NEW YORK – When protests over the acquittal of a white police officer in the fatal shooting of a black man turned violent in St. Louis over the weekend, a local synagogue opened its doors for demonstrators fleeing police tear gas and rubber bullets.But shortly after the Central Reform Congregation synagogue emerged as a shelter for demonstrators, those opposed began calling on police to breach the sanctuary and began tweeting the hashtag #GasTheSynagogue accompanied by antisemitic and racist comments about the protesters and those giving them shelter. The hashtag began trending on social media, and many users expressed outrage.“Because of the leadership in our country, there has been unleashed this kind of permission to have that kind of disgusting behavior,” Rabbi Susan Talve said in response. “It’s frightening, but I also know that it’s being very carefully monitored.We can’t let hate stop us from living our lives. We are gonna do our due diligence, we are going to use every avenue that we have to root out that kind of hate and try to be safe and be strong.”Talve added that she is confident the local community, including protesters, will support her congregation and defend it in return, if any physical danger occurred.The clashes began as peaceful demonstrations on Friday after Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson acquitted former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley, 36, of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, 24. Smith was shot in his car after attempting to elude Stockley and his partner, who had chased him for an alleged drug deal, authorities said. During the pursuit, Stockley could be heard saying on an internal police car video he was going to kill Smith, prosecutors said.According to the policeman’s attorney, he believed that Smith was armed. A gun was found in the car but prosecutors argued Stockley planted the weapon.Friday’s protests ended in late night violence, with 33 arrests after clashes on which 10 officers were hurt. More clashes took place on Saturday night with police arresting eight people and deploying tear gas.
Seeing the events unfolding in the city, the Central Reform Congregation of St. Louis decided to step in to help protesters.“When we knew that the likely not guilty verdict was going to happen we prepared a statement that would go out to the congregation saying that if needed, we would be a shelter, a safe space for protesters to come use the restroom, get water, get cleaned up if god forbid they had gotten maced or tear gassed,” Talve, the synagogues Rabbi, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday morning.“Congregants brought water and snacks during the day so that we would be prepared.”When some protesters began breaking shop windows and damaging property in the streets, Talve and her staff opened the synagogue’s doors and gathered people inside. Some 250 protesters found shelter there.“There were people that came in that had been tear gassed and couldn’t see,” she said. “For about three or four hours the police was still outside and we kept people safe inside. Eventually when the police started to leave, then the protesters left as well.”Talve said she believes the Jewish community has “many reasons” to get involved in the fight for racial justice.“We are a people who believe in justice for everyone. We were strangers in the land of Egypt, we get this. We know what it is to be made other by institutions, systems of oppression,” she said. “We understand this as a people. So when we see it, we have to be part of the solution.”“The only thing that I can do as a white person in this fight for civil rights in America, is put my body on the line. Black and brown bodies are on the line every day just because of the color of their skin,” Talve stressed.“I have to be out there putting my body on the line so that another mother doesn’t lose another child,” she added.The events in St. Louis come almost three years after rioting broke out in the Ferguson suburb when a black teenager was shot dead by a white police officer. That incident touched off nationwide soul-searching over law enforcement’s use of force against African-Americans, the mentally ill and other groups. The Central Reform Congregation had then too, provided help to those protesting.Reuters contributed to this report.
Pence visits vandalized Jewish cemetery in St. Louis on Feb. 22, 2017 (credit: REUTERS)