St. Louis Police’s Chants of ‘Whose Streets? Our Streets!’ Once Again Reveal the Warped Mindset Infecting Too Many Departments

The antagonistic “us versus them” culture that plagues many police departments with regard to their interactions with communities of color was on full, disturbing display this week in St. Louis. In response to protests by community members over the acquittal of police officer Jason Stockley in the killing of Anthony Lamar Smith, a group of St. Louis police officers provocatively chanted, “Whose streets? Our streets!”

That’s right — in one of the nation’s most racially segregated cities, where zip codes separated by only a few miles can mean an 18-year difference in life expectancy — a police department entrusted to serve the community aggressively claimed ownership over public streets while mocking protestors expressing the community’s pain and frustration. They did so by co-opting a chant that emanated from the very communities of color long marginalized and victimized by this country’s criminal, economic, and political systems. And adding insult to injury, they did so less than a 10-minute drive from where Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson.

Make no mistake, the police were sending a clear and chilling message to communities of color in St. Louis: We do not care about your pain and frustration. We do not care about the complicity of law enforcement in past and present harms to communities of color. We do not care about your outrage at a white police officer who said he was “going to kill this motherfucker,” before shooting Anthony Smith five times, and then allegedly planting a gun in Smith’s car. And this message is being delivered by not just any police department, but the deadliest police force in the United States. The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department kills its residents at a higher rate than any police department among the nation’s 100 most populous cities.

By shouting a claim of ownership over the city’s streets, St. Louis police again wasted an opportunity to build bridges with aggrieved communities and to see themselves as part or extensions of those communities. Instead they dug an even deeper trench between themselves and those gathered to express their collective frustration, anger, and sadness — people of color, peace activists, parishioners alike.

More disheartening, perhaps, is that, in a certain sense, the police are right: In many cities, the streets are theirs.

Police saturate Black and brown neighborhoods with aggressive patrols; carry high-powered weapons and equip themselves with wide-sweeping surveillance technologies; stop, search, and arrest Black people at wildly disproportionate rates; treat the Constitution not as a legal mandate but, at best, as a series of suggestions that can be ignored when inconvenient; and often act with impunity, unchecked by any meaningful external or even internal accountability.

Make no mistake, the police were sending a clear and chilling message to communities of color in St. Louis: We do not care about your pain and frustration.

Further, Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice, rather than demanding progressive reform of harmful police practices, has exacerbated the national crisis over police-community relations by pulling back on federal oversight of police departments engaged in unconstitutional conduct, including repurposing the Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services program to facilitate more aggressive policing instead of prioritizing community relations. For his part, President Trump has deregulated the flow of military equipment to local police departments, only increasing the chances that police departments around the country will escalate tensions between themselves and the people, just as they did in Ferguson three years ago.

We should be in a better place by now. But nothing of gravity has changed if three years after the killing of Michael Brown and over one thousand other Black people nationally, St. Louis police officers think it is appropriate to proclaim ownership over public streets from the very community whose blood has been shed on those streets. Little has changed if the city’s police are still covering up their identification tags to avoid accountability for their anticipated unconstitutional, unlawful, potentially violent behavior.

Even after all we’ve been through in this country, the police are still corralling demonstrators into a small area like cattle and then arresting people en masse without probable cause. And yet, in response to these outrages, the police chief, the governor, and the state attorney general stand by in either silence or equivocation. Maddeningly, we have not yet seen the leadership necessary to achieve criminal justice reforms that are essential to protecting our cities and their residents.

The ACLU of Missouri called upon the mayor of St. Louis to condemn in the strongest terms the instigating, shameful chants of the city’s police department and to make clear that the police are here to serve the public, not themselves. Mayor Krewson responded, calling the chanting unprofessional. But it is worse than that. It is but one symptom of the corrosive and antagonizing culture that permeates too many police departments in this country. And it requires much more radical, profound solutions than light reprimands to eradicate.

Police departments must embrace de-escalation as a guiding principle; seek reconciliation with communities that they have harmed, a “process [which] recognizes the very real American history of abusive law enforcement practices toward minority communities, beginning with slavery;” support newer, stronger civilian complaint review boards that have meaningful investigative and disciplinary authority; end the selective and overenforcement of low-level offenses in communities of color, much of which is driven by a profit motive. Further, lawyers and judges need to reform a current legal standard that is remarkably permissive regarding when the police can use deadly force, resulting in “lawful but awful” shootings. Until then, police departments need to rise above the constitutional floor and establish more restrictive use-of-force policies.

The streets do not belong to the police. They belong to the community. The time for police reform is long past due. We cannot afford to wait any longer.

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Gee, wonder why aggressive patrols would be necessary. From Business Insider's 50 Most Violent Cities in the World rankings.

2012: #43. St. Louis, United States

2013: #40 St. Louis had 35.39 homicides per 100,000 residents
2014: #45. St. Louis had 34.14 homicides per 100,000 residents.

2015: #19. St. Louis had 49.93 homicides per 100,000 residents.

2016: #15. St. Louis had 59.23 homicides per 100,000 residents.

2017: #14. St. Louis had 60.37 homicides per 100,000 residents.

Crime rates higher than cities in Brazil and Colombia. That's an accomplishment.


"Make no mistake, the police were sending a clear and chilling message to communities of color in St. Louis: We do not care..."

Dear writer for ACLU: This is emotionally saturated linguistic tense. There is no need to convince. Consider cutting this crap writing out.


Thank you ACLU for fighting the good fight.


For all of you out there complaining about these "criminals" being shot and killed, or about BLM is the real problem.... I have but one question for you.... what if it was you? Would you not want justice to be done if you had been killed by the police, rather than getting your day in court? If the answer is yes, then it is your obligation to care whether any and every person gets their right to a fair trial. Otherwise you are just supporting rouge justice at the hands of the police, where they make the decisions which laws they inforce that may or may not get you killed some day.

These incidents are not just about whether you or the police think they were guilty, and therefore deserved to die.... this is about whether or not we care to uphold the principle that all are created equal under the law, and if you do or don't have a right to trial before being found guilty of a crime.

The overwhelming majority of white conservatives seem to be saying loud and clear, that they don't really care about justice, or guilt/innocence unless they are also white.... while this may fit with your perspective that black and brown people are most often criminals, it does not fit with the mentality that everyone has a right to a fair trial, and that's a slippery slope to suspending the rule of law all together and just letting cops go all mafia on who gets justice, and who does not.


Everyone does have a right to a fair trial. You have to submit yourself to the process to receive due process. The overwhelming majority of these high profile police shootings are for involve people who were doing everything in their power to avoid submitting to the process.

People complain about the force used to bring about forced submission to the process. Any solutions on how to get people to submit to the process so they can receive their day in court? You can't place the onus on the police then kick them in the teeth when they make the very attempt you require of them if it involves force or devolves into an unsafe situation for the officer and public at large.


I was wondering why the police officers' speech was considered as "unconstitutional?" I was under the impression it would be covered by the 1st Amendment?

Anonymous M.C.

Anonymous, surely you understand that the "free speech" clause of the First Amendment exists to prohibit the government from censoring or preventing citizens' speech, including speech against the government.
It does not exist to protect government representatives' bad or threatening or unseemly or undemocratic speech that was issued to improperly intimidate or insult or threaten the citizenry. A government official cannot say any damned ugly or improper thing in his or her official capacity and then claim they are above any reproach because of their "free speech rights". And they certainly should not claim that "free speech" protects their ugly and improper behavior exhibited while they were brusquely or brutally trying to prohibit and punish free speech uttered by peaceful citizens. There were, indeed, many bad actors out on the streets during the recent protests, but there are many documented incidents of police behaving with unnecessary force and treating all citizens as guilty of what was being done by only a small minority.


Anonymous M.C.


Obviously the protesters need to just chillax - Obama says the world's never been healthier, wealthier or less violent.


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