“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”
The tension mounting in the city is all too familiar, with politicians calling for peace, the federal courthouse scheduled to be closed tomorrow, and the Missouri National Guard on standby. Governor Greitens has been afoot, meeting with area clergy and holding a press conference this evening, echoing stagnant calls for peace and saying what the city needs now is ‘love and compassion’. Where was the ‘love and compassion’ when Anthony Lamar Smith was murdered in cold blood by a foot soldier of the state? And why is it always after the state murders that it’s time for ‘love and compassion’ and ‘peace’?
Ultimately, the question is who wants their peace anyway—when their peace means acting as an occupying force, rolling like a gang, and murdering people at will? An oft-argued critique over the years of the SLMPD is the lack of accountability of the police—that they’ve been answering to the state, not the city, for decades and that they only internally audit their shootings and murders. Some of this has changed, with the Circuit Attorney’s office now reviewing all police shootings and with the control of the police department returning to the city from the state in 2013. And yes, the Board of Alders did pass a bill to establish a Civilian Oversight Board in 2015, an effort that activists have been working tirelessly at for years. But has anyone heard anything meaningful come of this board that is supposed to ‘investigate’ complaints against officers, that has no actual power and can only make recommendations? Anyone, anyone, Bueller? No? Moving on….
You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig
How can it be expected that an institution that has its roots in slave patrols ever be anything but? Let’s step back in time, shall we?
A few years after Missouri officially became a territory, St. Louis formed its first quasi-steady police patrol, naming it the constabulary. It had four members drawn from a pool of all able-bodied white men over the age of 18. Another way of looking at this is the state saw white people as the potential watchmen of people of color. Constables were expected to serve for four months and then were replaced by another four men. Over the following years, more members were added as the town ballooned in population, including the addition of a night watch. By 1826, it was the police’s duty to sound the curfew bell at 9 and 10pm (depending on the time of year) and enforce the curfew against any slaves out after it.
In December, 1822 Missouri reconfigured its police into the form of slave patrols, or paddyrollers. County courts could assign a patrol captain and up to four officers to serve under him. It was their duty to “visit negro quarters, and other places suspected of unlawful assemblage of slaves . . . . Any slave found at such assembly, or who shall be found strolling about from one plantation to another, without a pass from his or her master, mistress or overseer, shall receive any number of lashes on his or her bare back, at the discretion of the patrol, not exceeding ten.” If taken to a judge, the slave could be whipped up to 39 times.
We are likely not to find a more honest description of modern-policing where police, though bound by unenforceable laws not to, may act with autonomy and impunity against those they suspect of crimes—all with a clear emphasis on race and class. The origins of the department are notably omitted in the SLMPD’s documentation of their history.
Furthermore, when St. Louis’s first courthouse was built in the 1820s, it was built on land donated by Auguste Chouteau and John Baptiste Charles Lucas-one of Missouri’s first Territorial Judges, a slave owner, large landowner, and former Pennsylvania Congressman and mine-owner.
The law in this city has always served those in power, class society, white supremacy, and patriarchy—how we can possibly expect it to be anything else?
There’s no justice, there’s just us
The Stockley verdict is wildly rumored to drop tomorrow. If the judge comes back with a guilty verdict, it is no real victory at all. If will be a verdict made in the face of such overwhelming evidence the judge felt like he could make no other choice. It doesn’t indicate that times are changing or that we as a society are moving in a more just direction. This system is never going to get better. Even if this verdict comes back guilty nothing is fundamentally changing—this is evidenced by the fact that the DOJ decided three days ago that the police officers that had custody of Freddie Gray when he died would not be charged. They’ve decided that they’re ‘unable to prove the officers “willfully violated Gray’s civil rights.”’ Apparently an intact spinal cord is not a civil right.
If the judge comes back with a not guilty verdict, it will be par for the course.
Either way, make no bones about it—regardless of the verdict, we can never expect this racist, classist state with roots in violent oppression to give us justice. The State and its police do not serve to rid the world of racial and class conflict, they serve to merely manage it to the benefit of those who both exploit and exclude the majority of us from any power and wealth.
The police and politicians do not expect peace in the end, and as they face the current possibility—of finding revolt on the doorsteps to city hall and the various courthouses of the city—they’ve come up with various strategies as an attempt to exercise some control over a potentially volatile and explosive situation. They’ve got the SLMPD working twelve hour shifts as of today, the Guard on call, and have designated Poelker Park as a ‘protest zone’.
Those trying to exercise control won’t stop at the cops. If a not guilty verdict comes, tomorrow or whenever, there will be a myriad of people in the streets and more than a few will be trying to direct the flow of events. Our greatest strength is everyone learning how to think about this situation for themselves and help each other figure out how to talk about what we’re experiencing and act on ideas and beliefs as well as our emotions. Don’t become the police – refuse to wear the neon vests. Don’t police each other – let us all express ourselves.
Don’t respect the handful of people who are trying to take this away from all of us by becoming the police and by appointing themselves the leaders. Stop and think about whom you want to ally yourself with—you don’t have to ally yourself with leaders or those who you feel have no real affinity with just because they’re louder than you. When anybody tries to claim peace or nonviolence in the name of the Smith family-remember these words of Annie Smith,”I’m not at peace. I’m mad as hell”. Look for your accomplices and find them, they’ll be there waiting for you. Pay attention to the terrain we’re fighting on—look for things around you to use to protect yourself, build barricades, or take refuge behind if needed. Watch for cars-there have been drivers pushing through crowds multiple times in the last few months, including in Kirkwood last night at the Stockley demo. Try to keep an eye out for where the police are, where they’re moving to, and where you can go if you need to retreat or don’t feel safe. Watch each other’s backs—no one else will take care of ourselves but us.
Let’s keep our anger, our words, our rocks and our scopes aimed at the enemy, not each other. Don’t respect those trying to take over everything: if no one leads, we all lead.