As protests continue in St. Louis in response to the acquittal of a white St. Louis police officer charged with murdering a black suspect, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens on Thursday touted his response to the unrest while campaigning in Virginia for GOP gubernatorial hopeful Ed Gillespie.
Greitens, a first-term Republican governor, said Thursday that “everyone in Missouri has the right to freedom of speech and assembly, and those out peacefully protesting will be protected.”
But he quickly returned to the tough-on-crime rhetoric that marked his campaign for governor last year, arguing that his predecessor reacted poorly in 2014 when protests broke out in Ferguson, giving people “a safe place to loot and burn.”
Greitens said he’s made it clear that anyone who engages in violence or vandalism “is going to be arrested.”
“And you know what happened?” he said. “People appreciate that. We were not going to stand for lawlessness and violence.”
During the 2016 campaign, Greitens repeatedly declared that if he’d been governor instead of Democrat Jay Nixon, there could have been “peace by the second night” in Ferguson instead of weeks of unrest following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a police officer.
Yet protests in St. Louis have been taking place almost every day since the Sept. 15 not-guilty verdict in the first-degree murder trial of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley in the December 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith.
On Tuesday, 143 protesters were arrested after they blocked traffic on a busy highway near downtown St. Louis. Since the Stockley verdict, police have made 307 arrests. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that local police estimate overtime costs for officers responding to protests totaled $2.9 million between Sept. 15 and 25.
Meanwhile, protest leaders have criticized the governor for refusing to sit down and talk with protesters directly to hear their concerns, something Greitens slammed Nixon for failing to do in Ferguson.
Local police have been accused of using excessive force in dealing with protesters, who have largely remained nonviolent.
Greitens’ Virginia speech comes just days after his return from a weeklong trade mission to China and South Korea. He’ll be in Nebraska on Sunday at a fundraiser for Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and In Iowa later this month to attend a campaign event for Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds.