Missouri police will accommodate the constitutional right to protest for a mostly white group complaining about sports. Protests in protection of Black life, however, yield different results.
Expect Us, a St. Louis activist group fronted by Black politicians, clergy and grassroots organizers, has held several recent protests. Their focus is, as state legislator and activist state Rep. Rasheen Aldridge puts it, “criminal justice reform, not rhetoric.”
In St. Louis, Expect Us led hundreds to Mayor Lyda Krewson’s home after she doxxed activists online. As the group marched, a pair of wealthy white Republicans accosted them with guns. Weeks later, nine of those hundreds were issued a summons for trespassing. Among the nine was Ohun Ashe, a Black woman and Expect Us organizer.
In Jefferson City, Expect Us marched to the Governor’s Mansion over Republican-led legislation that would’ve allowed 12-year-olds to be tried as adults. Police issued dispersal orders within minutes. As protesters laid down in the street, police moved on them. Arrests were made, Ashe among them.
On September 13, Expect Us returned to St. Charles, a predominately white St. Louis exurb. They had marched for Black lives there before. Ashe had been arrested in protest there before.
The young Elijah Foggy recited a poem he’d written to begin the event. Veteran activist Reverend Darryl Gray asked the crowd to clap rhythmically, and everyone danced in place.
Ashe spoke of the death threats she and others have received. She warned the group of the dangers involved in fighting for justice in America, before thanking them for their participation.
“I love y’all so much,” Ashe said.
Organizers ultimately led roughly 50–75 protesters to the St. Charles Police Department and Municipal Court. They marched. They briefly blocked traffic. They chanted about justice.
They were met by a police force that included a helicopter, three motorcycles, a dozen SUVs, two armored SWAT vehicles, approximately 100 officers clad in riot gear, and what appeared to be a large drone.
As the police presence increased, the group of protesters began to thin – as did the weight of the 1st amendment in St. Charles, Missouri.
A few protesters used red paint to leave hand prints on the pavement. Some hand prints were painted onto the building’s sign. That appeared to be the tipping point for police. Moments later, SWAT rolled in.
“Why are you in riot gear? I don’t see no riot here!” protesters chanted.
Police burst out of the building, shoving a man back several feet. Ashe emerged, grabbed his shirt, and pulled him away from police who were ordering him to back up.
In stepping forward, Ashe put herself at risk to de-escalate.
Police declared the assembly “unlawful.” Rows of militarized officers cosplaying as Navy SEALs lined up. Rev. Gray led the chant: “de-escalate.”
A SWAT loudspeaker threatened the nonviolent group with warning of a “use of force which may result in serious injury.” Rev. Gray cautioned protesters, “As you leave out, don’t leave out alone.”
As SWAT threatened to deploy “chemical agents” and officers trailed protesters who were rushing to their cars, Rev. Gray pleaded, “Why are you chasing us?”
Several protesters were arrested before the event was over, Ohun Ashe among them. Video recorded by Ashe shows her arrest. “Get in the car or you go to jail, you understand?” an officer said. Less than a second later he tells her, “OK, you’re under arrest.”
Ashe sat down in the back seat. “We’re trying to make sure our people are safe, because y’all won’t,” she told the officer.
“She’s gotta come out,” he said to another officer. Ashe was removed from the vehicle she was attempting to leave in and arrested for failure to disperse.
“You know we can’t leave now, right?” Rev. Gray said. “She’s with us.”
The officer told the car’s occupants that Ashe will be “booked and released in just a few minutes.”
“The officer doesn’t even finish his sentence nor give me a chance to respond before arresting me,” Ashe tweeted after being released three hours later. “This is police terror.”
A few miles away, at roughly the same time, there was unrest near the home of St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page. Hundreds gathered there to express their outrage.
In an effort to contain COVID-19, which had killed 780 of his constituents as of September 18, Page issued a prohibition on some high-contact teen sports.
Parents and some high school athletes took to the streets. Fox 2 reported the presence of signs indicating Page lives on a “private street,” which police blocked off ahead of the protest.
The mostly white group, driven by their passion for amateur football, were not deterred. “Sam Page has got to go!” they chanted.
Some protesters carried signs reading, “Let them play.” Others carried campaign signs for the Republican running a long-shot campaign to unseat Page.
St. Louis County Police said they did not show up. “We were not involved in any police response to Dr. Page’s residence,” a Media Relations officer said in an email.
Municipal police from Creve Coeur, the 74% white suburb in which Page lives, responded instead. They did not wear riot helmets. They did not hold batons or shields. No dispersal orders were given. Use of force and chemical agents were not threatened. No arrests were made.
“We will continue to follow the advice of our medical experts and public health experts,” Page said in a video statement on September 14.
Page’s subtle rebuke of the protests outside his home may ruffle a few upper-middle-class feathers, but it’s unlikely to create a need for the PTSD treatment that often comes with violent arrests.
The failure of the teen sports advocacy group may have bruised some conservative egos. But that doesn’t hurt in the way Ashe’s bruised wrists hurt from police zip ties.
The Kirkwood and Webster Groves football teams, who carry a historic rivalry, may not get to play this year. But the police will continue to kill, intimidate, and harass Black Americans.
And so, the people will protest. Some will fight to protect Black lives. Some will fight for the commencement of junior varsity basketball during a pandemic.
The police will continue to violently terrorize the movement for Black lives. They will also continue to facilitate and protect the movement for suburban gridiron vicariousness.
Sensationalized TV reports will characterize one group as a dangerous mob, and the other as a rally. Social media feeds will focus on dramatic arrest photos, ignoring the cause of the protests.
Expect Us will be criticized for gathering at a mayor’s home. Let Them Play will be celebrated for taking their complaints to the county executive’s house.
The hypocrisies woven into the deeply bigoted American culture exist by design. They were written into our Declaration of Independence. They have been repeatedly codified into law. They are taught in our classrooms, and broadcast on our TV screens.
We have always known these contradictions; always seen them. It is past time we destroy them, and begin the work of eradicating hate.
With photos published by TIME, The Guardian, NBC News, and many more, James Cooper’s award-winning photos of national and international news stories have been viewed by millions of people across the globe.