If you watched the response by City officials to the recent uprising in the City’s downtown jail and felt a sinking sense of déjà vu, it’s because we’ve been here before.
In 2014, when Michael Brown, Jr.’s life was snuffed out by Darren Wilson following a stop for “manner of walking,” countless local, state, and federal officials, reporters, and members of the general public were shocked to learn about the level of over-policing and economic extraction happening routinely in towns like Ferguson across the region. Many have noted that this shock could have been mitigated by simply listening to the people subjected to these hellish abuses every day. Anyone who grew up Black and traveling by car throughout St. Louis knew well the web of speed traps and danger zones, as well as the inevitable indignities that too often followed by local police and courts.
Here we are again, this time following a visible uprising in the City Justice Center (CJC), one of two St. Louis City jails.
We, collectively, have a listening problem. Consider the sequence of events.
On December 29, several local outlets reported a “disturbance” in CJC, resulting in 56 detainees being relocated to the Workhouse. The Mayor’s spokesman said that he did not know what prompted the disturbance, but framed the issue as an internal conflict, saying that there had been an ongoing rift between some of the detainees.
Two days later, on January 1, a second “disruption.” This time, President of the Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed weighed in. Overcrowding, he said, was to blame, and the extra space in the Workhouse had saved the day. It was an odd claim, since the CJC population just a few days before the first disturbance was at its lowest level since September. But anything for Reed to justify the very public, and very shameful, abandonment of his earlier commitment to close the Workhouse in 2020.
The most recent incident, on February 6, was also the most public. Images of detainees standing in front of busted-out windows with signs reading “Free 57” and “What about Anthony Smith” spread across news networks and social media in a matter of hours. Commentators upgraded the characterization from “disturbance” or “disruption” to “protest” or “riot.” Despite Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards insisting that there were “no demands,” there was, suddenly, a universal desire to know what had happened, and why.
But why did it take this level of uprising?
In the days surrounding the December and January protests (which is what they, in fact, were), the jail hotline at ArchCity Defenders was more active than it had been in months. We set up the hotline in the early days of the pandemic because we were concerned that the lack of transparency surrounding local jails would result in detainees being neglected and put at life-threatening risk. We began to hear tragically consistent narratives: lack of COVID precautions and isolation of those who tested positive or had symptoms; low-quality, unhealthy food; extremely cold temperatures; and a culture of retaliation and mistreatment, especially for those who complained.
The disturbances that had been reported were not random acts or conflicts between detainees, people told us repeatedly, but an act of resistance to these conditions. Others—including EXPO, the Organization for Black Struggle, Close the Workhouse campaign partners, and public defenders—heard, and shared, the same. Together, we urged the media to dig further, released statements, shared direct quotes from impacted voices, and published audio of accounts from inside the jail. At ArchCity Defenders, the growing desperation was so clear to us that we scheduled a virtual event titled “The Crisis in St. Louis Jails” more than two weeks before the February uprising
The point is not that we were soothsayers or psychics; I assure you we were not. The point is that these folks, condemned to our jails in a system of brutal and inhumane pretrial incarceration, told us all that we needed to know. And the problem is that very few cared to listen to them, far less to believe what they had to say.
Even now, the central argument of City officials in the hot-seat boils down to "You can’t believe these criminals."
Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards tried to close the conversation by insisting that these were “very angry, defiant, violent people” whose actions could not be explained or understood.
Mayor Lyda Krewson pointed to “different agendas” as the reason for conflicting accounts between detainees and City officials, and maintained “[W]e are doing a good job here…”
And alas, to prove just how great things are going, the mayor has gifted us a task force. However sincere some of this task force’s members may be, the group’s degree of authority and expectations of transparency are, as of yet, unclear and unstated. And yet, the administration promises that this is how we will get “the truth.”
The irony is that those whose credibility should be most in question are these very officials. The inconsistencies are truly dizzying. We have zero COVID cases at CJC. We have three COVID cases at CJC. Broken cell locks were discovered in December. Broken cell locks have been known for over a year. People are housed at CJC because they are the most dangerous offenders. We have relocated people to the Workhouse because it is a more secure facility. We don’t know the reason for the earlier protest. The reason given for the earlier protest was COVID.
All of that was just in the span of a few days. How’s the task force gonna fix that?
But the truth is it doesn’t matter what any of these people say, because it’s not actually about these people. It’s about all of us. It’s about our own unwillingness to believe the people who have been thrown away. It’s about our own apologist tendencies for stark injustice and human suffering, manifest in our unquestioning validation of powerful people with titles before their names.
So, the Mayor will keep deflecting and buying time. The Public Safety Director will keep contradicting and obfuscating. And the President of the Board will keep lobbying for the Workhouse.
We have, indeed, been here before. And we will be here again if we don’t start listening to a different set of voices and believing what they tell us.
Blake Strode is executive director of ArchCity Defenders.