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How BLM Protests In O’Fallon, St. Peters Challenge Perceptions Of St. Charles County

Jalen Thompson hugs fellow friends and organizers of a Black Lives Matter demonstration on June 1, 2020.
Josh Janitch
Jalen Thompson, in sunglasses, hugs Ryan Staples, center, and other friends and fellow organizers of a Black Lives Matter demonstration in O'Fallon, Missouri, on June 1.

If May had been a normal month, Ryan Staples would have been busy with the trappings of the end of his senior year at Fort Zumwalt West High School in O’Fallon, Missouri. 

But the coronavirus pandemic wiped out most of those traditions.

So Staples, 18, found himself with a lot of time to watch the news after the killing of George Floyd on May 25. His screens were filled with images of anti-police brutality protests across the country, including in familiar places in the St. Louis region.

But Staples was concerned by what he was hearing — “protesters being called thugs, protesters being called rioters and looters.”

So he organized a protest in a part of the St. Louis area that normally doesn’t see protests and is overwhelmingly white.

“I kind of just decided, I’m going to put a protest together to show that one, there is a real demand for change, and two, that it's not a police versus black person thing, it’s an injustice versus humanity thing,” he said.

Staples and three friends — Jalen Thompson, Joseph Bartholomew and Ryan Fetsch — organized a June 1 march from the high school to the O’Fallon Police Department about a mile away. They were expecting maybe 300 people to show up, Thompson told St. Louis on the Air,but instead got around 2,000.

“Two thousand people is just a number,” said Thompson, 17. “But being in the middle of 2,000 people showing up at a parking lot in O’Fallon, Missouri, so we can march down the street — you can’t see the end of the crowd. We stopped in front of the police station to have our little talks, and as you turned around and looked down the street from where we had turned, you still saw more and more people coming.”

The turnout in O’Fallon inspired three recent graduates of Fort Zumwalt South High School to organize their own protest in neighboring St. Peters, another suburb where protests are uncommon.

“People think racism doesn’t go on here because we live in a nice little town, but racism is everywhere,” said 19-year-old Kayla Broussard, who graduated in 2019 and now goes to the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “It doesn’t have to be you calling someone the N word, or shooting them with a firehose. It can be very subtle and mean a lot to the person that you’re talking to.”

The geography of protests

St. Charles County had some experience with protests against police brutality and racism before. In 2015, activists marking the first anniversary of the death of Michael Brown organized a blockade of Interstate 70 just before it crosses the Missouri River. There had also been marches on Main Street in St. Charles. But those had been spearheaded by groups with roots outside St. Charles County.

Though the county remains 90 percent white, it got slightly more diverse from 2010to 2019. But the organizers of the St. Peters march believe the video evidence in Floyd’s death was a more important factor in driving people to the streets than population changes.

“I think this affected the community differently,” said Brianna Vogt, a 2018 graduate of Fort Zumwalt South who is now studying criminal justice at St. Charles Community College. “We’ve seen it, and there’s no justification for his death."

Tyrie Thomas, 24, agreed. 

“You could have organized a protest [in 2014], but it wouldn’t have been anything like we’ve been experiencing, just mainly because of the skepticism around what really went down that day with Michael Brown,” he said. “Back then, I think people were still masking their true feelings around police brutality.”

Organizing marches in places where they aren’t common is an important step in getting out the message of a protest movement, said Candice Idlebird, a sociology professor and the director of the Institute for Social Justice at Harris-Stowe State University.

“It makes it visible to people that were, in previous protests, able to turn off the TV and act like things were not happening,” she said. “It’s different watching something on TV versus having a protest at your local grocery store or infiltrating your streets.” 

Hundreds of demonstrators march through the St. Charles Historic District on Wednesday to condemn police brutality toward black people. June 3, 2020
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Hundreds of demonstrators march through the St. Charles Historic District on June 3 to condemn police brutality toward black people.

Like the organizers, Idlebird was impressed by the turnout in St. Charles County. But she encouraged white allies to do more than just march.

“What we know about a lot of our white allies in a systemic racist system is that they are offered a lot of the seats that we’ll never be able to sit in,” she said. “And they see a lot of the things that we’ll never be able to see.”

Fernando Tormos-Aponte, a political science researcher at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, sees a lot of similarities to climate activism.

“It is youth-led,” he said. “And we are seeing a lot of policy change happen at the state and local level, given that a lot of national governments, particularly the United States, have some gridlock around addressing issues of climate change and in this case racial justice.”

The most important conversations happen at the local level, Idlebird added.

“Let’s start to talk to our local people that are in place that can make differences and changes within our departments,” she said.

Making change stick

The young St. Charles County organizers seem to have reached the same conclusion. While the protests have slowed down, they are meeting with elected officials, political candidates and educators.

In St. Peters, Thomas and other organizers want police officers to get mental health checks twice a year. But his biggest concern is boosting funding for education.

“We preach we need the kids to have access to better education, yet every year it seems like we’re getting less and less while other entities are gaining more and more,” he said, adding that while he doesn’t support fully defunding the police, he could support redirecting some of their budget to education.

Staples, who helped organize the O’Fallon protest, wants to disconnect education funding from property taxes. But the biggest thing people need to do, he said, is vote. 

Ryan Staples, 18, speaks an a protest against police brutality and racism in O'Fallon, Missouri on June 1, 2020.
Credit Juan Wilson
Ryan Staples, shown here at a June 1 protest against police brutality and racism, wants politicians to adopt policies that "save Black people from the cycle of systemic racism."

“We’ve got to vote for people who are going to put policy in to save Black people from the cycle of systemic racism,” he said. “Start defunding the police. Educate young Black youth. Give young people a chance.”

Policy change is hard work, Idlebird says. But the aftermath of policy change is often harder.

“This will be getting tougher,” she said. “Even reform efforts are going to take constant surveillance. We cannot forget that."

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.