If you were looking for a hackneyed and inelegant metaphor for privilege and inequality, the building I work in would be an excellent choice. It’s a tower above a dilapidated shopping mall, and while there is constant construction, it’s always work on the offices in the tower. The shopping mall will probably never reopen. The bottom wilts, and the people at the top can safely comment on the noise the construction makes. It’s the only part of it that touches their lives.
I went in to work on September 15th, 2017, around 7:30. By the time the coffee kicked in and I was fully sentient, it was 9:00 or so. Around this time we were called to the office center for a brief meeting about the Stokely ruling. “We’re not going to talk about this very long,” said a manager, “because that wouldn’t be office-appropriate. If you want to know more, Google it.” The manager laid out several options for us: Stay and work, go work from home, or just go home. Management was worried about the ensuing violence from protestors after the ruling. They seemed to think St. Louis would explode in the same way the major cities did in the 1960’s, or LA in the 1990’s. Protestors would ostensibly block highways, and roving gangs of brigands would rob us of our property, and perhaps our lives.
I opted to stay, thinking that the trouble was overstated. I dimly perceived various conversations about the ruling around me, as I frequently keep my headphones in at work.
“I’m going home, cause I’m white, and they might come after me. And if someone tries to hurt my wife, I’ll go to jail. And it’ll be a fair ruling.” I found this one difficult to parse. I can understand the desire to protect one’s family. I can’t understand bragging to a coworker about the pain you’d inflict on someone who would attack your family. And I can’t get inside the worldview that considers whiteness to be a persecuted identity. I should note that this quote came from an otherwise very kind and thoughtful person.
Later, I heard people watching the riots unfold on TV in another room. The media, of course, quickly focused on a burning car. My coworkers laughed and offered suggestions on what the protestors would do “if they were smart”. “Why would the protestors do that? It’s irrational,” they said of the car. I’m sure it was, but I don’t expect people willed with righteous anger at the murder of one of their fellow citizens to be the most rational and understated arguers. Just as I had trouble processing the person threatening violence against imaginary people who might hurt their family, they had trouble understanding why people might burn cars. Why don’t they just protest peacefully? I suspect the idea of systemic problems of racism or state did not enter their minds.
Sometimes I wonder if we could convince law-and-order types that police repression here has the same character as similar violence in Iran, or Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, or Russia, that they might come to their senses. These are, for me, fleeting considerations. I’m reasonably sure they wouldn’t change many minds.
I was second-to-last to leave, with the last right behind me. I drove home and did not see a single person blocking highways or acting illegally on the way. I took a nap when I got back. I didn’t join in the protests, though I was sympathetic, and plenty of my friends did. Lately I’m having trouble believing that my individual presence at demonstrations means much. I am not particularly proud of this.
According to friends who did go, a thousand or more people protested peacefully, and a handful did not. The narrative in the reactionary media, however, seemed to be that of savages bursting through ordinary society. Mob rule.
The police, on the other hand, used pepper spray and gas grenades and the other tools of repression against peaceful protestors. They trampled an old lady, captured in a disturbing video. According to the Riverfront Times, the end of that day saw 11 injured officers and 32 arrests. Doubtless the arrests have increased in the couple days since.
My friends and I went out for drinks that night. The streets were a little emptier, but we saw no protestors or vandals. I went home around midnight. My friends stayed out even later, and the only thing they noticed out of the ordinary is that the bars weren’t very crowded. My guess is that, like my coworker above, people were afraid of gangs of non-Caucasian bandits roaming the streets.
The city did not explode, though there were sparks and conflagrations here and there. But the specter of mass conflict frightens the complacent such that they would prefer police repression to justice.
When I returned from what felt like a lengthy weekend, the office was largely back to normal. The only comments I heard relating to Stokely and the protests were some hurried inquiries about some coworkers’ friends who were cops. Were they ok? Did someone hurl a brick at them? Just about no concern for the protestors. But that’s the advantage of the tower, I suppose: Surrounded by security, wealth, prosperity, girded by the violence of the state apparatus, we can see injustice happening at a distance. And we can safely ignore or denounce it at our will.