ST. LOUIS — Chris Sommers, who runs a chain of successful pizza restaurants here, has long supported both sides in the fierce standoff between police officers and black residents playing out in this city.
He donated to civil rights groups after the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which is just 10 miles away. He also backed officers, giving them discounts at his pizzerias and supporting the mayoral candidate endorsed by the police union.
But Mr. Sommers chose sides about a month ago.
After protesters peacefully marched past one of his restaurants one night, Mr. Sommers said riot-ready police officers came through the empty street. He said they indiscriminately fired pellets, shot tear gas as his patrons dined on the sidewalk and chased after him when he cursed at them to stop. It was an inexplicable and unnecessary show of force in his view.
“I was an outspoken critic already of the criminalization of being black,” said Mr. Sommers, who is white. “It wasn’t as personal until the police tried to wreak havoc on me and my business. Unfortunately, it took that for me to get as angry as I need to be.”
Mr. Sommers, a prominent civic benefactor who owns Pi Pizzeria, assailed the
police on social media. He ended discounts for officers and joined a chorus of activists calling on Mayor Lyda Krewson to replace the police chief.
In the weeks since, a small but spirited group has taken to the streets of St. Louis and surrounding communities almost every night to protest police violence, inspired by the acquittal last month of Jason Stockley, a white former police officer, in the fatal shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith, who was black.
Although the demonstrations have not drawn the crowds or national media attention of those in nearby Ferguson and other cities, the outrage of Mr. Sommers reflects the surprising impact they have had.
While regional leaders say they are confident the area can thrive economically amid the demonstrations, protest leaders have gotten their attention. The protesters have largely won the public relations battle against the police — who have made some embarrassing missteps in their handling of the demonstrations — and have seized the media narrative, with the local press reporting on their complaints against particular officers and police tactics.
With a focus on disrupting the city’s economy, the protests have forced the city to pay more than $3 million in police overtime and have led to lost revenue after a couple of major concerts were canceled. Demonstrations — or even just the fear of them — have prompted grocery stores and malls to temporarily close. And some wonder whether the unrest will harm the region’s bid to lure the new Amazon headquarters.
Since the protests started, Ms. Krewson, who came to the mayor’s job this year lacking a reputation as a racial justice advocate, has vowed to work quickly to enact police reforms and address racial inequities. She has publicly criticized Lawrence O’Toole, the interim police chief she selected, and questioned the tactics his officers employed during the protests, calling for an independent investigation into allegations of brutality — a call that Chief O’Toole joined.
Joe Reagan, the president of the St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce who is white, published an opinion piece in a local African-American newspaper urging swift police reforms to help the region’s economic health, and voiced support for an investigation.
“I think people are nervous about irreparable harm to the civic identity,” said the Rev. Starsky Wilson, a co-chairman of the commission created in the aftermath of the Ferguson shooting.
If nothing else, said Mr. Wilson, who is black, the persistent protests should alert cities nationwide that people will not be satisfied by endless commissions and policy proposals that do not result in action.
“They’ll be back if you don’t take seriously their concerns,” he said.
Still, demonstrators are not declaring victory.
For as much as they have gotten Ms. Krewson’s attention, she has not heeded one of their loudest demands — to immediately replace Chief O’Toole, who is white, with a chief they believe would work better with the community.
Many of the changes they are asking for — more robust civilian oversight, a more diverse department, bridging racial inequalities — are fixes that will take time. And many familiar racial divisions remain: At a recent St. Louis County Council meeting over police pay raises, the pro-police crowd was largely white, applauding those who spoke in favor of officers but remaining silent when others advocated reforms.
“We haven’t seen any real, tangible, systemic change at all, from how the police are allowed to police us to how they’re allowed to engage with us during protests,” said Dhoruba Shakur, a 27-year-old black man, as he marched alongside a group of about 50 protesters on a recent evening with an AR-15 rifle slung over his shoulder. “But we’re not done.”
There have been protests nearly every day since the verdict in the Stockley case on Sept. 15. The core group organizing the demonstrations cut their teeth in Ferguson and say they have adjusted their strategy based on their experiences there.
They focus on protests that cause economic disruption, often targeting white neighborhoods.
“We are bringing it to the doors of people who do not have to live this life and just giving that little bit of uncomfortableness,” said LaShell Eikerenkoetter, a protest leader who is black. “Now you understand what we as black folks feel and why we are out here.”
The demonstrations employ an element of surprise to throw off the police. They have attracted a diverse crowd and word is spread by live-streaming demonstrations online.
“Ferguson, we were driven off passion, anger. We were just flat out mad,” said Bruce Franks Jr., a state representative who is black, and who began his activism in Ferguson. “Now we’re mad, we’re still passionate, we’re still angry. But we concentrate heavily on strategy now.”
The demonstrations have made some people afraid to come to the city because they fear that there is chaos and that police officers are afraid to do their jobs, said Brad Waldrop, a real estate developer who is white. Mr. Waldrop is skeptical that the attempt by protesters to apply economic pressure will lead to broad reforms, because of all the municipalities and counties in the region that operate independently.
Some of the activists’ biggest victories have come at the expense of the police.
Officers have made more than 300 arrests, some of them questionable. They have swept up an undercover officer, an Air Force lieutenant, a reporter for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and people who were not protesting. The newspaper published accounts of people who said the police struck or pepper-sprayed them after they had been taken to the ground.
The police took on more criticism when video captured some officers stealing a protest chant: “Whose streets? Our streets.” Chief O’Toole only made things worse when he later declared that the police had “owned tonight.” And many were outraged at a photo that showed a suburban police officer with his hand around the throat of an elderly black woman during a demonstration in a shopping mall.
The episodes have eroded trust in a force already struggling to improve community relations in a city trying to rein in its high murder rate, residents said.
“The Police Department has taken a black eye,” said Heather Taylor, a police sergeant here who is president of the Ethical Society of Police, the union representing black officers. “I think we’ve earned it.”
Ms. Krewson, who is white, made the unusual step of publicly criticizing her chief, calling his remarks inflammatory. She requested that the Justice Department investigate allegations of officer misconduct in their response.
“I hear them louder,” Ms. Krewson said of the protesters. “I understand them better because we’re living this day-to-day.”