Mark and Patricia McCloskey gained instant notoriety after video of them waving and pointing guns at Black Lives Matter demonstrators from the front yard of their St Louis mansion spread across the internet. Now they’ve appeared as speakers at the Republican National Convention.
It was 28 June and just as dusk was beginning to settle over the city of St Louis, Missouri, a group of several hundred protesters converged at the intersection of a busy six-lane street called Kingshighway. It is a main thoroughfare in a well-to-do section of the city known as the Central West End.
Some pushed bicycles, some carried Black Lives Matter signs, nearly all wore masks as they chanted, sang and began moving up and down the street, which was shut down to traffic. Their ultimate destination was the home of the mayor of St Louis, Lyda Krewson, several blocks away.
“Resign Lyda,” they chanted at an intersection outside a four-star hotel. “Take the cops with you!”
Marchers had been in the streets for weeks protesting against the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and many were veterans of the protest movement that arose after the death of Michael Brown in 2014 in nearby Ferguson.
On this particular evening, protesters were upset about a specific incident. Two days earlier, during Mayor Krewson’s regularly scheduled Covid-19 live stream briefing, the mayor read aloud from letters from protesters who were urging her to defund the St Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
She also read the full names and, in some cases, addresses of the letter-writers. Some people took this as an attempt to “doxx” the protesters – publicly sharing identifying information – and accused Krewson of intimidation tactics. The following day, she apologised and removed the Facebook Live.
Nevertheless, the call went out across the city for demonstrators to converge on Krewson’s doorstep in the Central West End, demanding her resignation. Hundreds responded. They included members of the clergy and politicians, such as US House of Representatives candidate Cori Bush, who would go on to win her primary against a long-time incumbent in early August.
About two hours into the demonstration on Kingshighway, the marchers began making their way towards Krewson’s home. They walked north and made a left toward a street called Portland Place, which is blocked at both ends with imposing stone and wrought iron gates. Signs marked “Private Property” are posted at either end.
One of the houses on Portland Place is a spectacular, $1.15m (£880,730) Renaissance-style palazzo, built by an Anheuser-Busch beer fortune heiress in the early 1900s. This is the home of husband and wife Mark and Patricia McCloskey, who are both personal injury lawyers.
How it all began has been hotly contested. Mark McCloskey in one subsequent media interview said the protesters “smashed down” the gate.
“As soon as I said the words ‘private property,’ it seemed to enrage them,” he told Fox News “I ran in, got my rifle. I started standing on the wing of the patio saying, ‘Private property! Get out! Get out of here!’ They kept pouring in. That seemed to make them want to come forward.”
The couple’s lawyer at the time shared pictures of the gate, which was twisted and broken on its left side. “A mob of at least 100 smashed through the historic wrought iron gates of Portland Place, destroying them, rushed towards my home where my family was having dinner outside and put us in fear for our lives,” Mark McCloskey also told KMOV.
However, a live stream from the front of the march shows that the first protesters walked through an intact gate that was being held open. Freelance photographer and University of Missouri journalism graduate student Daniel Shular told the BBC that the gate was unlocked when the first marchers entered. “People just walked up to it and opened the gate,” he said, estimating he was the sixth person through. “It looked normal to me when I passed through.”
Most legal analysts agree that the protesters were trespassing when they entered Portland Place.
Rasheen Aldridge, a state representative and one of the organisers of the march, said that crossing onto Portland Place should be considered an act of civil disobedience. “Just like in many disobedient protests, even in the 60s, you break laws, make people feel uncomfortable. We’re not doing anything where we’re hurting anyone or putting anyone in danger,” he told KMOV.
It remains unclear at what point the gate was damaged, and by whom.
Moments later, Mark McCloskey appeared on his patio holding a rifle. He was separated from the protesters by a large hedge. “Get the hell out of my neighbourhood,” he yelled. “Private property – get out. Get out.” Some protesters yelled “calm down,” while others swore at him.
Demonstrators shouted back at McCloskey that the street is “public property,” which is not true of Portland Place – it is private property owned by a trust. Residents pay towards its management and the upkeep of the street, as well as private security.
According to analysis by St Louis Post-Dispatch investigative reporter Jeremy Kohler, video evidence does not show the protesters crossing onto the McCloskeys’ property, remaining instead on the sidewalks and in the roadway.
A little over a minute later, Patricia McCloskey came out of the front door, barefoot, with a small silver pistol. She aimed it directly at demonstrators on the pavement, while shouting, “Go!”
A volley of shouts came back from the protesters, everything from pleas for calm to insults and expletives. “Why are you pointing that gun at us?” “We got kids out here!” “You’re a coward!” “Nobody wants to hurt you.”
Some protesters urged others to file quickly past, others stopped to continue to argue and insult the couple as they stood side-by-side with their weapons on their front steps. For much of the time, Patricia McCloskey kept her pistol levelled towards protesters.
“I absolutely thought Patricia McCloskey was going to murder me and I haven’t slept since she aimed her gun at my face,” protester James Cooper told the St Louis Post-Dispatch.
The McCloskeys claimed later that two white males in the group threatened their lives, though little of what was said between the two sides is intelligible in the live streams of the confrontation.
“We are coming back to revisit,” one protester yelled. The entire incident lasted roughly 12 minutes before the entire group made its way past the McCloskeys’ home and down the street. Protesters exited the gate on the opposite end of Portland Place and continued on their way to Mayor Krewson’s home. As planned, a very large crowd of hundreds converged for several hours of protest there, painting the word “Resign” in the street outside her house.
The McCloskeys would later tell police that the protesters were armed. Marchers say no-one on their side drew a weapon. The state of Missouri does allow the open carrying of firearms, as long as it is not done in a threatening manner.
The couple also said they drew their weapons because of the threats on their lives. However, Mark McCloskey also told an interviewer at KMOV that “the threats happened probably after we got the guns”.
The videos and photographs of the McCloskeys – a wealthy white couple pointing firearms from the front lawn of their palatial estate at protesters, including black and white activists – went viral instantly. But the incident also turned political just as quickly.
Through their lawyer, the McCloskeys declined a request to be interviewed by the BBC, and did not respond to a detailed list of questions about the incident.
President Donald Trump retweeted video of the confrontation and later commented that the McCloskeys were going to be “beat up badly, if they were lucky”.
The McCloskeys hired a lawyer and began giving interviews to CNN, Fox News and other national outlets. Mark McCloskey called the protesters a “mob”, the incident “terrorism”, and said the incident had ruined his life.
An initial statement from their lawyer read, “Both Mr and Mrs McCloskey acted lawfully on their property which sits on a private gated lane in the City of St Louis. Their actions were borne solely of fear and apprehension, the genesis of which was not race related.”
The lawyer added: “My clients, as melanin-deficient human beings, are completely respectful of the message Black Lives Matter needs to get out, especially to whites.”
On 10 July, city police searched and seized both of the guns from the couple. About a month later, St Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner charged both with “unlawful use of a weapon”, which is a felony. The complaint said that both had displayed their semi-automatic weapons “readily capable of lethal use, in an angry or threatening manner”.
“We are fortunate this situation did not escalate into deadly force,” Gardner wrote in a statement at the time. “I will recommend the McCloskeys participate in diversion programmes that are designed to reduce unnecessary involvement with the courts. I believe this would serve as a fair resolution to this matter.”
Conservative politicians reacted immediately. Republican Senator Josh Hawley called it “an outrageous abuse of power” by the circuit attorney. Missouri’s conservative governor said if convicted, he would pardon the McCloskeys. And according to his press secretary, President Trump said that what was happening to the McCloskeys was “absolutely absurd”. He said they were merely “defending themselves against violent protesters”.
Missouri’s Attorney General Eric Schmitt also filed a legal brief in support of dismissing the case, writing that prosecuting the McCloskeys is a violation of their right to bear arms, and their right to defend their property under Missouri’s “castle doctrine” law.
“As long as this case continues, it will send a public message to all Missourians that, if they dare to exercise their fundamental right to keep and bear arms in defence of family and home, they may be prosecuted and sent to prison,” Schmitt wrote in his brief.
The McCloskeys own a personal injury law firm together, and claim that in their work they have defended the civil rights of their clients. Currently, Mark McCloskey is representing a client in a federal police brutality suit.
However, according to court documents and other media reports, the McCloskeys’ residency on Portland Place has, at times, been contentious.
In a piece for the St Louis Post-Dispatch, investigative journalist Jeremy Kohler detailed a long list of alleged legal battles Mark McCloskey has waged against his neighbours, colleagues, and even his own father and sister, mostly over matters to do with property.
In one court filing, they are said to admit using a gun to force a fellow resident of Portland Place off a patch of grass they claimed to own because he “refused to heed the McCloskeys’ warnings to stay off such property”.
According to Kohler’s reporting, the McCloskeys also sued the trustees to enforce the neighbourhood rules that said only married couples could live there.
In one of the stranger reported conflicts, Kohler found the McCloskeys destroyed beehives along the outside of their northern wall, placed there by the neighbouring synagogue as a part of its children’s programming. “The children were crying,” the rabbi told Kohler.
The Republican National Convention
In an interview with a radio station in St Louis, Mark McCloskey expressed concern about the recent primary victory of Democrat Cori Bush. He mentioned the fact that she had been at the march outside his home, calling her all but assured election to Congress “frightening”. “I think the issue is law and order, and the left, the people in the left end of the spectrum that influence the government through violence,” he said.
Protesters on the other hand have said that the incident is just further proof that the right to peaceful protest is not being respected, and in fact met with threats of violence.
“When people like Mark and Patricia McCloskey pull guns on non-violent protestors marching in the streets, they become instant idols,” Cori Bush wrote on Twitter. “It emboldens hate and puts our safety and our lives further at risk. I’m already seeing it directly in my inbox.”
But in the couple’s speaking slot at the Republican convention on Monday night, Mr McCloskey was in no doubt that he and his wife were the real victims.
“Not a single person in the out-of-control mob you saw at our house was charged with a crime,” he said.
“But you know who was? We were. They’ve actually charged us with a felony for daring to defend our home.”