When heavily-armed police donning riot gear moved in on protesters on September 17, St Louis police officers broke up the march and taunted its participants.
“Whose streets? Our streets,” St Louis Police Department (SLMPD) officers sang out, co-opting a common rallying cry among demonstrators.
Clinton Stancil, a St Louis-based reverend who has been involved in mobilising protests in the wake of an aquittal of a white police officer who killed an African American man in 2011, remembers the violence clearly.
When police blocked peaceful marchers from crossing the street by allowing traffic to proceed, a local clergy woman went back to inform the officers that more demonstrators were en route to cross the intersection.
The officers grabbed the woman, prompting Reverend Darryl Gray to come to her rescue.
“They threw him to the ground, stepped and broke his glasses, and that was the spark that set off the whole thing,” Stancil, 65, who has lived in the city for four years, tells Al Jazeera.
As demonstrators moved to intervene, Stancil recalls the officers then “indiscriminately” attacking them with chemical agents, such as pepper spray, and wantonly beating people with batons. They subsequently kettled march participants and bystanders before detaining them.
“They arrested everyone who was on the street, and that’s what caused many of the problems,” he says, explaining that bystanders, journalists and others were among those rounded up.
That was the third night of ongoing protests, which were sparked by the September 15 not-guilty verdict for Jason Stockley, a former policeman who shot dead 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith in December 2011.
‘We will kill your pockets’
The protesters have focused on causing economic disruption through boycotts and mass demonstrations, says Stancil, who posits the strategy as an alternative to destruction and rioting, with the hopes of prompting action within the corridors of power.
|During the first 18 days of demonstrations after Stockley was acquitted , police arrested at least 307 people [ Lawrence Bryant/Reuters]|
Community members are demanding more civilian oversight over police, a demilitarisation of policing in their communities and accountability for officers who carry out violent acts.
On Saturday, protesters marked seven weeks of unrest when they showed up to demonstrate at a St Louis Halloween party in the city’s Central West End area.
On Tuesday, dozens of community members rallied outside the Mayor Lyda Krewson’s home for at least the third protest outside the city leader’s home.
On Thursday, faith leaders issued a call for an economic boycott of local stores in the city.
“We are going to continue even through the holidays… making sure we’re at malls and asking our people not to spend money,” Stancil explains. “If you kill our kids, we will kill your pockets.”
He adds: “It’s a large economic hardship for the city, but that seems to be the only language they understand. If that’s the only language they understand, then that’s the language we’ll speak.”
As the protest movement grows and police respond with mass arrests, St Louis, Missouri has become the epicentre of the African American struggle for civil rights and equity.
“St Louis is the new Selma,” argues Stancil, referring to the Alabama town that became a crucial hub for the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
The forceful police response has elicited widespread criticism from human rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Missouri.
The civil rights group has filed a class-action lawsuit against the SLMPD on behalf of several protesters, and many others have employed private attorneys to file civil suits against the department, according to the local River Front Times daily paper.
“I think everyone deserves the same rights as I do. I just want peace and justice,” said Maleeha Ahmad, a plaintiff in the ACLU of Missouri suit. Ahmad alleges police officers pepper sprayed her without warning during a rally on September 15.
“If it hadn’t been for my fellow peaceful protesters – strangers who came to my aid – I don’t know how my eyesight would be today. I would have been left out in the sun, on the ground, with my face burning.”
During the first 18 days of demonstrations after Stockley walked free, police arrested at least 307 people during protests, spokeswoman Schron Jackson told Al Jazeera.
Jackson declined to address allegations of indiscriminate force and arrests, explaining that the police department cannot comment on pending claims and litigation.
Following reports that police had arrested undercover officers in its sweep during the September 17 protest, Mayor Krewson called for an investigation, calling the allegations “disturbing”, according to the St Louis dispatch.
She later said in a statment that “all complaints of misconduct [by police] that have been made are being reviewed by the police department’s internal affairs division”.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says at least 10 reporters have been among those arrested throughout the unrest.
|At least 10 journalists have been arrested during the month and a half protests in St Louis [Jeff Robinson/AP Photo]|
St Louis has a long history of significance in the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement.
In 2014, protests erupted after an officer killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, in the northern St Louis suburb of Ferguson. Despite widespread anger, the officer was never charged with a crime.
‘Green light for police brutality’
Earlier this year, right-wing US President Donald Trump ostensibly urged police officers to engage in brutality against suspects and arrestees.
Speaking to an audience of police officers, Trump encouraged hitting suspects’ heads on the door of police cars while putting them in the backseat.
“When you see these towns and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough, and I said, ‘Please don’t be too nice,'” Trump declared.
“Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over, like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody, don’t hit their head, I said, ‘You can take the hand away, okay?'”
The officers responded with applause and cheers.
“For years and years, [laws have] been made to protect the criminal,” Trump continued. “Totally protect the criminal, not the officers. You do something wrong, you’re in more jeopardy than they are. These laws are stacked against you. We’re changing those laws.”
|Faith and civic leaders have vowed to continue their protests in St Louis [Jeff Roberson/AP Photos]|
Jose Woss, a legislative manager at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, described Trump’s comments as a green light for police brutality against the backdrop of increasing militarisation of police forces.
“It is tough to sound hyperbolic these days, but this is part and parcel to the conversations we have around white supremacy,” Woss tells Al Jazeera.
“We seem to still see – at least in large swaths of society – anyone who has committed a mistake as deserving violence, and Trump’s comments are indicative of that.”
In August, Trump rolled back restrictions on the transfer of military-grade weapons to US police departments. First implemented by the previous administration of President Barack Obama, those restrictions came in response to unrest over the killing over Michael Brown in 2014 in Ferguson.
Less than three years after the country was gripped by images of heavily-armed police storming neighbourhoods in the St Louis suburb, Trump lifted the Obama-era restrictions on sending certain types of surplus military equipment to police departments.
While the transfer of military equipment to US police has historically enjoyed the support of Democrats and Republicans alike, Woss explains that the Trump administration has “boosted it into overdrive”.
“This is really a bipartisan issue,” he says. “We except violence as typical of American society, whether it’s militarisation abroad or militarisation of our police at home… because it’s not in white people’s backyards.”
‘Killing our kids’
Back in St Louis, however, civil society groups and demonstrators plan to continue fighting police brutality.
With policing practices changing little on the ground, ample cause for anger persists in communities of colour in the city.
On September 23, Karla Frye, a 56-year-old ordained minister and head of the Community Women Against Hardship charity, was one of 22 people arrested at the St Louis Galleria shopping mall, according to local media reports.
Frye was charged with felony assault on a law enforcement officer for attempting to intervene when officers arrested her 13-year-old grandson.
Photos of officers treating the pair roughly and choking Frye subsequently went viral on social media and sparked widespread anger.
For his part, Reverend Stancil hopes that protests continue until systematic racism is dismantled in communities of colour in St Louis and beyond.
“Too many of us, as African Americans, are afraid that our children are not going to come home at night if they have any encounter with the police,” Stancil says.
“In America, we should not live that fear that our children are not going to come home just because they have an encounter with the police,” he adds.
“We are hoping that St Louis will bring attention to the rest of the nation, so we can sit down and have some dialogue about policing in America and the effects that policing has on a community.”