Last Tuesday, two St. Louis police officers shot and killed 25-year-old Kajieme Powell just a few miles away from the ongoing protests sparked by the police killing of another young black man, Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri. A video shot by an eyewitness and released last week by the St. Louis police shows Powell approaching the officers after allegedly stealing snacks from a store - before being shot about a dozen times.
The video contradicts the police's initial story about the incident. Powell's hands appear to be at his side, not clutching a knife in an "overhand grip," as the police originally stated, and the police already had their guns drawn as Powell approached; they did not draw their guns after Powell drew a knife as police officials originally claimed.
Witnesses called the shooting excessive and wondered why police didn't shoot Powell in the foot or use a Taser instead of mowing him down with a fatal barrage of bullets. St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson, however, said the officers followed proper protocol.
"Officer safety is the number one issue," Dotson said shortly after the shooting.
Watch Out for "Snatch Squads"
By early evening, groups of protesters were already holding signs about Powell and Brown and marching on Ferguson's West Florissant Avenue, where protests have occurred daily since Brown's death on August 9. The protesters were peaceful, but I watched the police arrest a woman as soon as I arrived. As free speech advocates with the National Lawyers Guild scrambled to learn the woman's identity, police could be seen arresting another individual who had been marching in a crowd across the street.
Both arrests were presumably made because the protesters left the sidewalk and entered the street. Perhaps they had chanted protest slogans toward police. A protester would later warn me to stay on the sidewalk and watch out for the police "snatch squads."
Led by a few local ministers, a march took form from the informal groups of sign-wielding protesters and began a long procession - on the sidewalks, of course. About 200 people joined the march, which continued for about two miles before reaching the 24-hour vigil and protest across the street from the main Ferguson police station. Cars continuously honked their horns as we marched, and children gathered on front lawns to join in the chanting, holding signs reading, "hands up, don't shoot!"
Vanessa Lucas and Rona Cadwell came from East St. Louis to "help the cause" and stand up for civil rights. They joined the march with handmade signs reading, "Negro Spring."
"They are in serious violation of our constitutional and civil rights," Lucas said of the police. "Us black people . . . can't have anything. They shoot us now."
"This is the 'Show Me State,'" Cadwell said.
"We're showing their asses, aren't we," Lucas said.
On August 19, as the news of Powell's death made its rounds, tension ran high. The night before, police had cracked down on protesters on West Florissant Avenue, firing tear gas canisters and making dozens of arrests after a small group of demonstrators threw bottles and dragged traffic cones and portable toilets into the street. Police said they had come under heavy gunfire from a side street and recovered guns from suspects, but it was unclear if the gunfire had anything to do with the demonstration.
After more than a week of protests aimed directly at them, the police seemed exhausted, irritable and ready to arrest anyone who dared to step off the sidewalk. Confrontations during recent protests had led to rioting and police crackdowns, which typically featured military-grade crowd control gear, fatigues, armored trucks, and plenty of flashing lights and booming orders to disperse.
By last Thursday, police had made 168 arrests, according to the Associated Press. Police records showed that 128 people were arrested for failing to disperse, and only four were booked for allegedly assaulting police officers.
The police crackdowns only added to the protesters' determination and united the community against the growing police presence, according to Michaela DeMarco, 21, who lives near West Florissant Avenue and joined the march to the police station last Tuesday.
"That's why this gets bigger and better," DeMarco said of the protest movement. "Each day we get smarter."
Officers' Safety Is "Number One"
Ron Johnson, the Missouri Highway Patrol captain who stepped in to command security in Ferguson, held a press conference after riot police cleared protesters from West Florissant Avenue again on Tuesday night, making 47 arrests in the process. There had been no rioting that evening, however, just a few plastic bottles thrown in the air before police unleashed pepper spray and began chasing protesters down the street. When asked if police escalated tensions by approaching the peaceful crowds in riot gear, Johnson explained that cops should be expected to use all the tools available to keep themselves safe. The safety of his officers, Johnson said, is "number one."
The highway patrolman could not have been clearer. The safety of his officers is more important than the safety of the public, even if that meant bullying a crowd that the cops perceive as merely having the potential to become dangerous.
Johnson was talking about protests, not shootings, but his response had the eerie echo of arguments made in defense of killer cops everywhere. When police officers say that they are in some kind of danger, homicide becomes "justified," and the lives of black men become expendable, so the argument goes.
The names of the victims are chanted at the anti-police brutality rallies popping up across the country: "Eric Garner," the 43-year-old father who died of a heart attack last month after New York City police put him in an illegal chokehold while arresting him for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. "Ezell Ford," the mentally disturbed man who was shot in the back three times by LAPD officers who stopped him under vague pretenses on August 11, just two days after Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson. "John Crawford." "Kajieme Powell." The list goes on.
In most of these cases, police have defended the use of force, arguing the killer officers' safety was put in danger during some kind of altercation, the nature of which has been disputed by witnesses each time. If the grand jury indicts Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, a similar defense will certainly be heard in the courtroom.
The grand jury proceedings in the Brown case could take weeks, perhaps months. Prosecutors are currently investigating the death of Kajieme Powell. In the meantime, Ferguson and the broader St. Louis area will continue to be a hotbed of organizing and activism. The late night clashes that stunned the public may be over, but peaceful marches continue on a daily basis. As they wait for the grand jury's verdict, the black residents of St. Louis and communities across the country are left to wonder what life might be like if law enforcement considered the safety of citizens, regardless of their race, to be the "number one" priority.