A couple of years ago, I was meeting friends at a west St. Louis County bar for happy hour.
It was 2017, not long after the protests started roiling the region following the acquittal of former police Officer Jason Stockley in the killing of Anthony Lamar Smith.
The bar was full, so I stood in the lobby waiting for an open seat. A large white man got up from the bar and approached. He was about 6-foot-3, and probably 290 pounds. He came over and stood in front of me, a little too close for comfort.
“Are you Tony Messenger?”
I started to reach out my hand to shake his.
“My brother’s a cop,” he said. Then he shouted an expletive in my face and walked outside to smoke a cigarette. I texted my friends. Time to de-escalate and find another bar.
I write a lot about race and poverty and its intersection with the criminal justice system. I tell the stories of people whose voices are often unheard by the establishment, and that means, yes, when police officers shoot black men, or beat up their own during a protest, or violate civil rights of American citizens, those are the stories I often chase. Some people, this brother of a police officer among them, turn such stories of pain into something else, a dividing line between black lives and blue ones, as if they never intersect.
The other day I talked to my oldest daughter as protests were ramping up across the country following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. She’s a police officer in suburban Denver, and the SWAT team from her department was helping with increasingly intense protests near the state Capitol. She was hoping things would calm down before she might be called in to don riot gear and head downtown.
Had the man at the bar in West County been interested in conversation, I would have told him about my daughter, about how proud I am of her, about how much I worry about her during these troubled times. We talk sometimes about protest and police issues, knowing that we come to the issues from different perspectives. Sometimes we agree. Other times, not.
We both understand, I think, that most people live in different worlds. Even behind the thin blue line, she is in a different world than some of her colleagues, being a woman with a rich ethnic heritage. I live in a world where I have been protected by police my entire life and have never had a negative interaction with law enforcement, but I hear the stories of oppression and death told to me by black people and I believe them and know them to be real.
Not all cops are racist. Not all protesters are looters. Truth is nuanced.
The painful truth is that not enough real change happened after Michael Brown died in Ferguson in 2014, either locally or nationally, or after Freddie Gray died in Baltimore in 2015, or after Alton Sterling died in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 2016.
Now the nation cries out for justice again, and American cities are on fire, and police officers are being shot, four of them in St. Louis after downtown rioting Monday night. The fires smoldered in multiple American cities as a country in mourning woke up. President Donald Trump the night before had stoked the flames of violence with his words and actions, using federal officers to clear a public park with tear gas during a peaceful protest so the president could stage a photo opportunity.
That’s not de-escalation, it’s an act of violence.
So here we are, a country on edge after months of self-isolation and unprecedented unemployment, with the effects of two pandemics merging, and the victims of both being in large part black and brown people in an America that has not yet realized the dream of its greatest civil rights leader.
Monday night in St. Louis, David Dorn, a black retired police captain was shot to death at a pawn shop north of downtown amid the looting that followed protest.
State Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, a St. Louis Democrat who rose to political power following the Ferguson and Stockley protests, saw Dorn, 77, die as it was livestreamed on Facebook.
“Very traumatized right now,” Aldridge told a Post-Dispatch reporter. “I’m hurting.”
Aldridge lives in two worlds. He’s a black man urging an end to police brutality who woke up mourning a former police officer’s death.
His message Monday night was eerily similar to one he gave during a video news conference earlier in the day, lamenting the 20th straight year of the release of vehicle stop data that show blacks in Missouri are stopped and searched by police at significantly higher percentages than whites, even when searches of white drivers end up finding more contraband, on average.
He was in pain, then, too, he said. “When are we going to act?”
That’s the great American question, as a nation hurting from violence struggles to find its way.
From City Hall to the Capitol, metro columnist Tony Messenger shines light on what public officials are doing, tells stories of the disaffected, and brings voice to the issues that matter.