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St. Louis Brace For More Protests Following Police Officer Acquittal

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to go to the St. Louis area now, which has become the scene of a number of racially charged protests in recent years centered on police treatment of young black men. Today marked the second day of protests after a white former St. Louis police officer named Jason Stockley was acquitted of murder in the shooting death of a 24-year-old black man, Anthony Lamar Smith, back in 2011.

Today's protest follows clashes yesterday in which there were 23 arrests and some injuries. Several hundred protesters in St. Louis surrounded the mayor's home last night, breaking windows and throwing red paint before police dispersed the crowd.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch metro columnist Tony Messenger has been writing about all of this. He's called the acquittal a familiar refrain in a nation tiring of black men being shot and killed by police. We reached him just outside St. Louis, and he's with us now. Tony Messenger, thanks so much for talking to us.

TONY MESSENGER: Good to be here.

MARTIN: Tony, could you just describe the mood there now, especially over the last couple of days?

MESSENGER: Well, I think for the last couple of days, it's been a city on edge. Everybody has been waiting for the verdict. And this is a little bit different than what happened three years ago with Ferguson because activists have been preparing for this day. And the edge that sort of existed in the community has taken place over a period of a couple of weeks. And yesterday, it got here.

And last night, a lot of people across the nation saw what I experienced on the street in the Central West End, which was, you know, at one point, about a thousand protesters marching peacefully up and down a very busy commercial district of restaurants, disrupting the economy. They specifically were talking about that, about if there's no justice for blacks in St. Louis, then we're going to disrupt the economy until you pay attention to us. That was one of the refrains that we heard over and over.

MARTIN: What is it about this case that is causing this level of anger and resentment?

MESSENGER: I think it's a couple of things. Part of it is the timing. And part of it is some of the specific dynamics of the case. This case happened in 2011, three years before Michael Brown in Ferguson. And so people knew about it back then, and it didn't get anywhere near as much attention as it's getting right now. And he was never charged at the time.

And the former circuit attorney decided to charge him last year in 2016. And so it was an unusual event. And it was some black protesters and activists that really pushed her to do that and brought the case forward into the public eye again as St Louis was still reeling from Ferguson and learning from Ferguson and trying to understand the racial dynamic that has been played on in this city for a very long time.

Then you go to the specifics of the case, where the police officer was accused by the prosecutor of planting a gun, where the police officer was caught on tape at one point using expletives that I won't repeat on the radio, but basically saying, I'm going to kill this guy. And the judge determined that the burden of proof was not met for a murder conviction, but those details don't go away in the minds of black people who have lived in a community where they have felt oppressed by the police for a long time.

MARTIN: Where is public opinion now, in your view, in St. Louis about these incidents? Do you feel that people are still racially divided over this, that African-Americans tend to have one point of view and white residents tend to have a different? Do you see any meeting of the minds in the years since Ferguson?

MESSENGER: I see some change. I mean, for instance, when I was on the streets in Central West End last night, I think the crowd of protesters last night and going on today is more diverse than what we saw in Ferguson. I think that there has been a lot of effort over the past three years to educate this community.

But there is most definitely a divide still between how black people view the verdict and how white people view the verdict, how people of different race and background view traffic disruptions. I think we still have a long ways to go. I think people still see the verdict and protest through a completely different eye based on their own lived experience.

MARTIN: That's St. Louis Post-Dispatch metro columnist Tony Messenger. He's been writing about the protests in St. Louis and the previous case involving Jason Stockley and Anthony Lamar Smith. Jason Stockley was acquitted of murder in the shooting death of 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith on Friday, and a number of protests have ensued. We reached him just outside St. Louis, in West County. Tony Messenger, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MESSENGER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.