Protest for the sake of protest certainly helps angry people vent. But beyond that, it’s hard to decipher what are the specific goals of those occupying the streets and disrupting the city in response to Friday’s Jason Stockley verdict. There are indications that protest organizers don’t even agree among themselves about their mission.
A clear articulation of purpose would establish a rallying point for everyone to get behind. A lot of people are angry at the verdict that allowed Stockley, a former St. Louis police officer, to walk free from murder charges in the 2011 shooting death of suspected drug dealer Anthony Lamar Smith. Anger, however, is not a roadmap to change.
Protest movements typically fizzle when the goals are so amorphous or badly explained that they become meaningless. An unfocused movement also helps spawn the kind of meaningless destruction that seems to be following the peaceful St. Louis protesters.
For those being targeted by the current protests, an articulated goal gives government officials, police and business leaders solutions they can work toward. If protesters somehow expect leaders to reverse Stockley’s not-guilty verdict, that’s simply not going to happen.
Shutting down concerts and blocking commerce definitely serves the protesters’ stated purpose of disrupting. But it risks penalizing those who aren’t necessarily the enemy. If anyone is more symbolic of uplifting the poor and oppressed around the world, it’s Bono of the rock group U2, whose concert had to be canceled because of the weekend protests.
Protesters also tried to disrupt the Taste of St. Louis festival in Chesterfield. Instead of meeting resistance, organizer Mike Kociela embraced them. “There should be no difference in how anybody is treated,” Kociela told them. “It’s a shame we’re in this situation. I personally want to be part of the solution. I’m glad you are here. You are welcome.”
So please outline for Kociela and the rest of the political and business leadership how they can be part of the solution.
“The point of an action is to disturb. The point of an action is to make folks uncomfortable,” state Rep. Bruce Franks, D-St. Louis, told reporters Monday. “You gotta understand that the reason why we’re out here is for black lives. The reason we’re out here is because we’re dying, so when we stop dying, when we stop being affected disproportionately by the system, then we’ll take a break. But until then we’ll be here.”
Property destruction aside, randomly shutting down businesses and delaying motorists from getting to their destinations definitely adds to discomfort levels. Wrecking the economy, however, will only lead to greater unemployment, poverty and business flight. It’ll make life even harder for people struggling on the margins. Is that the goal?
Central to the Stockley case was a police officer’s abuse of authority and skirting of procedures. Various police departments around the country have instituted training reforms specifically to make officers rethink procedures with an eye toward eliminating implicit bias and de-escalating confrontations before they lead to tragic outcomes. That’s a worthy goal.
The lengthy report produced by the Ferguson Commission, aimed at addressing grievances expressed after the 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown, also contains some broad social and judicial reform goals worth pursuing further.
Clearly, much work remains. If protesters want to see change, they should outline what that is. Mayhem is not a plan.