Treatment of blacks in St. Louis prompts economic boycott

Amid ongoing protests reinvigorated by the acquittal of a white former police officer in the death of a black suspect, several African-American faith and civic leaders in St. Louis announced details of an economic boycott campaign Thursday as the busiest retail period of the year approaches.

The effort is targeting about a dozen businesses, including the retail chain Target, the St. Louis-based grocer Schnucks Markets, and the Galleria shopping mall in suburban St. Louis.

The Rev. Dinah Tatman, organizer of the campaign, said African-Americans are subjected to excessive force by police, criminalized for minor infractions and saddled with long sentences. She also cited economic disparities, efforts to diminish voting rights and political redistricting that has made it harder for black people to have their voices heard in elections.

The timing of the boycott is no coincidence, coming as the Christmas shopping season gets underway. Tatman said some "strategic" protests are planned outside of businesses during the holiday season, but she declined to offer details.

"As responsible leaders of our community, we can no longer sit idly by while businesses, small and large, benefit from the dollars we pour into their coffers," Tatman said at a news conference. "As Main Street America enjoys social and economic prosperity, our community continues to erode, causing intense strain on our family structure and resulting in high unemployment rates and wanton incarceration of our black men."

Schnucks said in a statement that it was "surprised and disappointed" by being included in the boycott, noting it has customers and employees "from across the demographic spectrum" and is among the few grocers who invest in urban areas of St. Louis. The company said it also helps low-income families and provides more than $13 million to food pantries each year.

In a statement Thursday night, Target said the company works hard to "demonstrate inclusivity" in its products, including a collection of items celebrating Black History Month.

"We work with vendors and African American team members and guests to ensure our Black History Month products will resonate with our guests," the statement said.

Phone messages seeking comment from the Galleria were not immediately returned.

St. Louis has been the site of numerous protests since Sept. 15, when a judge acquitted former police officer Jason Stockley of first-degree murder in the death of 24-year-old drug suspect Anthony Lamar Smith. The boycott effort is not part of the protest movement but is in addition to it, Tatman said.

The unrest has already had an economic impact with protests inside malls and on roads and highways, and cancellation of some events, including a U2 concert in September.

Economic disparities between blacks and whites in the region were highlighted in the aftermath of unrest in 2014 after the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was black and the officer who shot him was white.

A 2015 report by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments in St. Louis found that blacks in the region were more than three times as likely to be impoverished as whites.

The Rev. Ronald L. Bobo said the disparities are no coincidence as banks and insurance and real estate companies all practice subtle forms of discrimination.

"Our community is redlined, over and over again," Bobo said. "We need to make sure others understand they cannot take us lightly."