “and agreed that the evidence did not support a prosecution under federal criminal civil rights statutes,” Ehrsam said in a statement.
Civil rights prosecutions require a particularly high legal bar, something that federal authorities have restated again and again when declining to pursue charges in high-profile cases. In 2015, months after Ferguson erupted when Darren Wilson, a police officer, shot and killed Michael Brown, the Justice Department declined to prosecute him while releasing a scathing report demanding wholesale changes to the police there.
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