To Disrupt or Destroy? Police Accountability Movement at a Crossroads

File photo from the “Justice For All” March in Washington, DC on Saturday, December 13th, 2014.

By Chris King/The St. Louis American, Special to The Tennessee Tribune

ST. LOUIS, MO — On Saturday, a day and night of often disruptive, but not destructive, protests of the verdict in the Jason Stockley murder case ended in widespread destruction of property in the University City Loop, as vandals smashed shop windows. According to many eyewitnesses, the destruction was first led by masked young white men, though they had black accomplices – or “black allies,” to turn the “white ally” concept of the protest movement on its masked head.

This property destruction action, which will be confused in the public mind with the peaceful disruptive protest actions that preceded it (and that provided the vandals with their opportunity), begs an analysis of the relationship between disruption and destruction in the police accountability movement, starting from Ferguson.

A protest reporter for The American came back from the first days of the Ferguson unrest in August 2014 with some observations that were difficult to substantiate. She said she saw white people (mostly men) who didn’t fit in, were very aggressive and violent, but were not accommodating to a reporter trying to get them into her stories.

More detail emerged when Gov. Jay Nixon came to Rev. Traci Blackmon’s church, Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, the day he called the Missouri National Guard into Ferguson. This was a moment of turbulent change in Ferguson, when powerful white men had no choice but to listen to less powerful (in material terms) black women. Rev. Blackmon told the governor that he was not in her church to talk, but to listen.

But he didn’t listen.

Rev. Blackmon forced the governor to listen to one of her parishioners who lived in Canfield Green Apartments, where Michael Brown was killed. This parishioner told the governor he needed to stop the white people who were coming down a trail where you can walk into Canfield Green from Jennings. She said they dressed hip-hop and tried to connect with people, but only to fire them up and try to get them interested in destructive things. She said these white outsiders were starting to teach kids how to make little fire bombs.

No one in Ferguson knew this phrase at the time, but she was talking about Molotov cocktails, which became a signature part of the trashy, destructive coda to many otherwise disruptive, but peaceful, actions in Ferguson.

Nixon didn’t listen.

Amazingly, he did not tell her that he had investigators who wanted to know everything she knew and would be talking to her when the new Unified Command was in place.

Either he was too nervous to listen, or he did not care what a plain-spoken black woman had to say, but the governor made absolutely no reference to the extremely valuable intelligence she had just freely given to the state. Instead, Nixon recited a set piece on the U.S Constitution and our freedoms of speech and assembly.

Nixon slept through the opportunity, but then-St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson was in the church and acted upon it. Thanks to Dotson, the Unified Command soon had regular access to the concerns of black people in Ferguson who did not love the cops, but also did not like these strange white people teaching their children how to play with fire. Good intelligence work prevents crime, and it’s impossible to prove a negative, so it’s not possible to know what harm was prevented through this collaboration.

The American identified various people from the Revolutionary Communist Party (RevCom), from eyewitness reports and photographs, as being connected to the spread of Molotov cocktails in Ferguson. At that time, the Ferguson protest movement was adamantly opposed to what protest leaders described as a “good protestor vs. bad protestor” narrative. For this and other reasons, we withheld reporting.

RevCom was not the only source of white fire-starters active in Ferguson. A group whose address was a post office box in St. Louis published a ‘zine, “Summer in the City,” early in the Ferguson unrest in which they describe taking delight in setting fires in trash cans and looting stores while protesting in Ferguson. “We tried to move the Dumpsters to the street, but they were too heavy so we set them on fire,” reads a typical passage in the September-October 2014 edition. “We looted liquor and oil out of a busted up shop.” The writer describes, with disappointment, a Molotov cocktail that failed to ignite the roof of a chop suey shop. The very experience of Ferguson, to this writer, felt like arson: “Ferguson was a whirlwind, and I’m still a bit lost. It was like a Molotov cocktail exploding all at once, within me and outside.”

We have come a long, long way from Black Lives Matter to arson as a kind of orgasm for young white people. That is one journey of Ferguson, and it leads to the smashed windows on the Loop on Saturday night.

As a community newspaper dedicated to informing and empowering the black community in St. Louis, white arsonists are far from our coverage model and only come within our notice at times of crisis protest. At those times, our tiny staff has so much work to do covering legal outcomes, protests and black people’s perspectives that we never reported the white arsonist story in our newspaper. An editor at The American discussed their role in Ferguson several times on CNN, the first person to point out their role in Ferguson – at first, to the disbelief of CNN anchor Don Lemon, who accused him of making excuses for black criminals.

In the build-up to the Stockley verdict, The American reported on the barricades that went up around the courts and police headquarters. The story focused on protestor claims that this was an act of proactive aggression by the authorities, but to be fair the article had to acknowledge that past protests had involved property damage, which could justify taking precautions. The American also had a source who was tracking out-of-town troublemakers and concerned that St. Louis could become a destination for disaster-chasers, as Ferguson had with RevCom, and these concerns were briefly included in that report, published on August 30.

On September 15, the day the Stockley verdict was handed down, when one would expect the eyes of RevCom to turn longingly toward St. Louis, The American received this letter via its website at about noon.

In the article, “Why Put up Barricades Before the Stockley Verdict?” (August 30, 2017), your paper alleges the following: “Ferguson protests were joined at times by local anarchists and out-of-town arsonists affiliated with the Revolutionary Communist Party, who taught local youth how to make Molotov cocktails.”

This is a slanderous, irresponsible and dangerous lie. As a representative of the Revolutionary Communist Party, I demand an immediate retraction or I will be forced to take legal steps against your publication to secure a retraction.

Carl Dix, representative of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA

Carl Dix was in and out of Ferguson. A middle-aged black man based in New York with more of a vibe of an intellectual than an arsonist, he lent blackness and gravitas to RevCom street guys like the notorious flag burner Joey Johnson, who is seen in early photos of Ferguson where youth are making Molotov cocktails or otherwise playing with fire. Through his association with the likes of Johnson, Dix also lent agitator street cred to black public intellectuals like Cornel West.

The demand for a retraction came as a shock, given that RevCom openly advocates for revolution and posits the urban underclass as having great revolutionary potential, and given how RevCom eyes always seemed to light up at arson in Ferguson. An editor at The American wrote back to Dix two hours later:

I received your demand for a retraction. It surprises me, but I want to better understand your version of events. Let me get your version of events correctly.

Do you submit that no member of RevCom at any time showed anyone in Ferguson how to make or implement a Molotov cocktail? I want to state your correction as precisely as possible, since it comes as a major surprise to me.

Given this opportunity to revisit RevCom’s role in Ferguson, please tell me the organization’s position on the urban underclass using disruptive techniques like Molotov cocktails to foment unrest. Does RevCom think that is a welcome technique, but you simply did not assist in this regard in Ferguson? Or is it RevCom’s position that the urban underclass should not be using disruptive techniques like Molotov cocktails to foment unrest?

That is: Not a bad idea, but we didn’t help; or bad idea. Which is it?

Finally, I will work on providing an array of photos that we might discuss, so you can help me to understand the role of RevCom members in some incidents where people identified as your members are present in some Molotov moments that appeared to eyewitnesses to be a leadership role. Your members seemed to be enjoying it. If they only enjoyed it but did not lead the effort, or enjoyed it but officially disapprove enough of arson as a resistance tactic to demand this retraction, I want to get the facts right, for your sake and ours.

It’s been a very busy two days, but two days later, Dix has not responded. Typical of our handling of disputed facts, we deleted the direct reference to RevCom in our earlier report and, if we do not hear back from Dix, will edit the piece to reflect his denial.

It seemed relevant that RevCom objected to this reference on The American site on the day of the Stockley verdict. Had some RevCom members rolled into town and been called out by somebody who did not appreciate arson and property damage being grafted onto their police accountability movement? Had someone in the more rarified circles in which Dix also mixes (with West and others) read the note while boning up on the Stockley trial and called him out? Had an investigative authority preparing for the worse after the Stockley verdict read that note and paid RevCom a visit?

Notably, RevCom was not visible in St. Louis this weekend, as they had been in Ferguson. The masked white men observed as leaders in the Loop smashup were not known by longtime local protestors, who have come to know RevCom members like the creepy aunts and uncles they despise but see at every family reunion.

Early data on the people arrested on the Loop on Saturday complicate the “white leader-black ally” model typically observed of destruction actions on the fringe of disruptive protests, and observed on in the Loop on Saturday. St. Louis County Police, which made the seven arrests associated with the smashup, could not identify two people because they are juveniles. Of the five adults arrested and charged with rioting and/or looting, there is only one white man from Freeburg, Illinois. His Facebook page reveals a short, young, unmasked man who looks nothing like the masked white guys with bats – “thug” is a contested word, but they look like young white thugs – who took the first swings at Loop shop windows. The others are local black people in their twenties, two men and two women.

Obviously, the state needs to prove its case before these individuals are to be considered guilty of property damage or looting. Also, it’s common for the individuals who start a destructive action  to benefit from the element of surprise and disappear into the night, as eyewitnesses described happening on Saturday night. The leaders escape, and some of the followers get caught by the cops.

Naturally, there are other explanations for why the masked white men who frequently start destructive actions get away, whereas the black people who pile on end up cuffed on the pavement. Of course, police have undercover staff working every protest, and it’s a safe bet they wear masks (can’t beat a mask for a face disguise) but are known by sight by uniformed personnel. Protestors always claim – they claimed on Saturday, though without providing evidence – that police agent provocateurs started the destruction. Certainly it’s true that anyone with any disposition towards police accountability could show up to any protest with a mask and a bat and, for any motive or for no reason at all, bash in a few shop windows then run off into the night.

Property damage is an obvious public relations nightmare for a protest movement. However many times protest leaders say – truthfully – that their peaceful protest had nothing to do with the property damage that ended the night, the story always reads – truthfully – that a peaceful protest ended in destruction. Needless to say, a broken shop window does not leave behind a grieving family, like a person killed by a police officer. But over and over, people with no position of authority with respect to the police – in the case of Loop shop owners, people who likely support the police accountability movement – are left with a headache, a mess, and new expenses at the end of a protest.

Principled protestors who stay late enough at actions to see chaos ensue almost always claim – they claimed it on Saturday – that the police started it by their overly aggressive policing. They say the police escalated their tactics, and then people who were already fed up with the police killing people and getting away with it decide to smash something. A veteran peaceful protestor who saw much of the damage done on the Loop on Saturday, when asked to identify the perpetrators by race, gender, and whether he had seen them before, would only say, “They are pissed-off people tired of police escalating at a protest against police killings.” There remains that resistance to a “good protestor vs. bad protestor” duality. In the protestor narrative, at its core, the police are bad and protestors are good, even when driven to do destructive things by the police.

Of course, if you step outside the protestor narrative, it appears as if the police are skillfully playing the most edgy people to tarnish their movement in the public eye. Police provoke the rowdy crowd that stays the latest at protests into destroying something, then make some arrests, get some protestors off the streets and into the criminal justice system, and perpetuate the narrative that has been winning for the police – “protest ends in destruction” – rather than “protest ends in more police accountability.”

It can be argued that this pattern is a win, not only for the police, but for the white arsonist and vandal as well. They may dream of destroying the police state, but in the meantime they would love a chance to burn down some little piece of the police state, even if it’s just a chop suey stand. They welcome a relatively safe space to scream at cops and skirmish with cops where cops can’t manhandle or kill them. Listen to the young white kids who published the city ‘zine about their wild times setting fires and fighting cops in Ferguson: “The combativeness toward the police was outright and it was prolonged. People wanted war; they wanted to fight to win against the cops. There were conversations I was part of and overheard where people were talking about how to keep this up.”




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