This preface shouldn’t even be necessary, but I’m not prejudiced.
I’m not a racist.
And frankly, I’ve never been a big fan of cops either.
But this column isn’t about me, my opinions, or where I lean on the political spectrum (liberal).
This column isn’t about me, it’s about St. Louis, Missouri.
I’ve probably been there more than any city outside of Chicago. As a graduate of the University of Missouri (an hour and a half from the city), St. Louis has become something of a second home to me.
The majority of my friends from college were born there, and the majority of those friends now live there. I only say this because my basic knowledge of St. Louis is far better than most outsiders. And that relationship, more than anything, is what drew me to this story.
Objectively, like it or not, the civil rights showdown in St. Louis has been brutally misread by the mainstream media. While it’s true that racism and racist police still clearly exist in St. Louis, the contradictions behind this movement have become apparent.
Because when facts are ignored, the validity of any protest would seem debatable.The movement started on Saturday, August 9th when a white police officer (later identified as Darren Wilson) shot and killed an unarmed, black 18-year-old. The teenager’s name was Michael Brown.
The day after his death, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar reported there was a struggle for the officer’s weapon before Brown was shot and killed.
The struggle began when one of the men pushed the officer back into his squad car. According to Belmar, at least one shot was fired from the officer’s gun inside of the police car. Despite this shred of evidence that might otherwise retract Brown’s innocence, the anti-police hostility continued to escalate.
Michael Brown’s death sparked one of the most heated outcries for racial equality since the Civil Rights Movement. For a week and a half – protests, riots and even downright anarchy swept through North St. Louis County.
Dozens of businesses were looted. A QuikTrip was burnt to the ground. And over the course of several weeks – countless civilians, protestors and even journalists were arrested.
Governor Jay Nixon issued a State of Emergency, and was forced to implement a curfew in Ferguson. On top of that, the FBI opened an investigation concerning possible civil rights violations by the St. Louis County Police Department.
During the chaotic month of August, St. Louis saw a thirty percent increase in homicides from one year ago. Although they have a fraction of the population, the city’s homicide total for 2014 is eerily close in comparison to major U.S. cities like New York City and Los Angeles.
Just when it seemed like the violent tone of this movement had subdued, another black teenager was killed by a police officer.
Last Wednesday, an unnamed, off-duty police officer decided to make a ‘citizen check’ on three black teenagers. According to the report, one of the black teenagers was ‘lifting up his pants’ in a way that suggested (to the police officer) he was carrying a gun.
When the officer approached the group, two of the teenagers fled. And when they did, a physical altercation occurred between the officer and the third teenager, Vonderrit Myers Jr.
According to the police report, Myers ran up a hill after the altercation and proceeded to fire at the officer three times before his gun jammed. The officer, still unnamed, then proceeded to fire 17 times at Myers – killing him on the spot.
Shortly after, rumors argued that Myers was merely holding a sandwich at the time of his death. While that’s true, forensic evidence proved that he was also carrying a gun. Furthermore, they proved it was the same gun used to shoot at the police officer.
“In the Vonderrit Myers Jr. shooting, there couldn’t have been a cleaner shoot. But because of Michael Brown, rumors started spreading like wildfire – and really none of it was reliable info,” State Representative Jeff Roorda told me. “Tweeters have become the Mrs. O’Leary’s cow of the situation.”
Jeff Roorda is the Business Manager of the St. Louis Police Officer’s Association. He also serves as the State Representative for Jefferson County, and is currently campaigning for a seat in the Missouri State Senate’s 22nd District. As he made very clear, the anti-police mindset portrayed by the protests don’t reflect the entire city’s perspective. Not even close.
“Being a police officer is a tough thing to do,” Roorda told me. “I think this culture of resentment and distrust is confined to some of the worst areas of St. Louis, with some of the highest crime rates.”
Last weekend, I drive down to St. Louis to observe the “Weekend of Resistance” protests. My first stop, of course, would be Ferguson.
Before heading there, I had lunch with prosecuting attorney Ethan Corlija about one mile from the death site of Michael Brown.
“Up until now, Ferguson was a pretty darn good area,” Corlija told me as he relit his stogie. “Now, people are going to equate it with some place like Harlem or the rough side of L.A.“
Corlija is a prosecuting attorney in Jennings, the town next door to Ferguson. He’s a well-respected criminal defense attorney in the area, known among many for defending child abductor Michael Devlin in the famous Sean Hornbeck abduction.
“It’s as bad as I’ve ever seen it,” Corjila told me. “Right now, young people have a hard time finding jobs, they have little education, and they get easily affiliated with gangs. Now they now feel like they’ve been victimized by police and feel like they need to get even.”
At first glance, Ferguson resembled a beach-town that had just survived hurricane season. Tents were set up at occasional street corners, selling t-shirts or other merchandise in support of the resistance. I drove up and down each block, scratching my head at the prevalence of broken windows and boarded up storefronts.
If the protests, and riots, were intended to improve the community – one drive through Ferguson would show you they did quite the opposite.
Later that day, my friend Adam – a second year law student – took me to Barney’s Sport Pub in Lindenwood Park. You might have read about Barney’s when it made national news for selling t-shirts in support of Darren Wilson, the officer that shot and killed Michael Brown.
When we asked the bartender about the anti-opposition t-shirts, he told us they were sold out. But as we’d learn later, the second shipment had been sent back to the manufacturer.
Because they hadn’t run out, they just decided to stop selling them.
After visiting Barney’s, I met some friends at Mike Shannon’s for Game 1 of the NLCS.
Shortly after I arrived, I checked my Twitter for any updates on the night’s ensuing protests. When I did, I learned that crowds had been gathering in front of the Ferguson Police Department. I chugged my Budweiser, grabbed my camera and hailed a cab.
While waiting on the street corner to flag one down, I saw two cops sitting in their SUV with the doors open. Curious, I walked over and began talking with them.
The officer in the passenger seat was white, and the officer in the driver’s seat was black. At first, they were happy to speak with me. But the minute I said I was a journalist from Chicago, here to cover the protests, their entire attitude towards me changed.
In the blink of an eye, I could tell they resented me.
I told them I was about to head to the Ferguson protests, and asked if they heard what was going on.
“I can only imagine,” the one officer retorted.
I soon realized that these cops already had enough of me. And in an effort not to pester the people who could throw me in handcuffs, I began to walk away.
In doing so, the white officer began spouting off to me.
“We had two officers shot and killed by criminals this year, and now our guys are getting called criminals for doing their job,” the officer professed from left field. “The media is coming down here to cover this thing, but nobody knows what the fuck is actually going on.”
Not really sure whether the officer was upset with me, or just media in general, I kindly thanked him for his thoughts and walked away as fast as I could. A few minutes later, I finally caught a cab and made my way to the Ferguson Police Station.
My taxi driver’s name was Muhammad. When I told him where I was going, he agreed, but kept silent for the next five minutes. Then, out of nowhere, he began ranting at me as well.
For twenty minutes, Muhammad told me about some of his friends in Ferguson. He talked about how some of them owned stores in the area, and how most of them will have to relocate their businesses or close them down. If their shop hadn’t been looted, the store next to them had been.
And because of the ensuing indictment decision for Darren Wilson, many business owners fear that the destructive rioting could continue.
Muhammad isn’t a white guy from the suburbs, nor is he a black teenager from Ferguson. He was a Middle-Eastern man, elderly in age and seemingly rich with wisdom. Muhammad wasn’t angry, and he certainly wasn’t prejudiced.
He was just confused.
Although Muhammad is technically a minority, his opinion on the protests were that of the city’s majority. His concerns are no different than so many others across the area, and his biggest question of all was certainly validated: do the ends justify the means?
I said goodbye to Muhammad, and started walking towards the police station. As I got closer, echoes of “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” pierced through the empty street in front of me.
A large crowd was gathered in front of the police station, with a flank of armed officers bordering the entrance. Waves of bystanders gathered in the parking lot across the street, observing the protests from afar.
On one side of the parking lot, two reporters from FOX News packed up their gear for the night. On the other side, clouds of thick smoke billowed out from the back windows of an SUV.
As the decision to indict Darren Wilson waits to be heard, the family of Michael Brown and other civil rights activists in St. Louis are calling for the resignation of the man assigned to the case, St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch.
But this request is not only harebrained, it’s hypocritical.
“I’ve known Bob (Robert) for a long time,” Ethan Corlija told me. “He’ll look at a case and defend it fairly. People think he’s prejudiced because his dad was shot by a black suspect. But it’s only because that was his dad…you don’t have to be prejudiced to hate the man that killed your father.”
Robert McCulloch has been the county’s top prosecutor since 1991, and was easily re-elected five times. Not to mention, he hired an African-American prosecutor to present the case to the grand jury.
As Corlija put it for me plainly, “He’s the guy you want for the job.”
While the headlines might suggest Wilson should be indicted, most of the people I’ve spoken with seem to think otherwise. And if that’s the case, these protests will only get more violently complex.
“I don’t have all the facts, but my gut instinct is that there won’t be an indictment,” Corlija told me. “And if that happens, it’s gonna be a really, really bad situation.”
In any sensitive argument, the truth just shouldn’t be ignored.
Michael Brown and Vonderrit Myers Jr. threatened the lives of two police officers. Michael Brown committed a criminal act, and Vonderrit Myers Jr. committed a criminal act. Both of them were involved in an altercation with the police, and both teenagers tragically lost their life because of it.
This conflict isn’t rocket-science. More crime sparks more policing, and more policing sparks more resentment towards police.
This formula, along with the prowess of social media, is seemingly what gave these Ferguson protests a life of their own over the last two months.
On the way home from St. Louis on Sunday, I began asking myself some tough questions. Or perhaps, just the questions nobody has asked yet.
If there is crystal-clear evidence that proves both Michael Brown and Vonderrit Myers Jr. are guilty of assaulting police officers, why are these deaths being mourned as if it was by murder?
By remembering their deaths, without acknowledging the facts behind them, aren’t these protests excusing crime and violence – as opposed to ending it?
And finally, if activists are calling for the resignation of Robert McCulloch solely on the basis of his background – isn’t that technically racism as well?
The excessive force used by the two police officers (especially in the shooting of Vonderrit Myers Jr.) was way over-the-top. And for that reason, the issue of race is relevant. But we mustn’t ignore the fact that these two teenagers weren’t innocent.
The fight against racism is essential for our country to grow. And until equality is accomplished, the battle for it should never end.
That said, the recent demonstrations in St. Louis don’t seem to be putting an end to prejudice, and they certainly don’t seem to be appeasing violence.
If anything, these protests seem to be doing quite the opposite.
Photos by Keegan Goudie
St. Louis Map by Eric Fisher
Contributions from Adam Notch
This post was modified at 9:33am on Friday, October 17th.