Note to Gov. Greitens: Jeffrey Blackman is not a window-breaking criminal.
A widely reproduced photo of a man's arrest last Saturday during a protest in the Delmar Loop doesn't show what many have assumed — a vandal about to meet justice.
The photo of the man's body suspended in air by four police officers in riot gear was undeniably striking, and versions snapped by various photographers turned up just about everywhere. He was on the cover of Sunday's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the New York Times, the Washington Post, numerous Associated Press stories —and Breitbart, the gleefully anti-Black Lives Matter and alt-right media platform, used the photo as the lead image for its own breathless coverage.
The stories generally included the same details: The formerly peaceful protest on September 16 had been overtaken by vandals intent on breaking shit. And break shit they did — more than a dozen businesses suffered broken windows and property damage that night.
Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, never one to miss a chance to flex his law-and-order muscles, chimed in with an early-morning tweet that seemed to invoke the famously ethical policing practices of The Dukes of Hazzard's Sheriff Roscoe.
"Saturday, some criminals broke windows & thought they'd get away," Greitens wrote. "They were wrong. Officers caught ‘em, cuffed ‘em, and threw ‘em in jail." The tweet included TV footage of the officers hauling away the man.
Saturday, some criminals broke windows & thought they'd get away. They were wrong. Officers caught ‘em, cuffed ‘em, and threw ‘em in jail. pic.twitter.com/DwBwkApPUl
But the next day, when the St. Louis County Police Department released the mugshots of five people facing criminal charges for property damage and rioting, the man in the striking photos wasn't among them. And in the ensuing days, no additional suspects have been charged with vandalism relating to the protests on Delmar.
That's because the man in the photo, Jeffrey Blackman, a 21-year-old Washington University senior majoring in biomedical engineering with a concentration in pre-med studies, isn't a violent criminal. He is not accused of breaking any windows or throwing any bottles that night.
In fact, according to paperwork shared with RFT, the Maryland resident was cited only for "failure to disperse" and "unlawful assembly," municipal violations that cops can levy against pretty much anyone who doesn't obey a police order.
In an interview Friday, Blackman said he hadn't planned on attending the protest on Saturday, but he was intrigued when a massive caravan of police vehicles — including a bus seemingly packed with cops in riot gear — passed him on his bike near campus.
"It looked like they were invading a country," he says.
After biking to the Loop, Blackman joined a group of protesters on the western side of a line of officers facing the demonstrators. Around 10:15 p.m., the officers, clad in body armor and carrying shields, ordered the protesters to leave the street and return to the sidewalk.
"I thought it was important to put my body directly in front of any of the black protesters," Blackman says, explaining his reasoning for refusing the officers' orders.
At one point, a commanding officer approached the college student and repeated the order: Get out of the street. Blackman demurred.
Then, Blackman says, "a little terror began to break loose." Water bottles landed around him, thrown by a group of what appeared to be teenagers in Fitz's parking lot.
But Blackman still wouldn't budge from his spot in the street. Now, he was facing the backs of officers who had turned to address the airborne threats.
"They knew that I wasn’t going to leave the street," Blackman says. "So five of them just descended upon me."
Blackman went limp, and officers restrained his wrists with zip-ties and carried him west on Delmar. He says he remembers hearing the cries of protesters who demanded the reason for the officers' actions. He didn't see the photographers chasing after him — snapping the photos that, in a matter of hours, would land on front pages and web sites across the county.
Blackman observed the rest of the protest from the backseat of a police car. Then he was transferred to the University City jail, where he was booked, processed and released some nine hours later, sans wallet and phone.
When he emerged — his citation shows he was not ordered to pay bail — he was greeted by a Zeta Beta Tau fraternity brother, who was waiting for him with coffee, a muffin and orange juice. "The only way that he knew what happened to me was that he saw me on Twitter that night," says Blackman.
Soon Blackman was able to see just how far his image had traveled. "I started seeing articles on Facebook, and Greitens shared it," he says. "In the next couple days I saw myself in the New York Times, Fox News, CNN, and I was like, 'Holy shit.'"
Greitens' tweet, though, struck a nerve with Blackman. The video and celebratory tone of the post — "caught ‘em, cuffed ‘em" — had been retweeted more than 2,000 times, with many comments cheering for the justice presumed to be facing the criminal in the frame.
"Wanna damage s**t price u pay punk," one person replied. Another suggested, "Should be done every single time. Maybe these 'peaceful' protesters would learn that they can't destroy property and get away with it." One person thanked Greitens "for bringing Law and Order back to MO. :)"
Seven months later, Blackman found himself in the governor's sights.
"The thing that really got to me about the post is that he’s just framing all the protesters as delinquent human beings," says Blackman. "It was literally a false report about me being violent, and it kind of shamed me."
But Blackman, ever the proud frat boy, quickly adds, "Now, if I was person capable of feeling shame, I would have."
Reached by email, University City Police Chief Larry Hampton confirmed that Blackman was among the ten people arrested on the Delmar Loop on Saturday.
Greitens, meanwhile, has pinned his "caught ‘em, cuffed ‘em" Tweet to the top of his profile.
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com