Just after dusk on Wednesday night in St. Louis, a cop killed 18 year-old Vonderitt “Drew” Myers. This is the third incident of cops killing black men in two months – sadly this is not above average. What is above average, though, is people’s response to it. Like Mike Brown, there has been debate about whether he was fighting back, whether he was armed, whether stealing cigars or shooting at police is something you should be killed for. To us, this doesn’t matter. We are against the police and all that they do.
What has happened the last two nights in many ways is a continuation of Ferguson, but also something more. Here in St. Louis, the response to police killing people is now to take to the streets in retaliation. Though there is overlap between those who have been in the streets in Ferguson and in south St. Louis, there are other elements in play. The shooting happened in the Shaw neighborhood, near Tower Grove Park. The neighborhood calls itself “mixed-income” and “diverse” as a bragging right, but the class and racial tensions are very prevalent.
The officer who killed Myers was off duty but working for a private security company, GCI Security, hired by the middle- and upper-class residents. The marches were still very much focused on race and police, but also on class, explicitly targeting the upper-class as the source of their oppression. Compared to rowdy stuff in Ferguson, this group (also quite rowdy) was way more racially mixed. The following is a collection of reports from the last two nights.
Wednesday, October 8
By 10pm, there were about a hundred people at the intersection of Klemm and Shaw. Shortly after police took down crime scene tape, the energy of the crowd shifted as it swelled into the streets. Immediately after stepping off the sidewalk and taking the street, the crowd surged forward and surrounded the police standing in the intersection around their cars.
The crowd began honing in on individual cops, surrounding them, screaming at them, not letting them move. The cops were clearly terrified. Chants of “Whose streets?! Our Streets!” turned to “Whose streets?! Drew’s Streets!” and were actually used to drive police out of the street. Small groups of 3-5 cops standing near or around their cars were surrounded and taunted with shouts of “Cops out,” and “Fuck you, pig.” They cops walked nervously backward, then quickened their steps as they were pushed and shoved out of the area.
People began surrounding police cars and not letting them leave, kicking the cars, and at one point physically pushing a cop away from his SUV and not letting him in it. The same SUV had its tail lights kicked out and its rear windshield wiper torn off. Pieces of the tail light were snatched up as souvenirs. As it left the scene, a detective’s car had its back window broken.
On the other end of the street, people were running out another small group of police who had been left behind. Intimidating words being yelled at them: “You fucking scared now?! You know what it’s like to be fucking scared now?! Fuck you!” A nervous cop in the group began frantically looking for a missing cop: “Where’s Joe? Where’s Joe? He’s not here!” as he was getting into a car. With smart wit people responded, laughing: “Joe’s gone man! We can’t find him. He’s probably dead!” The cops scurried into the back seat of a car and they sped off. After the police left, people began to march down Shaw, heading east towards Grand Ave.
For the rest of the night police stayed at a distance. Even when police called for help when their vehicles were attacked or for backup unrelated to the march, dispatchers responded with calls for “all cars out of the area.” A helicopter followed the crowd for the rest of the evening, though after shots were fired (possibly at it) it remained in darkness.
After many false starts, the march eventually made it to the intersection of Shaw and Grand and blocked it. By this time, there were probably 200-300 people blocking traffic and causing the highway on and off ramps to be closed by police. For about 40-60 minutes the group couldn’t decide where to go and there were more false starts north and south. At one point the police chief, Sam Dotson, came out to try and calm people down, but a group of teenagers pulled up to him, one got on the car and started flipping him off and laughing at him. Dotson ordered him down, and the kid gave him more of the same, causing Dotson to leave in frustration.
Eventually the group went south on Grand to the area with bars, cafes and businesses, but by the time we got there people were exhausted and not saying much, just marching. By this point some people had left the march –from exhaustion or frustrated with its direction—but others had joined. We eventually made it Gravios (about three miles from where we started). We blocked the intersection and stopped the sparse traffic at that late hour. The march likely wouldn’t have stayed longer than a few minutes, but an 18-wheeler decided to tell us to move. At this point people got re-energized and started yelling at the driver. Eventually police came in two SUV’s to protect the driver or help him move and people surrounded them. Realizing it was a mistake, the police turned around to leave. When they did, two people simultaneously threw rocks and busted out their back window as they pulled away. The cops, knowing they were outnumbered, didn’t even stop driving. After people finished dancing on the broken glass, more souvenirs were taken.
At this point the group was trying to decide where to go. We knew we needed to keep moving but there were no good options other than heading back down Grand towards the police that had just been attacked, so we did just that. And the police kept their distance. This speaks volumes to the social climate in St. Louis right now: that after attacking a police car, the same march could head in the direction it had retreated without retaliation from the police.
The march eventually made it back to Shaw and Grand, and people (around 300-400 now) blocked the intersection. It was 2am. People were laying down and saying they were occupying the intersection for the night and not leaving. As opposed to other nights where the chaos of the police butted in on our ability to talk freely as a group, we were able to spend a bit of time talking and joking around. Friendly debates were started amongst groups the crowd. By 4am most people had left for the night.
Thursday, October 9
People gathered again at the intersection of Shaw and Klemm for a vigil around 6:30pm. After about 40-60 minutes a group of people got on megaphones and got some chants going and got people riled up and marching. The group more or less controlled the march for the next hour or so. There was a group of people who were trying to direct things, but for the most part the vibe was rambunctious and people were figuring out what to do amongst themselves. At this point and throughout the evening, ladies held down the megaphone, led the chants, and had a strong voice in the way the events unfolded.
The march made its way down Shaw to Grand again and blocked traffic there for a while—this was around 7:30pm or so and a lot more traffic was being blocked than the previous night. A strong voice suggested we move north up grand, toward the I-44 interchange. When the group arrived at the intersection, it spread to all corners of the huge space, blocking vehicles from entering or exiting the interstate or travelling north and south on Grand.
With chants of “Who shuts shit down?! WE shut shit down!” the march blocked a major vein of the city, preventing the standard flow of traffic that makes up the banal day to day reality of city life. Given that it was a Thursday night, the commerce of the city was not much disrupted by the blockade, but hundreds of cars were forced to turn around and find different routes home (and, now practiced, this tactic could be employed in the future in a more strategic way). Confrontations, debates and conversations with drivers ensued for the next half hour, with marchers explaining to drivers that they were gonna shut the city down until the cops stopped killing people. Again, lady marchers were some of the most present, vocal and confrontational of the group, taking the lead in blocking traffic and confronting cars.
After about half an hour it seemed apparent that police were letting us do whatever we wanted and had orders to stay back. Police were once again seemingly given orders to stay hands off.
Someone starting telling the group that one of the richest streets in the neighborhood—one mainly responsible for the security that hired the cop that killed Myers—was only a few blocks away and we should go wake them up and hold them responsible.
So the group marched to Flora Place. The street is gated at one end, has a big grass medium running down the middle, a lane of one way traffic on each side and fancy houses. Someone started to blow an air horn and passed it around for others to use. The crowd started to cheer louder and louder. People were going down both sides of the street, with a few cars full of protesters following on both sides leaning on their horns the whole time. People were chanting things like “no justice, no sleep!”, pulling hood ornaments off, grabbing flags off of people’s porches and flipping them upside down, and at least one front window of someone’s house was smashed. Some people claimed it was a city official’s home but others said it was random class hatred.
After a few blocks people stopped in the middle of the intersection to burn all the flags that had been collected. There was only one person visibly upset about this happening, everyone else was screaming and cheering. People responded to this person by nonchalantly saying they didn’t give a shit about the flag or by passionately yelling that the flag doesn’t represent black and brown people—or that it represents only the genocide and slavery committed against them. Someone got on the megaphone as the flags were burning and started to talk about how the flag was never ours to begin with and that we’re in this neighborhood to take the conflict to the rich people who are the biggest backers of this security company that is there to enforce the class and racial divides.
Another impressive thing from Thursday night was the relaying of police scanner information about who they were searching out. It was said they were looking for someone in a red sweatshirt, and folks response was to announce this and calmly advise anyone wearing red to remove the top or put on something else. This was done in a comradely manner and in interest of continuing the festive and rowdy environment without everyone/anyone being in danger. Instead of relying on gossip or suspicion, the reaction seemed based on solidarity and complicity. Folks were able to quickly change clothes, chat and continue on. Police are now encrypting their scanners to try and curb further acts like this.
Through the whole march, the police presence was nearly nonexistent. There was a helicopter following, but the cop cars were all staying a few blocks away. After the flag burning, people moved back towards Grand and Arsenal and out of the neighborhoods.
It was clear that the cops were near the intersection of Grand and Arsenal as the march was nearing, but for a short amount of time they were still hands-off when the group blocked the intersection. There were three cops standing along a building and a lot of people started to surround them, taunting and yelling at them. They were surrounded and up against a wall while the crowd yelled and shoved at them. They were terrified. It was beautiful. Within a minute, dozens of cops started swarming in from all directions, running with their batons out and driving through the crowd. The cornered cops eventually made their way out of the crowd and people went back to the streets. Elsewhere, a brick was thrown through a shop window.
The cops separated the crowd, pushing some down Arsenal and others down Grand. People were pushing up against the cops, telling them to get the fuck out and screaming in their faces. Within a few minutes, a crowd was being pushed in from both the east and west by the police, trying to get people off the streets. They started to mace the crowd and people started to scatter to the sides. In the tumult, multiple people were un-arrested (pulled out of the grip of the cops and hidden safely within the group), and crowds blocked the cops from taking other people. People stayed in the streets, marching and chanting, for another two more hours.
Compared to other protests within the past few years, the response to these killings have a continuing, moving, street presence; a class analysis that moved beyond some inaccessible global elite (such as Occupy’s mystical “99%”); going to the homes of those bastards; taking space and defending it; looting/ redistributing wealth; openly hating the police instead of inviting them in, etc., etc., etc.
The media continues the line of “a peaceful protest turned violent” about all of this. Let us be clear that from the moment the group left the vigil on Thursday, it was rowdy and militant. There was no ‘turning’ at any point for this group nor a small group whose actions stood out from the broader group. The only change the group went through was it finding itself through moving together. It seems like St. Louis is on its way to establishing a tradition of retaliation for police murders. Most people have a cop in their head, restraining them. Now St. Louis police have a rioter in their head, making them think twice before pulling that trigger.