Barricades

On Tuesday, August 29, St. Louis police erected barricades around court buildings downtown and police headquarters after protesters entered a courtroom the day before. Tensions are high as a verdict is anticipated in the murder trial of former Police Officer Jason Stockley.

The family of Anthony Lamar Smith, activists and clergy stood on the Carnahan Courthouse steps on Monday, August 28 to question why it is taking so long to hear a verdict in the murder trial of Jason Stockley.

Stockley, then a St. Louis city police officer who is white, is accused of first-degree murder in the 2011 killing of Smith, a 24-year-old black St. Louis resident. His trial ended on August 18, and Stockley waived his right to a jury trial. The verdict will come from St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson.

“The evidence is overwhelming,” said Niecey Smith, Anthony Lamar’s mother, in a statement. “It should be enough to get justice for my family. We have waited over five years to see my son’s killer convicted. Stockley should get life without parole, just like my son would have gotten if he had murdered a police officer.”

Ferguson activists and several prominent black clergy members surrounded the family and promised to stay united in their response to a potential not-guilty verdict.

“There is nothing we have seen in the last three years that allows us to believe that the system will give this family justice,” said Ferguson protestor Tory Russell. “And we are fully prepared to shut down the entire metro area to let this city and country know that this movement is definitely ready to take it up a notch.”

Russell promised 100 days of protest if the judge finds Stockley not guilty.

At the same time as the press conference, another group of about 20 activists entered Courtroom Three down the street at the municipal courts to stage a protest. They sang, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,” in the middle of a trial and handed a list of demands to reform the St. Louis justice system to a judge.

After the press conference, the group that had entered the courthouse and those at the Carnahan Courthouse met up on Market Street and sang again, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

The next day, waist-high metal barricades – the ones often used during parades – started going up in front of the courthouse and city police headquarters on Olive Street.

In a statement, the police department said that it has not received any information about when the verdict in the Stockley case will be announced. 

“Barricades have been placed at various locations that have been the site of recent protests or have planned protests later this week,” according to the statement. “Due to recent events around the country, we are being proactive in ensuring the safety of citizens.”

A spokesman for St. Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts said that the barricades are part of a plan that the police chief and sheriff came up with together to address potential protests. However, the sheriff did not know the barriers were going up on Tuesday.

On Tuesday night, protest organizers and clergy held a “mass meeting” to talk about police brutality and a potential response to a not-guilty verdict. A diverse group of 200 people were present at the beginning of the meeting, including some elected officials, and more came through the doors throughout the night.

Members of the media were informed of the meeting but asked to leave after the initial prayer. Sheriff Betts attended and prayed with the group, but he left at the same time as reporters.

However, Betts hung around outside to talk to anyone who had questions about the barricades – and the consequences for crossing them. Betts said that anyone who crosses the barricades during a protest will be arrested and locked up for more than just five hours. The jail time will be severe, he said.

“On the day of the protest, the courts are going to shut down,” Betts said. “The barriers are going to be closed. No one is going to be able to come and go. You won’t be able to come out and go over the barriers.”

Young Ferguson activist Cheyenne Green had plenty of questions for him – questions that many community members had been expressing after the barricades went up.

“Why is all of our money going towards barriers during protests?” Green asked Betts. “It’s not like we’re sitting there punching a cop or anything. What’s different this week?”

She explained that they’ve been peacefully protesting for the past few months.

“So when people come to rally and protest against injustice – or a not-guilty verdict, which we already know 100 percent that it will be – what’s so bad about that?” Green asked him.

“Nothing,” Betts said.

“So what is the point of making more conflict with police officers and government officials by already saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to intimidate you. Let’s put barricades up’?” Green said. “That’s where the conflict starts.”

Betts said that he’s been watching the recent protests across this country, and of course, he saw the burning buildings during Ferguson.

“I’m not going to allow the courthouse to get burned down,” Betts said. “You may not be the one to set the fire. And I’m not accusing you, but I’m going to protect those courts and keep whoever has those intentions from doing that.”

Ferguson protests were joined at times by local anarchists and out-of-town arsonists, who taught local youth how to make Molotov cocktails. More recent protests of President Trump, such as the one Sunday in Berkeley, were joined by groups of masked anti-fascists (Antifas) who acted aggressively.

Green asked if being arrested is the only thing that will happen if protestors cross the barriers.

“What else is there to do?” Betts asked.

“Taze, shoot, everything,” Green said.

Betts told her that wouldn’t happen, but Green has seen her share of law enforcement officers become “militarized” in an instant and was unconvinced, she said.

“I’m not following Trump,” Betts said. “I’m speaking on behalf of the 152 sheriff deputies that you’re going to face. They obey my orders.”

Betts said that everyone has a right to march and protest. 

“I’m sympathetic,” Betts said. “I was marching before you were born. I come out of Beaumont High School, 1971, walked out of high school protesting. Protesting isn’t nothing new to me. I marched for Trayvon and Rodney King.”

Green asked him about any other rules that people should follow other than not crossing the barricades. 

For his part, that’s all there is, he said.

“I’m going to be on this side of the barricade in front of the court,” Betts said. “What you do on that side, that’s between you and the police.”

Green challenged that Betts is placing his priority on “protecting buildings over bodies.” Betts said that many people in the mass meeting were like family to him, and he “ain’t going to let nothing happen to them.” But not all people in the crowds will have the same intentions they do, he said, and some are only interested in “tearing something up.”

“I believe he has good intentions,” Green told The American after finishing her conversation with Betts. “But he still doesn’t get the wrongness of property over people. To me, barricading is intimidating. They are coming off as aggressors.”

The American asked Mayor Lyda Krewson to comment on Green’s sentiment, and her spokesman said, “The mayor's office had nothing to do with the barricades.” 

However, the police chief reports to the director of public safety – who reports to the mayor. And St. Louis city owns the barricades.

Sophie Hurwitz contributed to this report.

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