Students, administration express anger, disappointment after Stockley verdict
Verdict sparks University-led discussions, city protests, business and local school closings
Updated 7:15 p.m.—Washington University students and faculty expressed a range of emotions Friday after Jason Stockley, a white former St. Louis police officer, was found not guilty of murdering Anthony Lamar Smith, a 24-year-old black man, in December 2011.
The verdict, announced early this morning, prompted the University to hold an event aiming to facilitate open conversation and perspective sharing in the hours following the decision. The decision also sparked protests around the city and many schools and businesses—including the Clayton School District and businesses on the Delmar Loop—chose to close early for the day.
The heavily anticipated decision comes amidst a continuing narrative in the U.S. of racially-charged police shootings and just over three years after a white Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, a black 18-year old, in Ferguson, Mo.
“Sadly, this is not an anomaly. Sadly, here today and probably in many other venues and locations across the country in St. Louis and in Missouri, there are these types of conversations recurring,” Assistant Provost for Student Success Anthony Tillman said at the University event. “I’m a 61-year-old African-American male. The last five or ten years or so—sadly, extraordinarily sadly—I have feared for my life. Whenever I leave my abode, I’m not sure if I’ll be back. And that’s real. I really am not sure that I’m coming back.”
At the University event in Hillman Hall, called “Gathering to Reflect upon the Stockley Decision,” faculty, students and members of the community expressed disappointment and anger at both the verdict in the context of racial tensions and ongoing social issues. Many speakers who expressed disappointment at the decision blamed a racially biased law enforcement system.
“The difficulty we had with our conversations [with law enforcement officers] was that they didn’t recognize the structural nature of oppression, that a lot of people believe…that racism is largely an individual act,” Dean of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion Emelyn Dela Pena said. “They [call] racists evil people, without understanding of the structural nature of racism and white supremacy, and [it’s] hard for them to understand that they, as good people, could be part of a racist system–that the individual law enforcement officers, many of them, who went into the profession because they wanted to make a difference and wanted to help people, were all part of an oppressive system.”
Speakers also addressed initiatives on campus and some spoke with frustration about what they saw as a lack of action.
“Here at Wash. U., there’s a lot of talk and little to no action. And not just on behalf of the administration–I’d also love it if us as a student body worked harder to do certain things. Because I feel like there’s a lot of ideas here, obviously, but I think there’s just a lack of application,” sophomore Lizzie Franclemont said. “There’s always an email going out, there’s always a Facebook post, and there’s always conversations, which is great. But what’s going to happen after those conversations? Are we going to forget that it happened? Are some of us going to crawl out of bed tomorrow and not think about it?”
Prior to the event, many senior administrators communicated with members of the University community via email, starting with Chancellor Mark Wrighton within an hour of the announcement.
“I am sure the decision is painful and disturbing for many,” Wrighton wrote in the email. “I do not know everything that was considered by the judge, but I am struggling with the outcome myself and what it means for our region.”
Wrighton’s message was followed by an email from Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori White, where she encouraged students to attend the afternoon’s University event as well as provided information about other smaller discussions that will be held around campus this weekend in order to give students opportunities to reflect and discuss.
White said administrators struggled to determine whether to host the event today, but upon hearing the verdict ultimately decided that holding the event today—rather than waiting until Monday—was the best course of action.
Despite the sense of disenchantment on campus, Dela Pena said she was proud of the student reaction and desire to get involved in the immediate aftermath of the decision.
“It’s very sad I think to see just the emotions that are coming from people, sad to see how students are struggling to be okay with what they’re feeling, to find what they want to do about it, figure out how they want to take action not knowing where to start or seeking guidance on how to do that,” she said in an interview to Student Life after the event. “And also giving ourselves permission just to feel for a while and process what that means. It’s been a heavy day.”
Additional reporting by Chalaun Lomax and Emma Baker.
This is a developing story that will be updated as more information becomes available.