ST. LOUIS • In the old game of tin can telephone, you tie a can on each end of a long string and pull it tight. Speak into one end. Somebody listens at the other.
Words travel down the taut line.
The primitive device has limitations, of course, but even with the wide reach of sophisticated mobile devices and the internet, a simple message such as “Stop killing us” is misunderstood.
Thousands of people have peacefully marched, shouted and prayed for justice after Judge Timothy J. Wilson ruled on Sept. 15 that former St. Louis police Officer Jason Stockley was not guilty of murdering Anthony Lamar Smith.
Some windows have been shattered, too. Rush-hour commutes interrupted. Concerts canceled. Many watching and listening across the St. Louis region are hearing a different message. They believe they are witnessing rebellion against the rule of law and police, whom they count on daily for protection. Some interpret the vandalism itself as the message.
Each media report of a brick or rock thrown at police and property has frustrated those out front, trying to safeguard the narrative of a peaceful movement that has brought many people — black and white — together for awareness.
“There’s one message. And I want you to write it exactly like this, all right?” activist and Democratic state Rep. Bruce Franks said in an interview. “Y’all, gon stop killing us.”
For that to happen, he said, the culture of the police department must change.
“That’s not necessarily done through legislation. That’s not necessarily done through a list of demands,” he said. “You have to feel the effect of some stuff until it comes into place.”
Stockley, who is white, shot Smith, an African-American heroin suspect, five times at close range after a high-speed chase through Walnut Park West, a distressed neighborhood on the city’s North Side. Defense attorneys argued Stockley had a right to defend himself against a deadly threat. Prosecutors argued Stockley was a rogue cop who murdered Smith and planted a revolver that had his DNA on it.
Despite major charges being levied against an officer and a full trial, many protesters are angry that the criminal case took more than four years to be filed. They view the verdict as another example of police brutality that disproportionately affects minorities and goes unpunished.
The police shooting of Michael Brown, 18, in Ferguson is high on the same list. So is the shooting death of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7, who was killed by an officer in Detroit when police raided the wrong home. Eric Garner, 43, of New York, died after repeatedly saying on videotape that he couldn’t breathe as an officer held him in a choke hold.
Feeling unheard, protesters have resorted to the most basic communication device — shouting in the public sphere.
“I think the verdict is disgusting,” Damone Smith, 52, an electrician, said right after Stockley was acquitted. He was among many motorists rerouted from blocked traffic.
“I’m proud of these people protesting,” he said. “If you look like me, then you feel like there is no other way to express yourself in the face of this kind of verdict. Time and time again, African-American men are killed by police and nobody is held accountable.”
Many of the same chants from Ferguson echo in the streets today:
The whole damn system is guilty as hell.
I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.
No justice, no peace.
There have been attempts to calm violent outbursts. During a march downtown immediately after the Stockley verdict, a few protesters pounded on huge windows of the convention center, which had people inside. Colleagues made them stop.
That night, though, and a few since, there have been dozens of arrests. Some police have been injured. Windows have been broken, including at Mayor Lyda Krewson’s home in the Central West End and several businesses, such as Corner 17, a Chinese restaurant on the Delmar Loop in University City known for bubble tea and handmade noodles.
“I support them. They are doing their thing,” manager Xueqin Lin, 30, said of protesters. “On the other side, I feel hurt. As immigrants, we are working hard.”
Widespread disruption about racism is part of a cure because everyone is interdependent on one another, the Rev. Karen Anderson of Ward Chapel AME Church said to applause at an interfaith prayer service Sept. 19 that led to a march from Kiener Plaza to City Hall.
“If I hurt in some way, you are going to hurt,” Anderson said. “How do I know? Because you are upset in this city that we have disrupted the status quo, that we have disrupted what is normal.
“But did you stop to think that maybe it’s a disruptive grace from God because nobody wants to change on their own? When we reach a place of comfort, we don’t want to move in a different direction.”
The message about police killing blacks quickly gets jumbled.
Rich Schade, 66, said the news he heard about the protests was “stupid” and “very childish.” He was sitting on a bench in front of Walmart in Arnold, wearing a St. Louis Blues T-shirt.
“If they are destroying property, then they should be arrested and prosecuted,” said Schade, who used to work for an import and export business. “It’s really a crazy thing.”
A woman waiting outside a nearby tire shop said she just hoped all the commotion stayed downtown. She said it made her feel sorry that her children couldn’t experience the city of her youth.
Jackie Allison, 72, a retired accounts payable clerk from Imperial, who was shopping in a St. Louis Cardinals T-shirt, said she didn’t mind the protest and understood what spawned it.
“Damaging property that has nothing to do with what they are protesting makes it bad,” she said.
Further out, in southeastern Missouri, defense attorney Brandon Cooper, 30, said many residents saw St. Louis as being in even more decline, a laughingstock that reflects poorly on the rest of the state.
“I like coming to the Cardinals games,” he said. “I used to stick around. A lot of folks don’t feel safe. A lot of people in our area are jaded to a certain extent. The suspect was doing something that he wasn’t supposed to. But where’s the line for taking someone’s life?”
That line is drawn when someone attacks police, said a small businessman, 55, who was dropping off a packet at Chesterfield City Hall.
“I’d kill him if he used his car as a weapon,” said the man, who declined to be named, referencing the Stockley case.
He said “rioters” should be shot in the back.
“All the damages they are causing,” he said. “Someone needs to come out with a hard statement. It’s not nature-made like a hurricane. It’s man-made. They have to stop it.”
Ann Prenatt, 65, a talent management consultant also visiting Chesterfield City Hall, said she heard the message that people of color were being targeted.
“I don’t think people have read enough about how Judge Wilson came to his conclusions,” she said. “You have to separate the law from the moral part, how you feel. The whole thing makes my gut churn.”
She added about the protests: “If you feel like there is no hope, what are you going to do?”
In 1964, Percy Green scaled the Gateway Arch. The monument was under construction. He wanted to raise awareness that minorities weren’t getting the same employment opportunities as whites.
“There has been some upward mobility, but it is far behind what it should have been,” said Green, 82. “There’s still racism in the police department and the judiciary.”
The veteran activist said vandalism from fringe elements of any protest shouldn’t detract from the core message. Windows can be replaced.
“The few incidents of violence are just collateral damage,” he said.
The Rev. Linden Bowie, president of the Missionary Baptist State Convention of Missouri, who has spoken at several recent protests, repeated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s refrain about how riots are the voice of the unheard.
“We can’t turn around and accuse those who have been systematically deprived and left to resort to alternative means, we can’t turn around and blame them for not having the same mindset of those who have plenty,” said Bowie, who pastors a church in Riverview.
“As far as their voice is concerned, I am very sympathetic to the outcry, and I wish more of us would hear that so there would be less of that.”
University of Missouri-St. Louis marketing professor Perry Drake said that wish was challenging because people listening often come from extreme ends of the spectrum, such as in politics.
“At the end of the day, they want everyone in sync with their cause,” he said. “No different than a brand that wants a sale, for everyone to convert to their product and what that product stands for. To do that, you have to understand how your message is resonating.”
Major marketing campaigns use evidence-based research to tweak the message for various population segments.
“Many of us, we largely have our minds made up with respect to certain beliefs, convictions,” he said. “No matter what somebody tells that one person, you will be hard pressed to change their minds without some deeper understanding of what’s driving that.”
Nigel Jernigan, 27, a cook from Jennings, was arrested downtown late Sept. 17 with 120 others.
Despite municipal court reform that grew out of Ferguson unrest, he doesn’t think these protests are working.
“People are willing to stand up for something, but they don’t know how to go about it,” he said. “We don’t need more encounters with police. We need answers.”
Still, he doesn’t know what else to do other than exercise his First Amendment right. His hometown police department was disbanded in 2011, after a corruption scandal and racial strife between white officers and impoverished black residents. So far this year, St. Louis police have killed eight people who had weapons, the most in a decade.