Why some white St. Louis-area residents say protesters are hurting the fight against racism
People protesting daily against what they see as systemic police violence against African-Americans aren’t the only St. Louis-area residents who say they want to be heard.
Many white residents don’t support the protests. They can’t understand why demonstrators are pinning their protests to the not-guilty verdict for Jason Stockley, a white, former St. Louis police officer who shot and killed Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man, in 2011. Smith was 24.
Believes Stockley ‘was in fear for his life’
Jennifer Barfield, who lives in Maplewood, said she thinks the protesters' focus is flawed. But she said she shares the goal of combating racism.
“I think we're one of the most racist cities in the United States and I'm born and raised here,” Barfield said. “I've seen it."
Barfield, a 54-year-old IT security analyst, said she’s troubled by protesters' support of Smith, who in 2010 pled guilty to a drug distribution charge, and was convicted in 2006 on a charge of unlawful possession of a weapon. Police said they found a gun in Smith's vehicle the night he was killed. Only Stockley's DNA was on the weapon. Police also said there was heroin in Smith's car that night.
“To protest about that, to me, is not helping their cause,” Barfield said. “I have white friends my age who have children who have died from heroin overdoses. I can name three.”
Others, including 35-year-old computer programmer Valerie Ems of Barnhart share her concern.
“I’m a white person living in a white neighborhood, but to me, what I hear is that you’re rallying around a criminal,” Ems said.
Ems, whose husband is a police officer, said she read the 30-page verdict. As a layperson, not an attorney, she agrees with the judge's decision.
“I looked at all the evidence that they presented and the judge outlined it and I believe that Stockley had a period of time to make a split-second decision,” Ems said. “He decided to shoot because he was in fear for his life.”
But many fear the police
Protesters say they fear for their lives every time a police officer stops them — which is often — said Kevin Nevels, an African-American army veteran from Bellefontaine Neighbors who mentors more than a dozen children.
Nevels spoke at a town hall meeting last week that sought input about hiring a new St. Louis police chief. Former Chief Sam Dotson resigned in April and was replaced by interim Chief Larry O'Toole. This week, protesters called for O'Toole's removal after he made a statement that "police own tonight" after mass arrests on Sept. 24.
Nevels told those at the meeting about one incident in which police searched his body for drugs he says didn’t exist. He said an officer pulled down his pants and stuck his hand into Nevels' underwear, looking for crack.
“I had four of those kids with me when those police officers did that to me," Nevels said. "I was in tears. Because what do I say to them?"
Barfield and Ems and other white people interviewed who don’t back the protests, advocate more discussion. They want the clergy — black and white — to mediate between police and those who want to protest. But Nevels said he and other demonstrators are tired of doing things that don’t work.
“You can’t beat my community down and keep expecting me to keep holding prayer vigils and lighting candles and begging police to please stop,” Nevels said.
“Right, right,” the crowd said, in agreement.
No matter what, Nevels said, Smith didn’t deserve to die; he should have lived to have his day in court.
“To be charged and tried and convicted — if he was guilty,” Nevels said.
Details vs big picture?
How people view the protest depends on their personal experience, said Calvin Lai, an assistant professor in psychological and brain sciences at Washington University. Lai says it's understandable that someone like Nevels or his family would fear the police.
“But as for others, the experiences might be mostly positive,” Lai said. “Like they might see a police officer at a Starbucks every morning … while they’re getting their coffee and having a friendly chat.”
Lai said people who think the protests are misguided seem to be zeroing in on the details of the verdict and the judge's reasoning. Protesters are looking at a bigger picture of what they see as continual, excessive police force against African-Americans, he said.
Barfield said she sees both, but can’t get past the drug allegations against Smith.
“I completely agree; it is much bigger than that verdict,” Barfield said. “They’re protesting the systemic problems that they see but they're doing it on the heels of a verdict of a criminal, a heroin dealer.”
In Barfield's opinion, the continuation of these protests will only serve to alienate.
"All it's going to do is make people like me, mad," Barfield said. "And there's a lot of people like me."
‘Theater in the streets’
Many white people not only agree with the protests, they're actively participating in them.
Playwright Nancy Bell considers herself a white ally to the protest movement. When the demonstrations led to the cancellation of a project she led that was a year in the making, it only reinforced her belief that the protests are essential.
Bell's Shakespeare in the Streets play “Blow, Winds” was set to open at the St. Louis Public Library, Central Library, downtown, on Sept. 15 — the day of the Stockley verdict. She had been expecting several thousand people to attend the performance.
But Shakespeare Festival St. Louis canceled all three nights of the play after police said they might not be able to provide protection during the demonstrations.
“It was disappointing and disorienting and it makes me sad,” Bell said. “But it really is nothing compared to the sadness and anger I feel about the fact that so many people in this city and in this country can't have justice and can't have safety because they are black.”
Bell said “Blow, Winds,” her local take on “King Lear” was hopeful, focusing on redemption and healing.
“And this is not a time for that. This is a time for rage and grief,” Bell said. “So as disappointed as I am that the shows were canceled, I also think that the theater in the streets that needs to be happening is the protest that you are seeing every day and night.”
But the protests that moved through St. Louis left the set virtually untouched. When the weekend was over, expensive sound and light equipment left near the library steps was unharmed.
“We had some plastic chairs that were kicked over,” Bell said. “And then three or four people stayed behind and help me put them back up.”
Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL
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