Watch: As St. Louis Faces Latest Unrest, Pastor Calls on Christians to Be Peacemakers
On Friday, the Missouri Judicial Circuit Court of St. Louis announced that a former local police officer was found not guilty of murder charges. The court found that white officer Jason Stockley was operating in self-defense when, in 2011, he fatally shot black man Anthony Lamar Smith following a high-speed car chase.
The court’s decision set off a wave of protests downtown. Thousands gathered Friday afternoon in downtown St. Louis to voice their views on the decision.
“Every single person in our country, we have a right to be mad,” stated attorney Al Watkins, who represents Christina Wilson, Smith’s fiancée and mother of his child. “We have a right to express our opinion. We have a right to protest. Exploit that right, don’t compromise it. Stay peaceful.”
Background: The High Cost of Civil Unrest
“Of course, I’m disappointed with the court’s decision,” St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner said in an impassioned statement. “Officer-involved shooting cases are extremely difficult to prevail in court.”
In 2013, the city of St. Louis reached a $900,000 civil settlement with the Smith family including Wilson. The former Circuit Attorney reopened the case in 2016, though the basis for a new trial was not disclosed.
Gardner also called for peaceful protest, saying, “We can share what’s on our minds without destroying the very city we all want to make a better place. Destruction of our community is not the answer. Rather, we need to build an alliance to reform the shortcomings of the current approach.”
Following the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, riots in the city and nearby Ferguson resulted in public property damage ultimately costing more than $5 million dollars.
Scott Erickson, a former police officer for 20 years in California, read the 30-page verdict by Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson. He offered his views to The Stream.
“Situations like the Stockley/Smith incident are often, and understandably, emotionally charged,” he said. “While not everyone will agree with the verdict, the important question to ask is whether the justice system functioned fairly and impartially.”
Responses: When Offenses Boil Over
Jonathan Tremaine Thomas, a local black pastor, joined the crowd downtown to urge a nonviolent response. “This is an incredibly and seriously painful situation for hundreds of thousands of Americans,” he said in a Facebook Live video.
“St. Louis has been a historic boiling point for racial tensions,” he explained. “Missouri has a history of making decisions that were based on race, that influenced the racial crisis in America.”
“The self-defense argument offered a plausible explanation adding context to the officer’s decision to use deadly force.”
“In this city, it was decided in 1857 that African Americans were not citizens and therefore were not entitled to the due processes of the U.S. Constitution and the judicial system,” said Thomas, referencing the decision Dred Scott v. Sanford.
Former cop Erickson did not see a racial component in the Stockley verdict. “Given the officer’s testimony and available evidence, the self-defense argument offered a plausible explanation adding context to the officer’s decision to use deadly force,” he said.
“Situations like those — involving a fleeing suspect thought to be armed — are often very fluid and highly dynamic. Officers rarely have the luxury of second-guessing themselves when their lives are potentially on the line,” said Erickson, who leads the group Americans in Support of Law Enforcement.
“What makes this case more difficult are the objectionable comments the officer made prior to using deadly force against Smith,” he added. In a dashcam video, Stockley used an expletive to refer to the black man.
“The words understandably raised serious concerns regarding the officer’s mindset during the moment’s leading up to and including his application of deadly force,” concluded Erickson.
Perspective: Local Pastor Reminds, Prayer Can Make A Difference
For Thomas, on staff at Destiny Church in a St. Louis suburb, the situation presents an opportunity.
“As a black man, I am somewhat emotional in this hour. I feel a lot of things in light of what has happened,” he said as he walked downtown. “But the presence of anger does not mean the absence of love.”
“I want to call forth the church, who have largely never known what to do. In these types of situations, we sit back and we pray from home. We become keyboard warriors offering opinions. But we don’t need opinions when we have the written word of God,” the pastor began to preach.
“God actually tells us specifically what our commission is in times of crisis. His Word says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for you shall be called the sons of God,’” he cited the Sermon on the Mount. “He has initiated a people in the earth who would actually be the bearers of good news in the midst of bad news.”
“My heart is heavy today,” he said, echoing how many mourn this case and those similar to it. “The gospels say Jesus looked upon the crowds and He was moved with compassion. He saw those who were beaten and harassed, legitimately oppressed.”
“He was moved with compassion, then He did miracles. It’s the compassion piece that we’re contending for in the church right now.” Thomas noted that further unrest was expected in the city, yet urged Christians to pray for peace.