ST. LOUIS ― Chris Sommers was pissed. The owner of Pi Pizzeria had been handing out cups of water at one of his restaurants in the city’s Central West End on Friday night, hours after a judge declared a former St. Louis cop not guilty in the 2011 killing of a black man fleeing a drug stop. Sommers wanted to calm the protesting crowd, to put a human face on his business, maybe to keep someone from smashing his windows.
When it looked like the protests had mainly passed, Sommers prepared to head home. But as he got in the car, he saw police officers with gas masks and shields marching down an empty street toward his business. He ran back to the restaurant. One of the officers, he said, began “indiscriminately” shooting off pepper balls, a less lethal form of crowd control that hits with a sting and explodes with a burn.
Sommers started filming. He got mad. He yelled. He lost his shit, in his words. Police tossed a tear gas canister at him. Someone nearby picked it up and threw it back. The cops came running. Sommers barely managed to close the door to his restaurant in time to keep them out. Tear gas seeped inside, and he sent everyone home.
“You generally want to be friendly with the police,” Sommers told HuffPost in an interview around lunchtime on Wednesday. “And then they shoot at you.”
Sommers isn’t the kind of guy you’d expect to get into a conflict with the police. He has St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson’s cell number. He gives police a 50 percent discount. He has donated to law enforcement groups. He considered himself a police supporter, even though, he said, St. Louis cops never seemed to solve any of the crimes occasionally committed against his restaurants.
But Sommers’ accusations of police misconduct during the weekend protests kicked off a chain of events that led to employees fielding harassing phone call after harassing phone call at his restaurants on Wednesday. On Twitter, he’d used the term “dimwits” to describe officers who chanted “Whose streets? Our streets” on Sunday night after they arrested people downtown, in a sweep that led to peaceful demonstrators and a couple of journalists spending up to 24 hours in jail.
Blue Lives Matter, a right-leaning retort to the Black Lives Matter movement that has grown on Facebook and morphed into a pro-police news site, didn’t like what Sommers had said. Someone wrote up a critical post on Tuesday. The St. Louis County Police Association posted that story on Facebook, along with phone numbers for Pi Pizzeria’s various locations, and urged supporters to call the restaurant if their “freedom of speech needs a little exercise.” (The police association appears to have since deleted the Facebook post.)
Sommers then laid out his story in a lengthy Facebook post that was republished by Riverfront Times,
The harassment began.
On Wednesday, the phones were still ringing almost constantly. One caller used an anti-gay slur. At another location, someone tried to place a fake order totaling more than $600. Callers said “Blue Lives Matter.” Someone apparently spread a rumor among protesters claiming that Pi was handing out free pizza.
The online reaction has been vicious. People labeled Sommers a “lib-tard.” New one-star reviews have claimed that there were roaches at Pi Pizzeria. That there was bondage equipment inside. That the pizza sucked. People wrote that they hope the windows get smashed, that the business fails. The online reaction, Sommers said, “just goes to the character of these guys that think that cops are infallible.”
Sommers said he did think a lot of the officers were “dimwitted” based on the decisions they made during these latest protests. “Who thought that was a good idea?” he said of their tactics. “Who’s standing up to it? That’s the problem, that this isn’t a few bad eggs. Who’s standing up to this behavior? Are they stressed? Yeah. Are they tired? Yeah. So am I. I’m out here trying to protect my business, protect my team, and they start terrorizing us.”
His criticism was focused on actions he personally witnessed on Friday, Sommers said, although he has broader concerns about policing in general. His actions supporting police should “speak louder than my opinions of what they did this weekend,” he said.
“What I think is important is that we stop talking about Chris and pizza, and start talking about why everyone is so upset,” Sommers said. “What people are supporting us about is what they too know, what we experience every year with corruption and racism. Different value of life in the city is real.”
Sommers considers himself a peacemaker. He said he’s long been supportive of both police officers and activists. “But that doesn’t matter anymore to people who want to sell a story around a narrative,” he said.
“When [conservative commentator] Dana Loesch tweets about me this morning, you know you’re kind of on the right side of justice and history when she’s condemning you, right?” Sommers said. “If I’m pissing her off, I’m probably doing the right thing.”
Sommers said he worries about the harassment campaign against his business, which could have consequences well beyond the inconvenience of a broken window. But so far he’s been encouraged by the backing of his customers. The Central West End location was more packed than usual for Wednesday lunch, with people stopping by to lend support.
The restaurant owner isn’t done. He expects to testify in federal court in connection with legal action bought by the American Civil Liberties Union over the cops’ behavior.
“Did I run my mouth? Yes, certainly, after I got assaulted. Do I regret some things? I regret the impact on my employees and my wife. But I know what I said is true, and there are a lot of dimwitted people in the police department, because this stuff is happening everywhere,” Sommers said. “It’s not a few bad eggs. It’s happening everywhere, and what we need is more good eggs who stand up, for police officers to come out and acknowledge what’s going on.”