They carried signs that read “Black Lives Matter,” held fists in the air and marched together as one — blacks, whites, Latinos.
A day after a former St. Louis police officer was acquitted in the shooting death of a black man, tensions remained high in the city and surrounding suburbs on Saturday as protesters gathered in parks and shopping malls.
“This is tiring, absolutely tiring,” said state Rep. Bruce Franks Jr., who participated in the protests and whose district spans portions of St. Louis. “Again, we see a police officer walk free after gunning down a black man. What’s our alternative other than to protest? We’re going to disrupt the peace.”
On Saturday, several hundred protesters peacefully assembled in a suburban St. Louis park. The group then made its way to a mall, the West County Center. Many stores closed and police shuttered the mall briefly. The group then headed to a different mall a short drive away to stage more peaceful demonstrations.
In anticipation of additional protests, the band U2 canceled its Saturday night concert in St. Louis after police told concert organizers that they couldn't provide a standard level of security. The band said on its website it did not want to risk the safety of fans. Another concert in downtown St. Louis, which was scheduled for Sunday by the artist Ed Sheeran, was also canceled.
The protests come after a judge found former St. Louis Police Officer Jason Stockley, who is white, not guilty of first-degree murder in the December 2011 shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith.
Smith, 24, fled from Stockley and led him on a high-speed chase that lasted three minutes, with speeds reaching nearly 90 mph. Once it ended, Stockley fired into Smith’s car and killed him. Stockley said he believed Smith was armed. A gun was discovered in Smith’s car, but prosecutors argued that the officers had put it there.
In his first public comments since the verdict, Stockley, 36, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Saturday it felt as if “a burden has been lifted, but the burden of having to kill someone never really lifts.”
“The taking of someone’s life is the most significant thing one can do, and it’s not done lightly. … My main concern now is for the first responders, the people just trying to go to work and the protesters. I don’t want anyone to be hurt in any way over this,” he said.
“I can feel for and I understand what the family is going through, and I know everyone wants someone to blame, but I’m just not the guy,” Stockley said.
Stockley’s acquittal sparked several hundred protesters to flood the streets of downtown Friday, leading to almost two dozen arrests, according to the St. Louis Police Department. Police said nine officers and one highway officer were injured. Some protesters broke windows at the home of Mayor Lyda Krewson.
In a statement, Krewson said she was “appalled at what happened” to Smith and called for peace among demonstrators.
“I encourage St. Louisians to show each other compassion, to recognize that we all have different experiences and backgrounds and that we all come from this with real feelings and experiences,” she said.
Last week, days before the ruling, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens held a news conference with Smith’s fiancée, Christina Wilson, calling for peaceful demonstrations as the community waited for a ruling.
"If you feel like you want to speak out, speak how you feel and whatever comes to you," Wilson said. "Just do it in a peaceful way."
For many African Americans and activists, the not-guilty verdict is yet another injustice in a pattern of police brutality against blacks.
In May, an Oklahoma jury acquitted an officer who shot and killed Terence Crutcher as he stood with his hands above his head. In June, a Minnesota jury found not guilty the officer who killed Philando Castile, who was unarmed and killed during a traffic stop livestreamed on Facebook by his girlfriend. That same month, an Ohio judge declared a mistrial after jurors deadlocked, unable to agree on whether to convict a former University of Cincinnati police officer who killed Samuel DuBose in an incident captured on a body camera.
For Franks and many in the St. Louis area, memories of the riots in nearby Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 remain fresh.
“That was a travesty of justice and here we are yet again with this — another travesty of justice, ” Franks said Saturday.
At that time, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was unarmed when he was shot by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, a city in the suburbs northwest of St. Louis. The shooting led to violent protests and became a rallying point for social justice groups. A grand jury decided not to indict Wilson.
“I was out there with the Ferguson protesters and I’m still here,” Franks said. “And I will keep standing here with others and fight against injustice that is ongoing in this country either in St. Louis, Ferguson or wherever.”