"As they said in the protest, ‘white silence is violence,’ and as hard as it was saying that, I think I get it."
Photos via Flickr user Trevis Rothwell and courtesy of Pi Pizzeria
"I have reasons to think that cops are absolutely incompetent, but I've kept my mouth shut this entire time," Chris Sommers said. "I've not publicly smeared anybody, and I finally lost my shit when they shoot at me, you know?
Sommers, the co-owner of St. Louis' Pi Pizzeria restaurants, has always supported the city's police force, giving them free or discounted slices and making regular contributions to their charities. But, after seeing the way the officers behaved during protests that followed the acquittal of former police officer Jason Stockley, his feelings changed. He called the cops out on social media, they noticed, and a group of pro-police supporters have tried to make his life miserable ever since—with varied results.
"The love is trumping the hate, but the hate… the hate is just disgusting," he said. "They all have 'Make America Great' on their Twitter profiles. and they're so full of rage."
Sommers said that he had an OK relationship with the police department, although he alleges that they hadn't "solved a single crime" that was committed against his restaurants. That all changed in the wake of the protests, wherein officers were heard chanting "Whose streets? Our streets!" while arresting protesters.
It was then that Sommers quipped on Twitter, "[W]e pay a pension for these dimwits." He also retweeted a picture of armed police in riot gear, writing, "Standard procedure for [St. Louis Metro Police Department] terrorizing our town, hiding under tactical gear."
His comments were swiftly picked up by the pro-police website Blue Lives Matter, and in a poorly edited post (they misspelled 'pizzeria' in the first sentence), the authors suggested a boycott of Sommers' restaurants. In a now-deleted Facebook post, the St. Louis County Police Organization took things even further, typing the phone numbers to all of Sommers' restaurant locations and hinting that its supporters should harass him. "We have been busy protecting everyone's free speech during the demonstrations," the Union wrote, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Here are the numbers if you feel like your freedom of speech needs a little exercise…"
That's when the calls started, along with the abusive language, the fake orders, and the fake one-star reviews of the restaurant. A "Boycott Pi Pizza St. Louis" Facebook page was created , complete with old and out-of-context photos of Sommers and his family. And pro-police supporters organized a protest of his Kirkwood, Missouri location, which drew a massive crowd of, like, four people (and one dog).
Sommers also says he was attacked in the hours that followed those riots. He spent an hour on that Friday night passing out cups of water to both police and protesters before heading home. He then ran into "a wall of militarized police" that approached the restaurant and, as they drew closer, they fired "pepper pellets" into the air.
Sommers admitted that he "lost his shit" and started shouting at the officers who allegedly responded by throwing a tear gas canister in his direction, which a bystander then threw back at the officers. Sommers said that the officers then charged his restaurant, forcing him to run inside, lock the doors, close the restaurant for the night, and try to ensure that the diners inside and his employees would be able to get home safely.
"[We] only closed our restaurant this weekend out of fear of police, not protesters or the shitheads vandalizing," he wrote on Facebook. (But he confirmed that his videos of the incident were submitted as evidence to the ACLU, and he will be a witness in their federal lawsuit against the police department).
He was scheduled to meet with Jeff Roorda, the business manager for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, but said he was advised to call the meeting off. "To meet with him legitimizes him and I wanted to respect the efforts of people like myself who have been calling for his ouster for years," he explained. Sommers has, however, met with mayor Lyda Krewson, and says that conversations of this type—between the mayor and her concerned constituents—should be held in public, too.
He was also one of 46 St. Louis business owners who signed a letter voicing their support for the protesters and for Black Lives Matter, and calling out the police department for its continued misconduct. (The police union tweeted a link to the letter, calling the co-signers businesses who "hate cops" and "sympathize with vandals.") (Sommers responded in an open letter in the Riverfront Times.)
Despite the backlash, Sommers is not backing down. "They gave me a lot of hell, but I think they were also just pissed because they didn't know what 'dim' meant, they didn't know what 'wit' meant, and that just pissed them off even more," he told MUNCHIES. "I don't get to choose my police department, but they can choose where they eat. I pay for them and I pay those union dues. So do my guests. For them to publicly try to boycott us is disgusting and childish. 'If you dare criticize us, if you don't support us, you don't give us free meals, we're going to make an example of you or we're going to destroy you.' That has every making of the mob; that is organized crime shit."
In addition to testifying for the ACLU, Sommers says that he will be doing what he can to speak out, to educate his other citizens and business owners and to see if there's anything that can be done to facilitate change.
"The top of my list would be to dismantle and eliminate the power of the Police Officers Association and create a culture where police are held accountable, where good cops feel that they can come forward without retribution," he said. "But they make an example of them, just like they're trying to make an example of me and other businesses who dare criticize them. If you look up totalitarian regime, if you look up police state, what they're doing is textbook."
He is also working to get a documentary produced, one that he hopes would highlight the city's long history of discrimination, violence, and misconduct toward people of color.
"I've got to do my part. If you're not angry, if you're not pissed, if you're not enraged, you're not paying attention," he said. "As they said in the protest, 'white silence is violence,' and as hard as it was saying that, I think I get it, and a lot of other people are getting that too. I just want to help get more people pissed."