Tires screeching against the black asphalt startled me out of a momentary trance.
It was a few minutes after 6 on Monday evening and I was idling in a southbound lane of Tucker Boulevard behind a line of traffic. The line of cars was longer than normal — my car was actually backed into the intersection at Chestnut Street — because a parade of American-flag-waving walkers was solemnly remembering the horror of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
It was the 21-mile March to the Arch, and as dozens of marchers who started at Mike Duffy’s Restaurant in West County walked by on Market Street, police held up traffic. I thought of the words “never forget” and was thankful for the men and women who took time in their day to make sure I remember. It was a momentary disruption.
The guy in the black Dodge Challenger next to me spun his wheels.
He burned rubber in reverse, spinning his car a different direction in the intersection and headed on his impatient way. I was transported from 9/11 to Charlottesville, Va.
It was there, just a month ago, when a racist in the same model of car plowed through a crowd of marchers protesting a white supremacist rally, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. The vicious attack spurred news coverage highlighting the fact that at least six state legislatures in the past year have sought to pass bills that would protect drivers from liability if they drive through protests that intentionally block traffic.
The bills were a reaction to Black Lives Matter protests that gained notice in Ferguson, and spread like wildfire to Chicago, to Cleveland, Baltimore, Minneapolis.
After Charlottesville, there will be Jason Stockley.
On Monday, the patriotic marchers — most of them I could see were white — walked right by the Carnahan Courthouse downtown, where Judge Tim Wilson is mulling one of the most awaited verdicts in St. Louis history. Wilson has the unenviable task of determining whether Stockley, a former St. Louis police officer, murdered Anthony Lamar Smith after a high-speed chase in 2011, as prosecutors contend.
Stockley says he was fearful and that Smith pulled a gun on him. Prosecutors say Stockley planted the gun after he fired the fatal shots that killed him.
Three years after the Ferguson protests put St. Louis on the national stage, the city is on edge again. The Stockley verdict has plenty of folks in this town worried about what might happen if the former cop is found not guilty.
An organization that represents mostly black police officers — the Ethical Society of Police — is urging a guilty verdict. A group of black clergy delivered a letter to Wilson referencing a passage in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel that says those who don’t warn of evil when they see it will be guilty of it, too. “The blood will be on your hands,” the letter from clergy warned the judge.
The clergy weren’t being literal, said the Rev. Cassandra Gould, executive director of Missouri Faith Voices. “We did not mean literal blood,” Gould said. “It was a metaphor.”
On Monday, Gould was among black clergy members at a meeting with Gov. Eric Greitens, who urged the clergy to use their influence to make sure any protests after the Stockley verdict are peaceful. The governor, she says, doesn’t understand the dynamics between black members of the cloth and young black activists who for three years have been raising attention about the racism they say is ingrained into the tapestry of St. Louis.
Gould remembers showing up on West Florissant Avenue with other clergy a few days after Michael Brown died in 2014, in their Sunday best, seeking to shepherd the flock, only to find the flock would lead them.
“August 15 was the day respectability died for me,” Gould says.
Some of the same activists she met that day have now promised “mass disruption” in the region if Stockley is found not guilty.
There, outside the Carnahan Courthouse, already surrounded with metal gates in preparation for whatever is to come, young protesters angry over police brutality toward people of color may well take to the streets. “Whose streets? Our streets!” they will chant.
And drivers caught in traffic, beginning their commutes home, will sit and ponder.
They’ll remember Ferguson, which will be the point. Maybe they’ll think about Michael Brown. About Tamir Rice. Freddie Gray. Philando Castile.
They will be disrupted for a period of time before heading on their way, stopping at the store to pick up milk, relaxing in a recliner after dinner, kissing their children before bed.
Days or weeks apart, they may have been stopped by two disruptions at the same intersection.
One held American flags high. The other might well stomp on them.
One had a police escort. The other might face down police in body armor and tanks.
One respectable. The other in your face.
Two disruptions. Two Americas.
One message: Never forget.
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