October 30, 2020

Activist voices in town stand against anonymous opposition

Activists from Peace United Church of Christ are not backing down after their church was vandalized with racist graffiti.

Friday night on East Lockwood Avenue a crowd gathers on the lawn of the Peace United Church of Christ. Cars roll by hitting their horns in bursts, others wave and some simply hold a fist out of their window. 

Crowd participants are toting signs. One reads: “8:46” Another: “No Justice, No Peace” And another: “Black Lives Matter.”

The vigil is a 30-minute observation of silence, during the first 8 minutes and 46 seconds of which demonstrators are asked to take a knee.

“While we’re doing the 8 minutes, 46 seconds,” Pastor Wendy Bruner said over a bullhorn, “we’re going to read the names of folks who have been killed by the police. If you’re holding a picture of one of those people, feel free to lift up that picture. We want to make sure we are not forgetting what is happening in this country.”

Pastor Bruner is one of Webster Groves’ spiritual and activist leaders, her faith the driver of her work.

“We at Peace United believe Jesus was a radical,” she said. “Jesus was out there; he was making voices heard, he stood for justice. He stood up to the Roman Empire, who brutally oppressed people, which in a lot of ways is similar to what we’re seeing today.”

Bruner and her congregation are involved with voter registration drives, Pride St. Louis, and the Children’s Advocacy Center of Greater St. Louis.

“Being out there on that sidewalk is just one small part of many ways to exercise the gospel,” Bruner said.

This is the congregation’s 17th week of Friday night vigils that began in response to the June police-killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

“The church mobilized pretty [quickly],” Melissa Harttman, an eight-year member of the congregation, said. “The crowd has grown and waned. We’ve had lots of people come and join us.”

Webster Groves’ activist population has continued these vigils over the past three months, and their messages had remained unchallenged; until three weeks ago.

On Sept. 4, KMOV reported multiple incidences of hate-speech vandalism in the Webster Groves community. They occurred at churches with known activist congregations, a North Gore Street office-building and at a monument in Barbre Park in north Webster Groves. 

The stenciled graffiti read ‘13/50,’ a watchword the Anti-Defamation League says, “is a shorthand reference to racist propaganda claims by white supremacists against African-Americans to depict them as savage and criminal in nature.” 

The phrase suggests that 13% of the population, the Black demographic, commits 50% of the country’s violent crimes.

“I’m disappointed that they’re misunderstanding our message,” Pastor Bruner said. “When we say Black Lives Matter, it doesn’t mean their lives don’t. It just means we are acknowledging that Black lives don’t matter right now, and we need to address that.”

“Mercifully, the stenciling has stopped,” Webster Groves Mayor Gerry Welch said.

The spray-painted hate speech has since been removed by the city, but other incidents of anonymous messaging have occurred within the community since.

On Sept. 13, KSDK reported that anonymous letters were mailed to Webster Groves homeowners with Black Lives Matter lawn signs. The letters warned residents of imminent property devaluation and urged them to “save your political viewpoint for inside your home.”

The mayor and her administration have since released a statement in the immediate wake of these crimes, which denounced the reactionary behavior as “contrary to the values of equity, diversity, inclusion, and respect for each other that are at the heart of our community.” 

Mayor Welch has also led a series of meetings over the summer on advancing racial equity in Webster Groves, the details of which are still to be determined.

Earlier in the summer on June 12, a Webster University sign on the lawn of the Luhr building that read “Webster University stands for racial equality and justice – Black Lives Matter!” was stolen and subsequently replaced by two signs, according to campus officials.

The Webster Groves Police Department is unable to comment on the ongoing investigation into these incidents, but Harttman believes them to be an organized effort from within the community.

“We’d like to think it’s not Webster,” she said. “But, I think people have kind of determined it probably is. I think it’s the same group dropping anonymous letters in people’s mailboxes. I don’t think it’s random.”

Harttman has noticed a discrepancy between the amount of anonymous signaling and actual discourse, as the only open resistance they’ve met has been from passing vehicles and an alleged profane bullhorn speech from a block away.

“The whole neighborhood could hear it,” she said. “People like that are cowards. You have something to say? Stop right here and say it. Don’t drive past then get your nerves up.”

But Harttman also believes the attempts to intimidate activist voices have only served to strengthen their cause.

“It backfired,” she said. “If they wanted to scare people away, it had the complete opposite effect. We’re of the belief here that you have to stand for what you believe, stand together and don’t let the cowards intimidate you.”

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