As a candidate for governor, Eric Greitens repeatedly criticized Gov. Jay Nixon’s response to unrest in Ferguson after the 2014 shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer.
If he’d been in charge, Greitens insisted, things would have been different.
“The great tragedy of Ferguson is if we’d had a leader who’d shown up with any kind of command presence and courage and calm and clarity, we could have had peace by the second night,” Greitens told The Star last year.
The line became a staple of his stump speech, media interviews and debates. He repeated it verbatim in a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal.
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Yet almost a week after protesters took to the street in response to the acquittal of a white St. Louis police officer charged with murdering a black suspect, the “peace” Greitens guaranteed on the campaign trail has remained elusive.
The violence has come nowhere close to what was witnessed in Ferguson. Despite some property damage and clashes with police in the evening hours, the vast majority of protesters have refrained from violence or vandalism. And Greitens has maintained a regular presence in the area starting even before the verdict was announced.
But protest leaders, and even some supporters of the first-term governor, say he’s repeated many of the same mistakes he once dinged Nixon for on the campaign trail.
“There hasn’t been a difference realistically,” said Rep. Bruce Franks, a St. Louis Democrat who has been actively involved in the protests. “This whole show of force and ‘law and order’ talk is no different.”
“Honestly,” said state Rep. Michael Butler, a St. Louis Democrat, “I don’t see much of a difference at all from Gov. Nixon.”
Among the biggest complaints Greitens is facing is that while he made it a point to meet with local officials and African American religious leaders, he has never agreed to sit down and talk with protesters directly to hear their concerns. During the campaign, he repeatedly promised to listen to “anyone who was hurting.”
“Folks think when you want to reach the black community, you talk to the church,” Franks said. “That’s the way it used to be. It’s not that way anymore.”
The criticism that Nixon wasn’t on the ground in Ferguson listening to the concerns of protesters can be just as accurately leveled against Greitens, said state Rep. Shamed Dogan, a St. Louis County Republican.
“The governor needs to hear from people on the ground about what needs to be done,” he said. “These are people who feel their government, that they are paying taxes to, isn’t responsive to them and can take their life without accountability.”
Greitens declined an interview request by The Star. But his spokesman, Parker Briden, released a statement saying that unlike in the past, “law enforcement officers are being allowed to do their job, make arrests, and keep people safe.”
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“We’re not giving people a safe space for vandalism and violence,” Briden said. “And the governor has been proactively engaged since before the verdict with public safety officials — as well as clergy and community leaders — to ensure that constitutional rights and public safety are protected.”
In August 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson on a Saturday morning. Violent protests broke out that night.
Nixon, a Democrat who was halfway through his second term as governor, didn’t make his first public remarks about the situation until three days later, when he addressed an African American church near Ferguson. After several more days of violent clashes between police and protesters, Nixon turned over control of security to the Missouri Highway Patrol.
When that failed to quell the violence, Nixon declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew. He eventually ordered in the National Guard.
When violence broke out again a few months later after a grand jury’s decision not to charge the officer who killed Brown, Nixon decided against using the National Guard to protect businesses from damage.
Greitens had the benefit of knowing that a verdict in the murder trial of former St. Louis Police officer Jason Stockley was looming. He met with local religious leaders and members of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus in the days leading up to Stockley’s acquittal in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith.
The governor hosted a press conference with Smith’s fiancée to plead for peace the day before the verdict was announced. He has maintained a presence in the area, including talking to business owners whose properties have been vandalized.
And he’s stuck with a tough-on-crime message, including tweeting a video of a handcuffed protester being carried face down by four officers with the caption: “Officers caught ’em, cuffed ’em, and threw ’em in jail.”
“People who are peacefully protesting are going to be protected,” Greitens told The Associated Press earlier this week. “But if you riot, we’re going to cuff you. If you assault a law enforcement officer, we’re going to arrest you. If you engage in violence and vandalism, you’re going to know that we have absolutely no tolerance for it.”
The governor has made it clear that “we’re not going to tolerate people committing crimes,” Dogan said. “It’s important for the governor to set a tone, and his tone has been admirably pro-law enforcement.”
But Dogan, the lone Republican member of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, added that what’s been missing from the governor’s public statements has been “empathy and compassion for reasons behind the protests.”
“He hasn’t empathized with people who feel like this verdict, just like in Ferguson, shows they can’t get justice when police kill African Americans,” he said.
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Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the police reaction to protests initially was “much more patient, well organized and effective in addressing the protest activities” than it had been in Ferguson.
But as protests continued, police tactics seemed to change. Police became more aggressive, Rosenfeld said, and by Tuesday could be heard chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” The interim police chief in St. Louis declared his officers “owned tonight.”
“That does nothing but provoke the more destructive actions we’ve seen from the very small group of agitators,” he said.
John Robinson III, an assistant sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told The Associated Press that Greitens’ law-and-order rhetoric “just exacerbates things because it insinuates that the problem here is violence on the part of protesters rather than violence on the part of police.”
Moving forward, Franks said protesters are “in for the long haul.”
And as for Greitens’ call for “peace,” Franks said there is a difference between peace and nonviolence. Protesters must remain nonviolent, but they will not remain peaceful.
“We’ve disrupted peace,” he said. “And that’s what they have to expect. We have to shine a light on what’s been done, because there’s so many folks focusing on broken windows but they’re not focusing on broken and shattered lives. They’re not focusing on why we’re out here.”