Black Missourians have spent the last 20 days staging protests in St. Louis over the acquittal of former police officer Jason Stockley for the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith.
The demonstrations that began Sept. 15 are the latest of several the region has endured. On Aug. 9, 2014, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, sparking weeks of protests and rioting that culminated in Wilson not being indicted. The tally of black lives snuffed out by St. Louis-area law enforcement has only grown since then — Kajieme Powell, Mansur Ball-Bey and Thomas Allen, to name a few.
It’s safe to say that people in St. Louis are tired. Decades of police abuse in the city and its surrounding suburbs have relegated black residents to a state of siege. The Justice Department confirmed in a 2015 report that Ferguson police officers routinely targeted black people for harassment, using funds obtained via racially-motivated traffic citations to bankroll the city’s budget. St. Louis Metropolitan PD sought help from the DOJ after Brown’s death to uncover any racist practices that might be occurring within its ranks.
It’s hard to imagine a pursuit more grinding than pleading for human rights in the face of such brutality. But president Ed Clark of the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association identified a different set of victims this week. Speaking to KSDK on Wednesday, Clark discussed what the station described as the emotional toll the protests have taken on the police officers his union represents.
“I don’t even know how to explain how hard that is and the toll,” Clark said. “But after a while I would say just like any other reasonable person that you start to feel pretty unappreciated.”
The absurdity of Clark expecting appreciation from a black populace that his officers have abused — and in many cases, killed — speaks for itself. But acknowledging the emotional toll the protests are apparently taking on police speaks to their effectiveness. Emotion is why they are happening. Protests are supposed to elicit an emotional response. By design, such demonstrations demand that people take sides on a contested issue. And if black Missourians are wearing down the St. Louis police, the solution is clear in their demands: Stop killing them.
This is not what Clark was getting at. He was seeking sympathy for officers who work overtime and get told they’re doing a bad job, not acknowledging sympathy for the protesters’ cause. And his timing is fortuitous. The narrative of police officers as put-upon victims has become increasingly popular. A robust “Blue Lives Matter” movement has aligned itself against black civil rights protesters in recent years, resulting in a spate of local laws re-classifying police as protected under hate crime statutes. As Black Lives Matter-led protests gained momentum, Donald Trump dedicated his Republican National Convention speech in 2016 to restoring “law and order.” Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said he believes that reports of systemic police misconduct are overblown. He recently withdrew his department’s support for law enforcement entities seeking help to become less racist.
That Americans are rallying to protect law enforcement so enthusiastically seems incongruous amid one of the safest periods on record for police. The number of law enforcement officers killed yearly in violent incidents has trended downward since the mid-1970s. It is also a period of high nationwide support. According to Gallup, which has tracked opinions on the subject since 1992, public confidence in police rebounded this year to its average of 57% after dropping to a record-tying low of 52% in 2015 (it’s worth noting that confidence has never dipped below 50%).
Nevertheless, police antagonism against protesters — and the critiques they express — remains high. Years after their Ferguson counterparts rolled down Florissant Avenue in tanks, firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at black residents and provoking the ire of many observers, St. Louis police claimed victory when they arrested dozens on Sept. 17, reportedly co-opting a common activist chant: “Whose streets? Our streets!” This was outrageous but unsurprising. One can imagine the catharsis the officers drew from seemingly regaining control where many believed it was slipping away.
But in doing so, they also revealed their emotional stake in the dispute. Part of the protesters’ long game entails swaying public sympathy in their direction, as much as the police want that sympathy to stay with them. Confidence in police is high, as illustrated earlier. And as many have pointed out, black-led civil rights protests have been consistently unpopular throughout U.S. history. Martin Luther King Jr., who Americans roundly acknowledge today as a national hero, had a negative public approval rating in 1966.
Yet if the St. Louis protests are eliciting emotional responses from the police, they are doing their job. Forcing people into discomfort eventually requires a reckoning. And when people are made to ask hard questions of themselves, change draws that much nearer.