Like many, I was hurt and horrified by the death of eighteen-year old Mike Brown, of Ferguson, Missouri, this past weekend. Growing up in the central city of Kansas City, Missouri, I was not unfamiliar with police violence against black and brown communities of color. However, it appears many Americans are unfamiliar with these experiences. For example, stories about Sunday night’s riot are now being framed as “just another example” for why black and brown communities need policing, rather than as a response to a collective memory of state-sanctioned violence against those communities, including the death of Mike Brown.
Motivated by the ignorance and garden-variety tropes of white racism I’ve seen this morning on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve put together a VERY brief and INCOMPLETE history of St. Louis Police Brutality over the past one hundred years. I used the archives of The Chicago Defender from 1905 through 1975, and the Lexus Nexus database for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to the present, I ran a search for the term “police brutality”. The information below was compiled based on this very narrow search.
I would love for others to help crowd-source more information here, especially if there are any incidents I’ve missed, or failed to accurately summarize.
My goal with the timeline below is to demonstrate that incidents like what happened in Ferguson do not stand on their own. They represent a greater historical narrative, whereby collective memories — and responses — are shaped by the totality of these incidents. A great quote that, I think, captures the response of the rioters last night is from the late Martin Luther King, Jr., in a 1966 interview with Mike Wallace:
I contend that the cry of “black power” is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.
A Brief (and Incomplete) History of St. Louis Police Brutality
May, 1917: Three thousand white men gathered in downtown East St. Louis and began attacking blacks. Nonresponse by the police led to the Illinois governor to call in the National Guard. Some evidence of police participating in attacks.
July, 1917: A car occupied by white males drove through East St. Louis, firing shots at a standing group of blacks. Shortly thereafter, another car driving through the same area was mistaken for the previous car, and black residents shot at it, killing two police officers in the car. Thousands of whites marched into the black neighborhood of East St. Louis and began burning entire sections, shooting residents as they tried to escape the fires. Rioters lynched several black residents, claiming, “Southern negroes deserve a genuine lynching.” National guardsmen who were called in participated in the rioting, rather than helping to squash it. The Chicago Defender, led by Ida B. Wells, estimates between 40-150 blacks were killed that July. Six thousand blacks were left homeless.
November, 1923: Reports emerge that “whenever a crime has been committed and the perpetrator wishes to conceal his guilt, or the authorities are at a loss to solve the riddle,” St. Louis police often report that the crime was committed by a black person.
November, 1928: Grand jury ordered to convene as the result of a fatal shooting of a 20-year old man by a St. Louis patrolman. Three eye witnesses voluntary appeared to testify against the officer.
October, 1929: Black leadership calls upon then-Missouri Governor Henry Caulfield to end the “murdering of our people and the numerous brutalities they suffer at the hands of the police” in St. Louis
September, 1933: Members of the Clothing Workers Union complained to Mayor Bernard F. Dickmann that they had been beaten by police during a parade
September, 1941: A STL cop beats a black hospital patient. This attack led to the STL branch of the NAACP beginning a movement against police brutality against blacks.
July, 1965: About 40 demonstrators paraded in front of a city police station protesting alleged police brutality. The John Birch Society denounced a proposed investigation into the charges.
July, 1967: Dance choreographer Katherine Dunham begins legal action against East St. Louis police charging they “manhandled and arrested” her on false charges.
August, 1971: Joseph Lee Wilson, 37, had been drinking heavily and had passed out shortly after midnight in the back yard of his mother’s house in the Third Police District. After she called for assistance, she and others contend, police beat him. An employee of old City Hospital said that Wilson, already suffering from massive injuries, was even beaten by St. Louis policemen when he was on a hospital table. Wilson was found dead in the holdover at 5:45 a.m. An autopsy showed that he had suffered seven fractured ribs, a punctured lung, a ruptured pancreas and lacerations of the liver. The official police version, adopted by the coroner, was that Wilson had fallen from a stool in a tavern on Chippewa Street. Syndicated columnist Mike Royko likened that to falling from a bar stool atop Chicago’s 100-story, 1,127-foot John Hancock Tower.
March, 1977: Following a car chase, two young men who had been in the car that led the chase were beaten. It was estimated that as many as 50 police officers were on hand to see at least part of the beating. Two Third District police officers were indicted for assault with intent to maim with malice. Other police officers were suspended for not cooperating with a grand jury investigation. Circuit Attorney George Peach was furious with departmental obstruction. He called it a ”conspiracy of silence.” And, in the end, it was impossible to prove who actually had administered the beatings. One of the indicted police officers was later acquitted; he is now a lieutenant in the department.
January, 1989: Seventy five people gather in front of the 6th District police station to protest a St. Louis police attack on a 15-year old girl.
June, 1991: University City police arrest a man for illegally skateboarding on a sidewalk in the Delmar Loop. Four witnesses report the man was handcuffed and beaten by a group of at least five officers.
October, 1993: Harry B. Hegger, Internal Affairs officer, claims his division handles roughly a hundred or more cases of physical abuse per year.
October, 1993: The Organization for Black Struggle, along with other community groups and activists, charges that for at least 10 years incidents of police brutality are rampant in St. Louis city and the metropolitan area. These allegations include: The continued employment of racist officers on the St. Louis and University City police departments, beatings and Russian roulette games police play with suspects, a special anti-black unit in the Belleville Police Department, and rampant car and property seizures.
October, 1993: In a hearing sponsored by the NAACP, Clarence Harmon, the first black police chief of St. Louis, stated police officers often project fears onto black residents: ‘There are tensions related to sometimes unrealistic fears of officers who traverse high crime areas . . . unrealistic fears as to their safety, which cause for not a great relationship between themselves and the community.” In that same meeting, Joyce Armstrong, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, said 52 percent of the complaints made to her office were against police departments in Florissant, Jennings, Beverly Hills, Breckenridge Hills, Dellwood and Maplewood. She said 30 percent were complaints against the city police.
October, 1993: About a dozen people picketed two St. Louis police stations Sunday night, alleging brutality by police officers in the arrests of three suspects earlier in the day.
October, 1993: Frontenac Police Chief Benjamin Branch has taken an administrative leave to investigate allegations of police brutality and civil rights violations by his department. That June, Branch, 16 Frontenac police officers and five dispatchers were subpoenaed by a federal grand jury to answer questions about police brutality in Frontenac.
January, 1996: Garland Carter Jr., 17., shot and killed, in the back, by a St. Louis police officer.
January, 1997: Post-Dispatch reports that at least 11 people have died in police custody in the St. Louis area since 1990 while in the throes of a mysterious, often violent medical condition called agitated delirium, a review of death records shows. In all, at least 20 people have died from the syndrome here over the last decade – 14 of those after police restrained them.
April, 1997: Gregory Bell, suffering from a developmental disability, is beaten by police officers until bloody. As many as 12 police officers were in his home during the beating, which included five blows to the head with an ASP baton. only one officer was charged with a crime. He was acquitted in May.
May, 1999: Two officers charged with the death of a nineteen year old. The police report — which made no mention of blows to the teenager’s head — is inconsistent with the medical examiner’s report that the victim suffered a massive skull fracture caused by a blow with an object to the back of his head.
May, 1999: A review showed that between 1994 and 1998, sixty people were shot by city officers, with twenty four of them dying. Brutality was charged in many of those cases
March, 2001: The St. Louis County Council on Tuesday appointed a 10-member committee to review two incidents in the past year involving county police that led to the deaths of three people.
June, 2002: Leaving a Coalition Against Police Crimes and Oppression meeting, Victor McKinney, 25, was hand-cuffed and body-slammed to the ground by two officers. Roughly 100 people gather at police headquarters to protest the incident.
September, 2002: A Kinloch police officer said he accidentally shot a motorist during a traffic stop. The officer suspected the motorist, a 24-year-old man from Bridgeton, was involved with a drug transaction. Police did not find any drugs on the suspect. The suspect was unarmed.
November, 2002: Aldermen Terry Kennedy, D-18th Ward, proposed forming a panel to investigate police shootings and allegations of brutality and other misconduct
May, 2003: About 50 protesters gathered outside the Pine Lawn City Hall and Police Department Thursday night, claiming police officers there have abused African-Americans in the city. “They are here to protect us, not beat us,” Brian Brooks told the crowd. “We’re paying their salaries.” Brooks said police beat him with a metal baton or flashlight and sprayed him with Mace in his driveway after he got into an argument with his wife on May 4. He said he was later beaten for several hours at the Police Department, where a gun was pointed at his head by a police officer. Another man, Willie Payne, said he was beaten by officers, including one accused of attacking Brooks, after his car was stopped in Pine Lawn. He said officers choked him, held his mouth open and sprayed Mace into it, pulled his shirt over his head and beat him. Justin Meehan, an attorney assisting the men, said they had made complaints to the Police Department. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is also looking into the claims, Meehan said.
October, 2003: Protesters demanding better treatment from police blocked traffic on downtown streets Wednesday night and burned an effigy of “white racist power” in a park across the street from St. Louis City Hall. The crowd swelled to about 200 people, as several activist groups led by the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression called for the city to establish a board to review complaints of police brutality. A bill proposing such a board is locked in a battle between aldermen and Mayor Francis Slay over who would appoint the board members and what powers they would have.
February, 2006: About 40 people gathered outside Maplewood City Hall to seek justice for a man whose beating and kicking by Maplewood and St. Louis police has been televised coast-to-coast.
September 2013: A former Velda City police officer is facing federal charges of excessive force and lying to FBI agents. A federal indictment alleges Stan Lee Stanback, 47, used unreasonable force using a police baton to hit and injure two juveniles and an adult on Sept. 17, 2008. Stanback is also accused of lying to FBI agents by claiming he was surrounded by 15 men in the Velda City Police Department parking lot and was forced to draw his gun. He actually encountered four to five people and he never drew his gun, authorities said. Velda City’s police chief says the two 16-year-olds and one 26-year-old man he is accused of hitting were already in police custody when Stanback struck them with his baton.
August, 2014: Mike Brown, 18 years old, shot multiple times by Ferguson police. Eye witnesses claim initial shots were fired into Brown’s back.