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Race, Identity & Faith

Black St. Louisans Didn't Miss How White Lives Mattered As Mob Stormed Capitol

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington. As Congress prepares to affirm President-elect Joe Biden's victory, thousands of people have gathered to show their support for President Donald Trump and his claims of election fraud.
Julio Cortez
/
AP
Supporters of President Trump try to break through a police barrier Wednesday at the Capitol in Washington. As Congress prepared to affirm President-elect Joe Biden's victory, thousands of people gathered to show their support for President Donald Trump and his claims of election fraud.

Sydney Alexander was glued to social media last week, watching a ceremonial fixture of the nation's democracy descend into a day of madness. As a largely white mob of insurrectionists forced its way into the U.S. Capitol, seeking to block lawmakers from certifying the election of President-elect Joe Biden, Alexander, who is Black, couldn't miss the obvious.

Apparently outnumbered and ill-prepared, the Capitol police offered little resistance as rioters overran them and carried symbols of white supremacy into the halls of Congress.

“It was incredible to see how white privilege works in real life, in real space in real time,” Alexander said. “If those were Black protesters, I feel like all Americans know what would happen.”

For Alexander and many others, the officers' treatment of violent white rioters was in stark contrast to the way police across the nation have treated those marching for Black lives. Under pressure from lawmakers and others over the failures that allowed the breach, the Capitol's three top security officials resigned from their posts a day after the insurrection.

A racist legacy

Alexander marched in the St. Louis area this past spring after a Minneapolis officer killed George Floyd and Louisville police killed Breonna Taylor. She remembers how police across the country used tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters. What she saw Wednesday reminded her of what Black people have known: The nation has a long history of criminalizing the Black fight for justice and tolerating white violence.

Rev. Traci Blackmon of Christ the King UCC reads a list of names of victims of violence on Saturday, October 18, 2014.
File photo / Camille Phillips / St. Louis Public Radio
The Rev. Traci Blackmon of Christ the King United Church of Christ reads the names of victims of violence at a march outside the St. Louis County Justice Center in 2014. Blackmon said she isn't surprised that U.S. Capital police exercised restraint when confronted by pro-Trump rioters last week and by how that contrasts sharply with the aggressive tactics of officers toward protesters for Black Lives.

People across the St. Louis area are still in shock after the events of last week, and not just at what occurred when the mob incited by President Donald Trump entered the Capitol.

For Black St. Louisans like the Rev. Traci Blackmon, the insurrection and how police handled it were reminders of the country’s racist history. She was particularly struck with how people stormed through the Capitol with Confederate battle flags. Blackmon and others were appalled by the sight. She couldn’t help but recall how she has been treated by officers during protests at the Capitol.

“I was arrested for praying, I wasn’t climbing buildings, I wasn’t breaking windows, I was praying out loud in the Rotunda,” said Blackmon, senior pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant. “All the times I have been protesting injustice, but doing so peacefully. I was arrested for refusing to leave and for using my voice in prayer.”

Police officers line up on Washington Ave. in downtown St. Louis on Sept. 28, 2018 as people protest against the Stockley verdict and against mass arrests during a protest the previous week.
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo / St. Louis Public Radio
Police officers line up on Washington Avenue in downtown St. Louis in 2017 as people protest a judge's decision to find former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley not guilty in the fatal shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith. Black St. Louisans say police are quick to use tough tactics on Black demonstrators but are tolerant of white extremists.

'I expected it'

Many directly compared how law enforcement responded to Black protesters less than a year ago.

“Anyone who was surprised that white people are treated differently than Black people in America is a part of the problem,” Blackmon said. “I expected it.”

The double standard of how police treated the mainly white mob in D.C. versus how black activists have been treated can be seen in St. Louis, Blackmon said. She and Ferguson activist Mildred Clines will never forget how at a 2014 protest in Berkeley, months after then-Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown Jr., police officers arrested Joshua Williams for stealing a pack of gum and money from a cash register and set a trash can on fire outside a gas station. Williams was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Joshua Williams is serving an eight-year prison sentence for actions during a 2014 protest in Berkeley.
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo / St. Louis Public Radio
Joshua Williams is serving an eight-year prison sentence at the Jefferson City Correctional Facility for actions during a 2014 protest in Berkeley.

“He lit a trash can on the outside of the QuikTrip in Berkeley,” Clines said. “These people broke down doors, broke windows, pulled stuff, just desecrated one of the most important symbols in our democracy. They need to be brought to justice.”

Some historians say such disparate treatment is a reminder of how some police forces in the U.S. originated as patrols looking for runaway slaves.

“Racist nationalism and policing have always been intertwined,” said Geoff Ward, a professor of African and African American studies at Washington University. “So while we're in a moment now of a kind of flare-up of this contradiction of our democratic proclamations, this has always been an American contradiction. The idea of equal protection under law, for example, has never been fully realized, and police have played a key role here, not only through their acts, but often, and I would argue even more often, through their inaction.”

St. Louis County resident Tammy Jones is familiar with that inaction. She said the Ku Klux Klan burned her grandfather’s house down in the 1950s in Copiah County, Mississippi.

“Nothing happened, nobody was prosecuted because my grandfather was the leader of the NAACP in his small town in Mississippi,” Jones said. “When you have no consequences to your actions, then of course, you feel entitlement to do what you want to do. And that's what it is, entitlement.”

Activists say what occurred in the nation's capital reminds them of the work that needs to be done. Many say drastic changes are needed to address the violent tactics police departments often use in Black communities. That starts with the nation reckoning with its history of white supremacy and denouncing it, said LadyAshley Gregory, director of community partnerships for Forward Through Ferguson.

“We can't erase history, and we can't forget about it if we don't want to keep on making the same mistakes,” Gregory said. “We have to listen to marginalized and endangered people like Black and brown people when they say they are hurt and when they say they have solutions on how to heal and how to fix the problems.”

Activists said the only way to change the current system is to fight for equitable treatment for white and Black people.

“Even though I feel like the police have not treated the Black community fair and right, I still didn't want anyone to turn on them,” Mildred Clines said of the largely white crowd of rioters in Washington. “I don't want that to happen to them, what happened to us.”

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