Protesters find safety at Central Reform Congregation

People inside Central Reform Congregation peer out at police outside the synagogue on Sept. 15. Some protestors at the Friday night demonstrations in the Central West End took shelter inside CRC after vandalism occurred and police moved to disperse the crowd. Photo: Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

When Central Reform Congregation posted a letter on Facebook Friday announcing that it would act as a “safe space” for people protesting the not-guilty verdict in the Jason Stockley case, leaders of the synagogue thought that most of the protest would happen elsewhere.

“I assumed that everything was going to be downtown and that maybe some people would come but that it wouldn’t be a large number of people,” said Rabbi Randy Fleisher of CRC. 

But as the Reform synagogue held Shabbat services, more than 1,000 protesters gathered in the Central West End. Some walked to the St. Louis mayor’s home. 

Once there, some protesters threw objects that broke windows at the house, in addition to red paint, according to news and police reports. When the police arrived and marched up the street and deployed tear gas, people started to run away and about 150 ended up inside the congregation, located near the intersection of Waterman and Kingshighway boulevards, according to Fleisher, who then went outside to speak with the police. 

At that point, the congregation, which is often active in social justice efforts outside the Jewish community, became the center of a story that has attracted national attention. 

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Earlier that day, a judge had ruled that Stockley, a police officer who shot and killed a black man in 2011 following a high-speed chase, was not guilty of first-degree murder. Stockley had said “going to kill this (expletive), don’t you know it,” as he chased Anthony Lamar Smith, and then, prosecutors alleged, planted a gun after shooting Smith five times. Stockley claimed he feared for his life and was acting in self-defense. Judge Timothy Wilson said state prosecutors had failed to prove their case.  

To protesters, it was a familiar narrative: white police officer unnecessarily shoots a black man and is not convicted of any crime. 

“We have a crisis in our country and St. Louis is a flashpoint,” said Koach Baruch Frazier, an activist who is black and belongs to CRC. “There is no way that we can sit idly by as an agent of the state, the judge, decides for the hundredth time that it is legal to kill us in cold blood and never pay for it.” 

Once inside the synagogue, Fleisher and others said, it was relatively calm.

“If you didn’t know what was happening, it could have been any evening in the synagogue. People were polite and cooperative,” Fleisher said. The synagogue had also acted as a sanctuary for protesters in 2014 following the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson.

The rabbi talked with a police officer who told him that “anyone who comes into the synagogue is safe — [the police] weren’t going to attempt to go into the synagogue — but that no one could leave until they cleared the area,” which meant that people who left the synagogue or remained in the streets could be arrested.

There were reports on social media and in the news that said the police had threatened to fire tear gas at protesters inside the synagogue and then a hashtag emerged calling on police to #gasthesynagogue. Fleisher said the police never threatened tear gas. Out on the streets, police had earlier fired pepper pellets and tear gas to disperse the crowd, acting police chief Lawrence O’Toole said. Thirty-three people were arrested at protests Friday — with seven arrests at Waterman and Kingshighway that night — according to St. Louis police. At around midnight, police came to the congregation and told the rabbi that people were free to leave, Fleisher said. 

From Friday until Monday, vandalism and arrests occurred mostly at night. 

Frazier, who was also active in the Ferguson protests, said that the hundreds of police who were in riot gear in the Central West End “were the ones escalating the anxiety.”

But police had not been at the scene when protesters gathered in front of Mayor Lyda Krewson’s home. 

Asked about the vandalism that occurred at Krewson’s home and at businesses in the Central West End and University City, Frazier said, “even if we bought into their story that somebody broke something, I would remind folks that nobody looted a thing, so all of these narratives that we are a dangerous people…if glass was broken, it can be replaced, humans can not be replaced.”

The protests began Friday morning near the downtown courthouses. There was a significant Jewish presence among the hundreds of people gathered, including clergy from CRC and Congregation Shaare Emeth. 

“I think that the verdict is unjust to say the least and the government needs to be aware that this is upsetting not only to members of the African-American community, but also to the entire community, especially the white community,” said Rabbi Andrea Goldstein of Shaare Emeth. “I think as a Jewish human being, the teachings of our tradition speak to me about what justice looks like, and this does not look like justice.”

A number of Jews interviewed for this story mentioned the timing of the verdict, shortly before the High Holidays. Laura Horwitz, a founder of We Stories, a nonprofit that aims to create conversations about race through children’s literature, said the holidays are “a time of reflection when we have a lot of space to be together in this next month. That’s time to think about what [we are] hearing from our neighbors” and “what we want to differently.”

Horwitz said she thought about the pending verdict over the past few weeks and asked herself how she might have acted differently during the Ferguson protests “if I knew what I know now. And one thing that I would have done differently is shown up more, especially at daytime protests.”

Flamenco Flowers and Sweets on Delmar Boulevard was among the businesses damaged Saturday night during a second night of protests. Owner Elisheva Heit arrived that night to see that her front window and pots were broken. Her grand opening was planned for Sunday. Strangers, she said, helped her clean up the property and decorate a board that had been put up over the window. As a result, Heit, who belongs to U. City Shul, was still able to hold the opening, which was “wonderful,” she said.

Still, she said, “Justice needs to be achieved but it will not be achieved by destroying property.”