Protesters in St. Louis on Friday.
Protesters gather Friday in St. Louis. Jeff Roberson/AP

Former police officer Jason Stockley was acquitted of murder Friday in a highly anticipated case, exposing the continued fragility of the region three years after Michael Brown’s death.

Just a few steps away from where the enslaved Dred Scott unsuccessfully sued for his freedom, St. Louis protest leaders vowed to disrupt the St. Louis economy on Friday, following the acquittal of former police officer Jason Stockley.

They also drew a direct line from Scott’s struggles to the economic and racial disparities that continue to plague St. Louis, and promised to use economic pressure to enact change.

“You kill our kids, we kill your economy,” chanted hundreds of peaceful protesters gathered outside city hall.

By late Friday evening, protests had turned far more intense, as police and protesters faced off on the lawn of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson’s home in the city’s Central West End neighborhood. For those marching, Friday’s protests were a flashback to the scenes that roiled the streets of St. Louis and its suburbs following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

A protester faces off with law enforcement officials. (Whitney Curtis/Reuters)

Some protesters and local leaders noted one key difference: This time, the outrage and sadness is even more acute.

Stockley, a white officer charged with the 2011 murder of African-American motorist Anthony Lamar Smith, was found not guilty by Judge Timothy Wilson in a Friday morning ruling.

Stockley said he was acting in self-defense and believed Smith was reaching for a gun. Prosecutors alleged Stockley “executed” Smith following a high-speed police chase, before planting a handgun in Smith’s vehicle. They said Stockley was recorded on camera during the chase saying: “going to kill this motherf‑‑‑er, don’t you know it.”

In an unusual move, even the city’s black police union had issued a statement calling for Stockley’s conviction of murder.

Activists said they fully expected the decision, calling it yet another example of failed local institutions and persistent racial inequity.

“I wish I could say I’m surprised, but this is a pattern,” said Ron Strawbridge, a St. Louis resident protesting outside city hall. “I’m heartbroken. This is just devastating.”

And many protesters believe the St. Louis area remains much as it was prior to the Michael Brown protests—crippled by institutional neglect, racial inequity and segregation.

On Twitter, Missouri State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who has recently censured for her a Facebook post hoping for Donald Trump’s assassination, called local outrage “much stronger than Ferguson.”

Strawbridge said there have been positive signs of change following the Ferguson protests, but they have fallen short of effecting deeper, structural, adjustments.

“We’ve had more praying and talking, and that’s good. More organization. But we need more systemic action. We need to (change) our aldermen and maybe our mayor. We need better training for police.”

‘Failing to provide basic services’

While Ferguson helped spark a national conversation on police tactics and race, tangible improvements in the region have been slow to materialize. The Missouri State Legislature passed a new law capping the amount of revenue municipalities can collect through tickets and fees. This law was a response to widespread condemnation of what some observers—including the U.S. Department of Justice—called financially-predatory policing tactics in Ferguson and other Missouri municipalities. But some reforms to this set of fractured municipalities were lost after a court battle.

A surge of local political momentum has started to falter in recent months, after the election in St. Louis of Krewson, an establishment Democrat with ties to the administration.

Among Krewson’s losing opponents who represent a younger, more progressive wave seeking disruption were former Alderman Antonio French, who was one of the more visible local leaders after Michael Brown’s death, and City Treasurer Tishaura Jones.

Krewson, whose margin of victory was narrow and who likely benefitted from the fracturing of the progressive vote, has promised to focus on racial issues. She recently appointed the city’s first racial equity director to her cabinet.

Yet the election fight remains bitter for some of the city’s young progressives, many of whom were galvanized by the Ferguson protests.

Ron Strawbridge, with protesters outside City Hall. (Chris Campbell)

Cara Spencer, who became 20th ward alderman in 2015, said the election deeply strained existing alliances among the city’s progressive leadership.

“It’s disappointing we couldn’t coalesce around a candidate with fervor and confidence,” she said.

Spencer and other progressive politicians have criticized the city for failing to provide essential services to all residents, leaving the city’s mostly African-American north side mired in decades of deep neglect. She said a “realistic plan” to develop the city’s north side should be a top priority.

The city recently secured an agreement with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency—a multi-billion dollar federal spy agency—to relocate its national headquarters to north St. Louis. City leaders have touted this agreement as an essential part of north side revitalization.

Spencer, however, believes focusing on projects like the NGA move ignores the real issue.

“NGA won’t supply jobs to people who live there,” she said, adding that residents would at best see ancillary benefits like access to more retail.

Many St. Louis neighborhoods struggle with high unemployment, poor access to public transit and violent crime levels that routinely rank near the top for the nation. Spencer said the lack of economic opportunity and violent crime take a deep toll on residents.

“We need jobs for people, we need counseling for kids who see homicides all the time on their blocks,” she said. “Ferguson was inspiring but frustrations are still bubbling. St. Louis is failing to provide basic services.”

Despite the rising profile of many post-Ferguson politicians, Spencer cautioned that the progressive slate still remains a minority in a city entirely controlled by Democrats.

Now, after the Stockley acquittal, many protesters are resigning themselves to the impossibility of receiving equal treatment under the law. They repeatedly called instead for economic action.

‘Staging the city’s spin’

Assembled outside city hall on Friday, protest leaders urged calm, as well as boycotts and civil disobedience.

The protests, which began peacefully with only a handful of minor arrests, grew more intense as police deployed pepper spray. St. Louis police officers, who are working in emergency 12-hour shifts, prevented protesters from closing down Interstate 64, and National Guard troops were deployed to support local authorities.

Later Friday night, a large group of protesters surrounded Krewson’s home, though the house is believed to have been unoccupied. Windows were broken before police fired tear gas in an effort to disperse the crowd. Several police officers were injured by projectiles in the exchange.

At night’s end, police had made more than 30 arrests.

A protester is treated for pepper spray after being sprayed by St. Louis police during a police standoff with protesters. (Whitney Curtis/Reuters)

In a statement, Krewson said she is “appalled by what happened to Anthony Smith.”

While St. Louis has seen several police shootings of African-Americans in the years since the Michael Brown case, protests in those cases were muted in comparison. The details of the Stockley case have set the region on edge. Many government workers were given Friday off in anticipation of significant protests, and some area schools were closed.

A woman who was pushed down by police is helped by a protester while police try to disperse a crowd. (Lawrence Bryant/Reuters)

Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, a Republican, has been critical of the way former governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, handled the Ferguson protests. Greitens called the handling of the Ferguson protests an example of “failed leadership” and said Missouri was “humiliated” around the world as a result. Greitens met with local clergy ahead of the verdict and has said he is “committed to protecting” the constitutional right to protest.

ArchCity Defenders, a regional non-profit legal activist group, issued a joint statement with two other activist organizations criticizing the “militarized” response to the protests. The statement accused city leaders of “pre-emptively bemoaning” violence and civil unrest, and added that the “optics of closed businesses, walled-off city buildings and a highly militarized police force” were merely “staging for the city’s spin that the protesters are the violent ones.”

Spencer, who attended the protests Friday, said she was newly disappointed and appalled by the Stockley ruling: “Racism is a psychosis and our city is fraught with it.”

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