New St. Louis mayor navigates racial strife after acquittal

ST. LOUIS — After defeating several black candidates, the new white mayor of St. Louis is carefully navigating racial strife that culminated in days of protest over the acquittal of a white former police officer who fatally shot a black suspect.

Lyda Krewson watched as her city and some suburbs filled for days with thousands of protesters angry at the acquittal and upset with broader issues of racial inequality. The mayor says St. Louis can be a leader in addressing inequity, but she also faces criticism from those who want her to do more and pushback from others who want strong support for police or insist racism is not an issue.

“At the end of the day, she doesn’t ever want to come off as being insensitive to the anger and the frustration that people are exemplifying as a result of the verdict,” said Democratic state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, who is black. “However, she doesn’t want to go too far and not be supportive of law enforcement. It’s a balancing act for her.”

Protesters took to the streets Friday after a judge acquitted Jason Stockley of first-degree murder for fatally shooting 24-year-old Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011.

While the protests have been mostly nonviolent, there was some vandalism and unrest in the hours after organized demonstrations ended last weekend. Police in some instances have given demonstrators a wide berth and essentially acted as traffic control.

But in other cases, including when a window at Krewson’s home was broken Friday, hundreds of officers in riot gear responded with tear gas and pepper spray.

The mayor, who took office in April, has stressed that peaceful protests should be protected but violence and vandalism will not be tolerated. She downplayed the incident at her home.

“I’m not the story here,” she said. “I got a few broken windows. They are replaced.”

From the start, her term as mayor has been marked by racial division in the city. She narrowly won a crowded Democratic primary in March after dominating in mostly white south St. Louis. City Treasurer Tishaura Jones and two other black candidates split the vote on the predominantly black north side, and Krewson defeated Jones by fewer than 900 votes.

Nasheed said there is lingering bitterness and frustration that a black candidate was not elected to lead the city, which is 49 per cent black, 44 per cent white and heavily Democratic.

Krewson said she’s trying to represent people of colour by “going to them, talking to them, having people in my cabinet who represent that point of view” and listening.

The mayor is no newcomer to St. Louis government. She was first elected to the Board of Aldermen in 1997. She previously worked as an accountant and chief financial officer at a design and planning firm.

During the campaign, she pledged to work to reduce crime and improve impoverished neighbourhoods. She and her two young children were in the car in front of their home in 1995 when her husband, Jeff, was slain during a random carjacking attempt.

The day after she took office, she announced the early retirement of Police Chief Sam Dotson, who had presided over the department through the often-tumultuous period that followed the death of Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old shot in 2014 by a white officer in the suburb of Ferguson. At the time, Krewson said the chief was not forced out but decided to step aside after meeting with the mayor.

Krewson also hired a woman active in reforms in Ferguson to direct racial equity initiatives, and she pushed for the removal of a Confederate monument in the city.

In response to recent protests, the mayor said demonstrators’ complaints are valid and that the city is dealing with “institutional racism.” She has repeatedly said she’s listening to protesters, and she decried police chants of “Whose streets? Our streets!” — a common refrain among protesters — after officers made dozens of arrests downtown Sunday.

The mayor has pledged to seek change while acknowledging that some don’t believe change is a priority.

“The only option is to move forward,” Krewson said. “Not because of the protests, not because of the Stockley case, but because it is past time. Because it is necessary for St. Louis to grow and thrive. Because it’s my job.”

Her words have been met with some skepticism. Krewson was planning to meet with protesters, but as of Tuesday afternoon had not yet done so. One organizer said protesters went to Krewson’s neighbourhood Friday because she was not on the streets speaking with them.

The mayor also postponed town hall meetings scheduled for the week. She said the meetings probably would have been packed beyond capacity and unproductive.

“You can’t say that people feel heard by saying that you’re reading their tweets and reading their Facebook posts,” Jones said. “Ninety per cent of this job is showing up. People want to see and touch the people who represent them. Canceling the rest of your town halls at such a critical juncture in the history of our city made people feel that she didn’t care.”

Nasheed praised the mayor as transparent and said she’s so far doing “a fine job.”

“She’s telling the truth. We are dealing with institutionalized racism,” Nasheed said. “However, at the end of the day the question is: What’s the solution?”

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