On Wednesday, August 19, 2015 at 11:30 a.m., St. Louis Police shot and killed 18-year-old Mansur “Man-Man” Ball-Bey. Within hours the police had been shouted off the block and by nightfall tear gas and fires dotted the neighborhood.
August 19th marked the one-year anniversary of police shooting and killing Kajeme Powell. A march was held for him downtown and afterwards a number of those protesters made their way to Page and Walton.
What follows are two accounts of August 19 and then a general analysis of how protests are policed and why, and what a self-organized anti-police struggle could look like.
First, an account from someone who was there during the earlier hours.
We heard about Mansur’s death about two hours after it happened. Initially the rumor was that two or three people had been shot, at least one by police, and one of the people was as young as 12 or 13. A half hour later we were at Page and Walton, the closest intersection to where police killed Mansur.
We were greeted by a tense scene of people milling around the intersection and hanging out on the sidewalks around it. On our way there a person on his porch stopped us and asked if we were there being nosy. “Uh, not nosy….”
“It’s ok. I was up there a minute ago nosin’ around. Nothing wrong with bein’ nosy.”
“There a lot of people up there?”
The crowd of 100-200 at Page and Walton looked to be made up of people from the surrounding blocks, people who knew Mansur, and activists—some paying their respect, some out of curiosity and others to confront the police. Shortly before we arrived, police had been shouted off of Walton. Now they were tiny figures three or four blocks away on Page—partially blocking traffic and figuring out their next move.
Despite a few cars blocking the intersection—one blasting Fuck Da Police—and a few dozen people in it, most people were content with staying on the sidewalk and side streets. After an hour or so, feeling a little awkward about being in the streets with so many people on the sides and the crowd shrinking, we were about to leave as well.
Slowly a few police cars made their way west towards Page and Walton. They stopped about half a block away and a few cops got out. Headed by a cop in white, their arrival reinvigorated the group. “Back in the streets!” and “Form a line!” went through the crowd. As they got closer a chant of “Fuck 12!…Fuck 12!” started up. Some rushed to mask up.
I couldn’t hear what the head cop said through all the chants and heckles of the 50 or so people in the street, but I’m sure it was something about it being an illegal gathering and we’d have to leave. Noticing that things were heating up, a few people began passing out water to “cool people down.” If their intention was to de-escalate, it backfired. People began ducking low out of police view and throwing plastic bottles at them. Most missed and a few even hit other protesters, but this signaled the time for police to leave. As they did, bottles sailed after them with a few hitting their targets or getting them wet—one even bouncing off the street and into a cop’s crotch.
Officer takes one for the team
Over the next half hour, momentum and numbers started to wane again. But with the arrival of more cops down Page and a SWAT truck, energy picked back up.
Eventually, a line of cops in light riot gear and the SWAT truck began making their way towards the intersection. As they got closer so too did the booming PA of the SWAT truck, “THIS IS AN UNLAWFUL ASSEMBLY….”
When they got to Walton most of the crowd began backing up, but some remained defiant in the street. With a shit-eating grin on his face, Police Chief Sam Dotson began “nicely” talking to the crowd and telling us we could have Walton but Page would have to be clear. Most cops in this wave were talking calmly and using a “good cop” demeanor to clear the street. No seemed fooled by this. Among them in tactical gear was Officer Jason Flannery who killed Vonderitt Myers Jr. last October.*
Over the next twenty minutes or so, police continued pushing people off Page with them casually walking back on it. After a while the police retreated back down Page.
Once they were gone, people slowly headed back off the street. In an effort to keep them in the streets, one person on a megaphone summed up the situation well, “Come on yall! We gotta defend this neighborhood! We gotta make a stand in the street. We gotta defend that crumbling house there. We gotta defend this stupid store,” motioning towards the corner store that would later be looted, “that sells us poison and takes all our foodstamps. Come on yall!”
Compared to rabble rousers like him, there were also clergy, small-time politicians and respectable men** from the neighborhood trying to calm people down. Around this time a person wearing a “Clergy” vest began walking along the street announcing that anyone who remained in the street was choosing to commit an act of civil disobedience and would be arrested. Anyone wanting to get in the street would be subject to arrest. The clergywomen seemed to have talked to no one in the crowd about this development and most greeted the announcement with confused looks or rolled eyes. Luckily, the crowd continued to move between the street and sidewalk depending on when people felt like pushing things or not.
* * *
Now another person picking up from where the previous account ended
The police left, presumably to regroup and strategize. Others and myself were asking what we should do; some suggested that we should march to the Central West End, a white, wealthy area that only 5 blocks away, but millions of worlds away from the protest site, economically and racially. It’s like a fort for the rich. In the CWE, there are gated streets full of epic mansions sealed off from adjoining streets. Police and private security heavily patrol it. And for many in the crowd, there is no reason to ever go there unless you want to get fucked with or are stupid enough to pay 50 dollars for a plate of food.
It’s stark, in a twilight zone kind way, because the neighborhood we’re in now is similar in terms of architecture, with many big houses, but instead of functioning, it’s extremely distressed. Instead of boutiques and fancy restaurants, there’s dollar stores, liquor stores, chop-suey joints. It’s not much different than many parts of the north St. Louis, the black part of the city, where there are many buildings that are empty or burnt out. Occupied houses are often owned by slumlords, and often developers waiting for the right moment to invest and gentrify own the vacant houses. These contradictions contribute to a racial and class environment that seems to be a recipe for conflict, especially in this particular area of St. Louis where the divide is so apparent. I can only hope that some day the avenues of the wealthy can be devastated.
We march to the Central West End trying to bring reality upon them. It’s extremely rare for a large crowd of black people to make it this far into this area, an area that likely views such a crowd as hostile. I see people running to their cars and some who sit outside at restaurants run inside. We’re not there long and we turn back to where Mansur was killed. The whole time we’re in the streets, blocking traffic and on our way back we block a very large and congested street, Kingshighway, for a long while.
When we get back, and it’s pretty chill for a while. People are trying to stay energized because the police are not really around. Looking east down Page, I see dozens of police cars racing towards us, lights flashing. Everyone starts to scream. “Ahhh, it’s on now! Y’all get ready. Get back in the street, we gotta stay together.”
The police arrive and form a line, not yet dressed in riot gear. Behind them, two armored vehicles sit. Masks start to get put on. I see groups of people grabbing rocks. At some point, I see a white woman yell at a group of black kids to stop grabbing rocks. They ignore her. The police are using binoculars to survey the crowd for trouble. They are videotaping the crowd as well, both to find the troublemakers, but also to show the public that they used “restraint.”
Rocks, water bottles, and bricks start to get thrown. At this point, the police haven’t gotten out their riot shields yet, so they’re kind of like sitting ducks. As more things are thrown, other officers from behind the line scurry to hand out shields to those in front.
Shield guys protect your stick!
Compared to fighting the police in Ferguson on West Florissant, surrounded by shitty strip malls, here we are surrounded by homes. It was hard not to feel a parallel with the Baltimore Uprising, seeing people grab whatever they could find and hurl it at the police, repurposing the decay and the violence that capitalism and white supremacy has imposed. The decay of a falling down building with loose bricks or the concrete from a broken sidewalk—instead of something to merely live with—now becomes a weapon to throw: to throw away the rampant structural violence of ghettoization and inflict literal violence back upon those who enforce it. It’s like: we don’t want this anymore, you can have it!
The police are in a bind because if they let this go on for much longer, it could reach epic proportions, and not just more rocks hitting them, but more people hearing about it becoming emboldened. Who knows what that means, and surely they don’t want to find out. They must come out hard. They gotta nip this in the bud.
Seemingly learning from the occurrences in Baltimore—where the police lost control initially and then stood down and let people have the city to purge for the night—the STLPD did come out hard. First they fired smoke bombs, which people threw back. This confused a lot of people because it wasn’t tear gas. So a lot of us came back to Page and Walton.
Then all of the sudden, the line of police opened up and two armored cars sped out, stopped, and fired tear gas towards us. Two police were sticking out of the top of the car, one shooting gas, and the other shooting rubber bullets from a shotgun. And there’s maybe some in the back of the truck throwing a different kind of tear gas that is much more potent than most seasoned rioters in St. Louis have felt. I hide behind cars to avoid the bullets. I can see them pointing at groups to shoot from the top of the van. They shoot more and more bullets and gas too. As we run, they speed towards us, firing more gas.
I ran with a group of people west down page and could hear the bullets flying past me, hitting people around me. Since we’re in a neighborhood with lots of side streets and alleys, most people run down them thinking the police will just stay on Page. But they don’t. One truck goes left and the other goes right and shoots gas and bullets at anyone they can see. This has the effect of tear-gassing lots of people who are just sitting on their stoops outside their homes.
At this point, the gas has gotten to many of us. A crowd starts to slowly regroup back on Page. People are washing their eyes out. Others who’ve been shot by bullets are getting bandages put on by protest medics. All the while, the armored vans are still driving around the side streets and backtracking towards the line of the riot police.
Thinking it’s safe, we’re all just chilling and recovering. But the armored vehicles just come back, doing the same thing. We all run again. They follow us down the side streets, shooting everywhere they can.
By 7:40 the trucks and police finally back down a little and leave. We rest for a while. Friends and I make it to people sitting on their stoop. They ask us what’s up and ask if we’re the “looters” in a very genuine non-hostile way. It’s catches us all off guard. We’re not the “looters,” per se, nor “protestors” either—what the fuck are we actually in this moment? Surely something more than just protestors?
We regroup at the intersection where Man-Man was killed. It’s relatively calm. There are only 50 of us. The police block the road even farther down Page than earlier in the day. For a while only one lane of traffic is allowed through, but at some point they the whole road.
For an hour or so, not much happens. As the sun goes down, I look to my right down Walton and see a car on fire. I run to it, hoping it’s a cop car, but it turns out it’s just someone’s car who was out protesting as well. The Prius is exploding all over the place. I run back to Page to see people looting the corner store. There are a few more fires burning in the street and some people are busting out a wooden fence to add to the it The atmosphere is pretty festive.
There are some white allies and black organizers who are blaming the fires on white people, yelling at white friends who have masks on. “Y’all come here and start shit and just leave! Fuck y’all! You’re exploiting the suffering here.” Besides being pretty presumptuous about people and who they are and where they come from, this creates an unsafe environment for all. Also, the people who started the fires and the majority of people who are adding to them are not white. Some white friends argue with them but some just ignore them. We’re used to this bullshit and these fools usually never want to talk it out, but rather just yell and post shit on twitter.
It’s starting to get tense when an assortment of people from the neighborhood come to the defense of those who are white and in masks. And lo and behold, they’re black and proud. They express to these organizers and allies that they want these fires. They want that store to be looted, even burnt. They want fires because this is what it takes. In the minds of the white allies and the black organizers this is a clusterfuck: they seemingly see black people as victims with no agency, children to be protected from the “white anarchists” and police—not actors with a reason and will to do unsafe things on their own terms.
One man yells at the most vocal black organizer, saying he knows her from around town. He’s telling her to get out, that she’s just paid to be here, that he wants these white people here, so fuck off. All the while, various people are adding to the fire—majority black and some snowflakes of white—and the organiers refuse to see this reality. At some point, some white people are dragging a mattress and the black organizers go and tell them to stop. People around are telling the white people to keep going, to put that shit in the fire. I talk to a few of the people and tell them I can’t do it because these fools are around unmasking folks, but maybe we could do it together? Soon we’re dragging the mattress out into the street together, I grin at the fools trying to stop progress. They are successfully shut up, but not before they wreak havoc on social media.
I talked to a few more of the people in the crowd who were defending white folks about what just happened. They’re still expressing displeasure about the organizers. I express how these people did this in Ferguson and will do it again. They erase the black voices and actions that they find objectionable and blame it on some outside influence. And then they come back and exploit the blackness of the rebellions to gain notoriety.*** We all agree, and there are hugs all around.
The fires are going and we’re all having a pretty good time, except the organizers I suppose. At some point people start yelling about how we should go up to Kingshighway and loot some stores, or go down to Grand and Page and get the Foot Locker. I rush past some of the white allies who were complaining and murmur jokingly, “I heard that all the white people are looting the Foot Locker!” They look at me confused. Lots of people start racing up the street to the stores. There’s not much to really loot around here. I wish we could be back in the Central West End, but the police would surely kill us if we did that.**** They don’t care about any of the shit around here. I run into a person dressed in her nurse scrubs, who I’ve talked to throughout the night and ask her if she’s gonna go up there. She nonchalantly says with a big smile, “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be there soon, baby. I gotta go back home for a minute!”
People loot a beauty store and a cheap jewelry store. It lasts for a while. The police don’t really come. People are going in and out grabbing pricey hair extensions and driving off with the loot.
The police don’t respond to the looting too quick because there’s a house fire a block away and they’re mobilizing police escorts for the fire trucks. I look up in the air and see the police helicopter spotlighting a huge billow of smoke a block away. The fire is huge. I learn that it’s a vacant house with grassy lots around it—a safe distance from homes. It’s sort of shitty that, once again it isn’t something that’s cop related. But whatever. There are so many houses in this city that are too far-gone and might as well be burnt. Later at I find out the property is owned by a development company based in Colorado. I’m sure they’ve left the house vacant for years.
Three fire trucks come with lots of police to escort them. The armored van comes back and faces us, but doesn’t do anything—they’re just here to protect the fire trucks. I can smell the tear gas waffing from the van. I can only hope that they accidently tear gassed themselves at some point today. At this point the crowd is pretty dispersed and I hear of other stores getting broken into throughout the night. By 11pm, we decide to head home for the night.
Later on social media I read from pro-riot people that the city of St. Louis is on fire, but really it was just a block. Sorry.
Against the Law.
In our world, the State and its police do not serve to rid the world of racial and class conflict, they serve to merely manage it to the benefit of those who both exploit and exclude the majority of us from any power and wealth. This exclusion happens through the relegating of people of color and the poor to ghettos and prisons. Also by dispersing rage into complex systems based around enforcing Law and anti-blackness.
So often after occurrences like the last night, we hear people talk about the police overstepping their ground. They express shock that the police would use teargas, that they would act violent to “peaceful” protestors. This has the effect of placating us into a game of respectability and is the language of those who seek to govern us. It misses the point that the police serve to protect white power and wealth. It also erases those who are not peaceful, who throw the rocks, who force the police’s hand to tear gas us. In order to fight off the police and everything else, we can no longer be peaceful.
We can no longer speak the language of law or jump through their hoops. Because, while the police might overstep their bounds and break their own laws, what is more insidious and violent is the daily reality of law and capitalism itself. The law is what upheld slavery. It is what allows your employer to pay you shit, the police to ticket you, your landlord to evict you from your home, and the bills to never ever end, etc.
The current models that plague political scenes around race and resistance are severely out of touch with what has been happening in the last few years during anti-police uprisings. Many of these models come from academia, activist ghettos, or through computer and phone screens, untouched by the grime and sweat of actual lived rebellion. They cannot really see what is happening in front of them.
Self-organization is not something that we can waterdown by calling “grassroots,” but rather it’s a form of organization that comes about in the moment where people refuse to delegate their power to an already established party or person and act on their own. Usually it comes about when those who are enraged by their conditions react in the only ways they know how—informed by the literal terrain of their lives and not by some kind of pre-established political program. Often this can mean engaging in action that does not crystallize into a formal organization, but serves a necessary need in a moment. It’s those who bring food or water because it is necessary to sustain a rebellion. Or building a barricade with others. It’s looting a store and passing out the goods. It’s helping each other work through the intensity of police violence. It’s having unscripted debates in the street about what to do as a group. And often this is not the product of one singular leader or some vanguard group that leads the charge toward the police, but rather a complex assemblage of people who have found each other.
The self-organization within various POC-led rebellions in the last years have jumped leaps and bounds past the established ideas about what it means to resist race and victimization. People have found each other in unusual ways that are not the product of some kind of organizer meeting. They have resisted any idea, whether from the police or the liberal-left that they are complacent, passive. This self-organization not only scares police (who are quickly gearing up to prepare for future insurrections), but also many of those who talk of themselves as leaders, activists or grassroots political organizers in the realm of race politics.
The dynamic has challenged the common view that people are merely downtrodden and need a leader to galvanize them, that they are afraid to resist unless they feel safe. People have taken to attacking the institutions that seek to make them into just another “black body” to be protested and hash-tagged for when found dead by activists. They’ve confronted white power which makes them socially dead even when physically alive and attacked the concrete manifestations of capitalism and the police, refusing pleas to go home by both police and political managers.
We certainly want more than just a riot or a tense stand off with the police. We can glorify riots and looting all we want, but at the end of the day for many of us, life hasn’t changed—the rioting can even add to the stress of it. For some life continues to get even worse. The police still do what they do. The rent is still due. Work still forces you to wake up in the morning. Rebellion must seep into our day-to-day lives, not just allow us to get our kicks.
Ferguson and this most recent wave of anti-police violence have shown the police are trying their hardest to keep the rioting, looting and unrest contained to shitty strip malls and bombed out neighborhoods. The police and politicians do not expect peace in the end, so their strategy is to manage the inevitable revolts by keeping them far from the centers of wealth and power. Instead of just looting the exploiters in a poor black neighborhood, we’ll need to move to the arteries that make governance and capitalism work—whether that’s going to block the highways, trashing rich neighborhoods or finding warehouses full of building material. We must take their land, buildings, and space and create autonomous zones where police and authority are kicked out. Through this, possibilities can be opened.
To be continued…
*It would seem that Flannery went undetected until the next day. One wonders what would have happened to him if he’d been exposed in the moment. His presence should put to rest any inkling one might have about his supposed remorse.
**At one point I overheard a minister saying that those who were the most combative would be the first to run. “And they’re pregnant women here!” he kept saying. It was hard to bite my tongue and not scream that those people were perfectly capable of deciding if they wanted to be there or not—not him, a total stranger who presumed to know more about their lives and bodies. Another cause for concern for these community leaders was the fluctuating number of junior high- and high school-aged participants.
***When things happen that the organizers like they say black people did it. When things happen that they don’t like they say outsiders, white people, anarchists or police did it. Even things they once denounced as white people taking advantage once they become popular enough become righteous acts of black anger. They of course never acknowledge the shift.
**** In March 2003, a militant anti-war march was stopped on its way to the Central West End. Previously, police had been mostly hands-off and protesters had committed little to no property damage. Clear to police and marchers alike, this group was on its was to the CWE because of its concentration of wealth. Just west of the CWE, surrounded by mansions on Lindell, the group was surrounded, maced and beaten. Police left most of the group go when they realized they were underage. Police are not fucking around when it comes to the island of wealth that is the Central West End.