Washington University in St. Louis’s college town is University City, or commonly referred to as U-City. U-City is the spot for all hormone fueled teenagers who can’t get into clubs yet, aspiring suburban drug dealers, random bearded and smelly hipsters, and college-aged folks who love to people-watch. U-City is a surefire melting pot in a staunchly segregated city; as such, cultural diffusion can be an inspiration for culture clashes. By dusk, police cars are fervently circling the blocks like buzzards. When the clock strikes nightfall, the police carriages turn into pumpkins and there are stony-faced officers camped at every nook and cranny of the streets. U-City’s curfew is a perfectly acceptable excuse for police profiling of young folks in the area, and they are not afraid to interrogate people who are “not supposed to be there.” Tension is constantly felt between patrons and the ever-watchful gaze of overseeing police officers. The tension from the over-felt police presence can
sometimes often spark arguments or violence.
This summer, a high school friend and I were leaving a U-City hookah bar when we saw a slew of brightly-lit police cars clogging up the main street. Groups of black civilian observers were gathered along the sidewalk. Some younger men were on bikes by the corner obviously waiting for something big to pop off. The older men and women were sparsely gathered on the sidewalk rubber-necking the spectacle of police cars. A man eating square-box Chinese food in a crisp white t-shirt had the best view of the police officers on the other side of the street. I asked what happened. Between mouthfuls of sticky noodles, he informed us a woman had been maced and strangled by a police officer for walking drunk across the street. A small group of black men and women age 30+ were now congregating on the side of street where the police were swarming. Their scattered screams eventually erupted into a chorus of “Fuck the police” as they marched down the street with their fists in the air. In the near-wake of Mike Brown’s one year anniversary the protestors were clearly leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Meanwhile, a younger boy on a bike loudly skidded through the maze of cop cars onto the street corner to join his friends. A police officer promptly asked him to stop riding his bike until the officers cleared the premises. The policeman’s tone was like children’s flavored cough syrup: his thickly sweet demeanor was desperately trying to mask the medicinal power play he was copping.
We stood on the corner just… Waiting. Waiting to see how everything would unfold. Waiting to see if we were needed in any clear way. Waiting to see how our fellow St. Louisans would react to yet another instance of top-heavy police presence. We are both trained social justice advocates. We have attended countless workshops, rallies, and volunteer opportunities for different oppressed communities within St. Louis. We are both college educated women. We are both native to St. Louis, and are all-too-familiar with the renegade tactics our city implements to establish order. I stood on the corner like a first grader trying to dive into a game of double-dutch, wading in and out of the pros and cons of getting involved. Cursing and threatening the police was clearly not the productive way to handle the situation, but was it my place to tell a 40 year old black man that he couldn’t curse out the police for their overzealous use of power? What if we got arrested? Are we hypocrites to call ourselves activists when we consciously avoided getting involved? After all, not getting directly involved is not the same as doing nothing. Today’s society cannot undersell the role of an attentive observer. For example, the neighbor who recorded the police brutality at the Texan pool party was essential to the citing of police violence. But what types of activity constitute activism? And how active do you have to be to be considered a true activist?