When protesters yell, “Whose streets? Our streets,” on behalf of immigrants, or in opposition to police brutality, it means that our cities — and in an even larger way, the public space of the public square — belong to all of us.
But when St. Louis police in riot gear chant the same thing, it’s meant to menace, to exclude. And not implausibly, to exult in the acquittal of Jason Stockley, the white former cop who shot and killed a 24-year-old black motorist, Anthony Lamar Smith, in 2011.
The perception that it’s cops and not those they serve who do own the streets and the whole criminal justice system is why demonstrators are out marching in the first place.
And that even a handful of officers would treat a mass arrest like a World Series win suggests that some still don’t understand that.
Their outburst is especially disappointing just a few miles from Ferguson, where a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown three years ago. And in Missouri, where the recent NAACP travel advisory says people of color should travel cautiously. Given that history, police in our state have a special responsibility to wield their considerable power with calm and care.
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Instead, late Sunday night, St. Louis police reportedly roughed up and rounded up not just protesters who wouldn’t disperse but bystanders, including at least one journalist, who were hemmed in and couldn’t leave. Then some officers apparently needed to rub that in, too, twice chanting the taunt, “Whose streets? Our streets.” The next day, interim police chief Lawrence O’Toole only reinforced that triumphalist message, saying “the police owned tonight. We’re in control. This is our city and we’re going to protect it.” Police do not, however, own either the night or St. Louis, and O’Toole’s declaration that “This is our city,” turned another such evocation on its head.
He echoed some of the words that Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz used in the wake of the 2013 Marathon bombings: “All right, Boston,” he said at the first game after the attack. “This jersey that we wear today, it doesn’t say ‘Red Sox.’ It says ‘Boston.’...This is our f------- city. And nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”
Big Papi’s “This is our...city” was so moving because it celebrated the strength of the whole, whereas O’Toole’s “This is our city,” was so maddening because it meant “and it’s not yours.”
There’s no justifying the vandalism carried out by those whom protest organizers described as outside agitators. But in St. Louis — and in Kansas City and beyond — the police and the public should at least try to understand the anger that has followed last Friday’s announcement that Stockley had been found not guilty of murder in the death of Smith, who’d sped away as Stockley tried to arrest him on drug charges.
The judge called dashcam video of the officer vowing “to kill this mother----er” too ambiguous to prove anything. He wasn’t convinced by the fact that Stockley’s DNA was on the gun that prosecutors said he’d planted on Smith. Or by the fact that Smith’s DNA was not on it.
Still, on Monday, peaceful protesters chanted, “We will win together.” And yes, that’s the only way we ever will.