A grassroots uprising responding to police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, gripped the world’s attention in 2014. In September 2017, a former St. Louis police officer was acquitted of the 2011 murder of Black driver Anthony Lamar Smith. In response, local residents have staged continuing protests now stretching into their second straight month.
Escalating police responses to the 2017 uprising have driven support for proposed local reforms introduced this summer, even as a continuing cable news blackout limiting the struggle’s visibility may suggest that the power of social media is waning in an age of algorithmic content curation.
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How the Latest Uprising Started
The current uprising is the latest chapter in a long-simmering debate over police violence in St. Louis.
Jason Stockley, a former St. Louis police officer, was the defendant in a murder trial this August for shooting and killing Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011. Stockley initially evaded prosecution, as do most police who kill in the line of duty. Yet four years after state and federal prosecutors declined to pursue charges, a local prosecutor stepped into the void to seek justice.
Stockley’s prosecution included remarkable allegations, supported by forensic evidence, video evidence and audio evidence. The court examined an audio recording of Stockley voicing his intention to kill Smith (saying during the chase preceding the shooting that “I’m going to kill this mother****r … “), and dash cam footage showing that it took Stockley only 15 seconds to shoot Smith after leaving his police vehicle. The court also heard testimony from an FBI forensics specialist who noted that Stockley fired at least one shot from only six inches away, more reflective of an execution than Stockley’s claim to self-defense.
The evidence against Stockley was so strong that support for his conviction came from unlikely corners, including a local police union. Noting that Stockley committed multiple violations of department protocol, Sergeant Heather Taylor explained that, based on the facts, Stockley clearly “wasn’t defending himself in the line of duty.”
Nonetheless, Stockley was acquitted on September 15 after a bench trial, confirming the observation of activists across St. Louis — and the country —that there is “no justice” to be found in courts when police kill civilians.
An Escalating Police Response to Protests
Public reaction to the acquittal was both swift and consistent. Mass protests quickly spread across the city, prompting escalating police responses, including what one state official described as “a police riot.”
St. Louis has endured scathing criticism — from federal authorities including the Department of Justice, and also in federal court, where the city continues to face multiple lawsuits — for its police department’s violations of constitutionally protected rights to speech and assembly during the 2014 uprising. Informed by that history, officials anticipated mass protests as early as August, even calling in the state National Guard before Stockley was acquitted on September 15.
Activists seeking police accountability have mounted an ongoing campaign featuring a range of actions. Rather than focus their dissent in impoverished areas where longstanding police abuses have generated a widespread awareness about the need for overdue reforms, local organizers have extended a visible presence into suburban shopping malls and university enclaves. The escalating police responses — which have included the indiscriminate deployment of chemical weapons in generally peaceful areas — have in turn alienated residents, local leaders and even business owners from areas historically unaffected by police violence.
At a protest that shut down the Galleria shopping mall in suburban Brentwood, police forcefully arrested not only participants, but also bystanders as young as 13 years old. A local newspaper published images of a police officer placing a chokehold on an African-American grandmother later revealed to be a faith leader, which prompted another faith leader in the city to accuse police of “domestic terrorism.”
Rather than reflect an isolated occurrence, police violence responding to protests (protests that were, of course, sparked in response to police violence) constitute an apparent pattern and practice. On Sunday, September 24, police responding to protests downtown not only arrested more than 120 people en masse, but also meted out seemingly random violence. Police assaulted — and viciously injured — not only dozens of civilians protesting police violence, but also an undercover police officer among them, as well as journalists. Victims of the assault included an active duty Air Force officer who was not participating in the protests but merely lived nearby and was reportedly “kicked in the face, blinded by pepper spray and dragged away.”
Reacting to mounting public alarm, the office of Mayor Lyda Krewson stated, “The allegations are disturbing.” City prosecutor Kim Gardner proposed to local policymakers that her office be given independent authority to investigate and prosecute police misconduct. As Gardner argued, “Both the community and police deserve an objective, fair and transparent investigation, and it is no longer acceptable for police to be essentially investigating themselves.”
Meanwhile, local resistance to police violence has continued unabated. A week after police ran amok in the Galleria, participants in the earlier protest returned to the shopping mall for a subsequent demonstration that — without police instigating violence — remained peaceful.
Residents resisting police violence have also escalated their tactics to impose economic costs on a community seemingly unwilling to consider justice for its own sake. Beyond declaring dissent, St. Louis organizers — whose recurring chants include “no justice, no profits” — have pursued several activities to impede commerce.
For instance, of the more than 300 activists who have been arrested across St. Louis since early September, 143 were detained on a single night when they peacefully seized an interstate highway, blocking traffic downtown until they left and were arrested. Other actions have included a march through a hotel and protests at Major League Baseball games that included unfurling a banner reading, “Stop Killing Us,” and chants such as “no justice, no baseball.”
Beyond these discrete protests, organizers have also called for an economic boycott of the city, which offers profound possibility given the proven responsiveness of institutions — from agricultural producers and footwear manufacturers to companies engaged in logging — to economic boycotts. The band U2 inadvertently honored the economic boycott by cancelling a concert citing security concerns.
Surveillance Reforms on the Horizon
Months before the latest uprising in St. Louis, the Board of Alders (a local equivalent of a city council) introduced a measure to enable community control over surveillance by local police. The bill is supported by Privacy Watch St. Louis, a local member of the Electronic Frontier Alliance. It is modeled on reforms that have drawn support from policymakers elsewhere in the country, beginning in Silicon Valley in 2016, and most recently in Somerville, Massachusetts, in early October.
These measures aim to essentially end the era of police departments secretly, unilaterally and unaccountably buying surveillance platforms. They require law enforcement agencies to document the security rationale driving any proposed equipment purchase, as well as its implications for privacy. The reforms also require an opportunity for public notice and comment on those documents. After public comment, these policies empower lawmakers — not police — to decide whether any proposed purchase will proceed.
On the one hand, the recent uprising may seem to have obscured proposed surveillance reforms. Since police violence has occupied the public attention, surveillance has not risen to the fore of the St. Louis Board of Alders’ agenda. On the other hand, the uprising has brought the need to restrain police generally into increasingly sharp focus.
While surveillance presents constitutional harms that threaten the rights of all Americans, it has been historically politicized in the US, with particular communities enduring its worst examples. For instance, law professor Andrew Guthrie Ferguson writes that contemporary “[a]ctivists involved in the Movement for Black Lives … have been monitored” by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and observers have documented the abuse of various tools, including cell-site simulators that spy on voice and data transmissions from cellular devices, to do so. Similarly, the FBI recently designated “black identity extremists” as particular threats to public safety, recalling the COINTELPRO era during which it discriminatorily criminalized dissent — flouting constitutional protections — for over 40 years.
The historical connection between surveillance and government attempts to (in the FBI’s words) “disrupt … or otherwise neutralize” the movement for civil rights has not been lost on activists in St. Louis. Due to their efforts, the backlash to police violence may have prompted interest among local policymakers in revisiting police reforms even beyond those they previously endorsed.
With communities elsewhere having recently established new high watermarks for local safeguards protecting civil rights and civil liberties, they will have any number of models to consider. Some address digital rights in the context of allowing youth restrained by gang injunctions to enjoy due process rights to contest their inclusion in police databases. Others directly address surveillance, in the form of limits on intelligence collection of the sort adopted in Berkeley, California, as early as 2011.
Social Media and Resistance to Police Violence
While activists in St. Louis continue their work to restrain police in their communities, many Americans have not noticed that the uprising that began in Ferguson continues. How can that be true in the age of social media?
One of the original value propositions presented by social media platforms was the opportunity to correct biases apparent in traditional media outlets. Two particular historical examples seemed to establish the ability of social media to focus public attention.
In 2011, Silicon Valley triumphantly claimed that its tools advanced democracy by helping social movements across the Middle East destabilize a series of dictatorships (most — but not all — of which relapsed to authoritarian rule after brief flirtations with democracy). More recently, a continuing stream of police murders captured no video and shared on social media has forced national attention to systemic racism despite its long and conspicuous omission from the mainstream policy discourse.
There’s no doubt that social media has grown inestimably powerful. Drawing over $1 billion in advertising during the 2016 elections, Facebook alone has demonstrated the power to swing elections. The platform can skew what people read, shifting their impressions of reality, and mask foreign influence to such an extent that it can effectively override domestic preferences and elections.
Beyond the crisis in policing and civil rights in St. Louis and its implications for local policy, the 2017 uprising may also have demonstrated the limits of social media. Despite a raging controversy extending for weeks across a major US city, cable news outlets — including those dedicated to 24-hour news, several which established a ubiquitous presence during the 2014 uprising — have not covered either the 2017 uprising or the continuing abuses that have inspired it.
Meanwhile, even Americans who do use social media may be insulated from events in St. Louis. That may be because filter bubbles and algorithmic content curation — implemented by both Facebook and Twitter in the years since the Arab Spring — limit the visibility of posts about them. Alternatively, it may result from social media becoming an object of discourse in itself, with the president’s tweets driving journalism that might otherwise be dedicated to covering actual news.
Regardless, activists in St. Louis remain undaunted. According to John Chasnoff, co-chair of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression and a member of Privacy Watch STL, “Local business leaders know the economic disruption that the current uprising is creating. Local politicians know that their ability to govern is being challenged. Sure, national attention would provide another pressure point, but we’re going to reshape this city and region one way or another.”
The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect those of his employer.