Thousands of people marched throughout the St. Louis region from Thursday, May 28 through Monday, June 1 to protest police brutality and the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Many carried signs with messages such as “Black Lives Matter” and simply “George Floyd.” They chanted slogans familiar from Ferguson and Stockley verdict protests: “Whose streets? Our streets” and “No justice, no peace, no racist police!”
Masks, a common sight at former protests, now had another protective function, as many protestors followed public health guidelines and wore protective masks. St. Louis has only started to lifted public-health orders to control the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If we gonna have to be in the streets during COVID, then we’re going to be in the streets,” Kayla Reed, executive director of Action St. Louis and a Ferguson protestor, told the crowd in downtown St. Louis on June 1. “During a pandemic, nobody should have their knee on any of our necks. There’s not enough respirators.”
Many of the protests were organized by a collective called “Expect Us,” which includes Action St. Louis, Metropolitan Congregations United, Missouri Faith Voices, St. Louis Action Council, St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition and others.
New, young organizers also emerged. A young woman named Clara Holmes organized one of the first actions on May 28. She was moved to action by the senseless killing of Floyd and “all the families who lost a loved one due to police brutality,” including her own.
“I lost a nephew that was killed by the police after Mike Brown,” Holmes said. “We just want those people to stop killing us, especially on unnecessary crimes going on with the police brutality. Really, stop.”
A pattern familiar from Ferguson and Stockley verdict protests was repeated. Principled, organized, disruptive but non-violent actions would end in the evening. Younger activists then stayed in the street with a diverse mix of people whose motives also were mixed. The anger at the police boiled up and sometimes boiled over.
A young organizer who identified himself as Kenny tried to harness that anger on June 1 as night fell in downtown St. Louis.
“We need to plan, let’s not let this fizzle out,” Kenny said. “We are not prepared to face the police head-on. That’s the last thing we need. We need to stay cohesive to one plan.”
A young woman protestor who did not give her name joined Kenny at the makeshift podium. She spoke to both the diversity in the crowd and the awareness that some white protestors might present themselves as Black Lives Matter “allies” but have their own agenda.
“It’s a lot of white folks in the crowd,” the young woman said. “You’ve got to understand and respect your place in this war. Some of you think it’s Hunger Games. Do not come up in here trying to start your own struggle.”
There is sensitivity among the new, young organizers to be identified by name. A number of Ferguson protest leaders have lost their lives since 2014. Two St. Louis protestors, including the veteran Ferguson protestor Mike Avery, had just been charged with crossing state lines to incite a riot after livestreaming their road trip to join protests in Minneapolis.
Efforts to control the crowd’s anger – and to defuse those trying to start their own struggle or disrupt the movement from within – failed on June 1 in particular. There was widespread looting and arson. Four police officers were shot while working the protest; all have recovered. One retired black police captain, David Dorn, was killed while responding to a looting. “He was the type of brother that would’ve given his life to save them if he had to,” the Ethical Society of Police said of Dorn.
Dorn’s murder remains unsolved but St. Louis reported making 36 arrests between May 31 and June 1.
That next morning, the Rev. Darryl Gray, one of the Expect Us organizers and a longtime civil rights activist, said the police should be asked who is firing weapons and committing destruction at protests after the organized non-violent actions conclude.
“They have infiltrated our organizations, so they ought to know who is responsible,” Gray said outside St. Louis City Hall on Tuesday, June 2.
Gray spoke with Bishop Elijah H. Hankerson III, president of the Clergy Coalition, and state Rep. Rasheen Aldridge (D-St. Louis), also a protest organizer. They shared a united message: there are organized, non-violent protests and disorganized acts of violence.
“There is a push for justice, and then there is a criminal element,” Hankerson said. “They are two different elements altogether. Others would like to hijack this movement, which is a valid movement. What happened to George Floyd — that was a murder. We don’t want anyone hiding behind our movement. Because once it’s hijacked, people will try to make the whole thing out to be invalid.”
Aldridge said he understands the pain and anger that could drive someone to violence and destruction against this system — but he does not condone it and knows of no one organizing or committing violent or destructive acts. Aldridge emphasized “the long haul,” the use of disruptive protests as a long-term strategy to force change in a system that has been extremely resistant to change.
The Expect Us coalition agreed to take Tuesday as a day for self-care. As they spoke, Mayor Lyda Krewson and police leadership were at police headquarters announcing a 9 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew for the city, though news had not yet reached them. When asked about the possibility of a curfew, Aldridge said, “A curfew would be like kettling people. People won’t abide by it. Then the police will pick and choose who to arrest. It will only make it worse.”
But on June 2, the curfew was largely obeyed. There were no confrontations with police or mass kettling arrests, as many feared. But the protests will continue, organizers said.
“When will it stop?” Gray said. “When can I make that promise? When you can promise there will be no more killing of unarmed black people by the police. Don’t expect us to make a promise we can’t keep when you are making a promise that you can’t keep.”
As the young organizer Kenny addressed the young crowd on June 1 as night fell, before the chaos, “This is your movement. This is your power we must show. Because if we don’t do it now, they will never stop killing us.”
Meanwhile, the 9 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew remains in effect until further notice. The exceptions are people who are traveling directly to and from work or to their homes lawfully; city, state, and federal employees performing work assignments; news media with credentials; those traveling for medical treatment or assisting those traveling for medical treatment; and those who have no housing.
Asked what directions the police had been given to determine who meets these exceptions and who is subject to arrest during the hours of curfew, a police spokesman said they would “be handled on a case-by-case basis.”
Ashley Jones is a summer editorial intern supported by the Emma Bowen Foundation and the Democracy Fund.