The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The gun-toting McCloskeys said they feared death. They survived to fight the culture wars.

Mark and Patricia McCloskey spoke addressed the Republican National Convention Monday via video. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

Speaking to the nation from what appeared to be one of the 52 rooms of their palatial St. Louis home — a marble palazzo with a 45-foot-high rotunda dome and a 3,000-square-foot ballroom of Portuguese tile — Mark and Patricia McCloskey delivered a prime-time address about their disadvantagement.

“What you saw happen to us could just as easily happen to any of you, who are watching from quiet neighborhoods around our country,” Patricia said in a video that aired Monday as part of the Republican National Convention’s opening-night program. “And that’s what we want to speak to you about tonight.”

What happened to the McCloskeys to bring them to this prominent spot? You might have seen the pictures and video. On June 28 they emerged barefoot from their home, armed with guns, to scare off Black Lives Matter protesters on their private street in the central west end of St. Louis. Patricia had a pistol and was wearing black capris. Mark had an AR-15 and was wearing khakis and a light-pink polo shirt from Brooks Brothers.

Although the McCloskeys said the protesters threatened to invade their property, a video from one participant shows the startled couple brandishing their guns and yelling as the marchers passed by the palazzo en route to the mayor’s nearby house. “Nobody wants to hurt you,” one person is heard yelling, but the McCloskeys were spooked by violence elsewhere in the city and the breach of a nearby gated barrier, next to a historic guard tower, on privately owned Portland Place. Whether the protest “happened” to the McCloskeys or vice versa is a matter of debate; the couple viewed the march as a threat to their safety and property, and the marchers seemed to view the couple as reckless instigators.

Not long ago, the McCloskeys might have seemed a bizarre addition to a political convention. At the 2020 GOP convention, with the Republicans doubling down on President Trump, they were a natural fit. The McCloskeys, both personal-injury lawyers, had given interviews that accorded with the opinions of this summer’s protests expressed by the president and his allies. Their four-minute spot on the convention schedule was between the father of a mass-shooting victim, who said the media turned his daughter’s killing into a “coordinated attack” on Trump, and Trump surrogate Kimberly Guilfoyle, who decried the “cosmopolitan elites” who want to simultaneously “destroy” the country and “control how you live.”

The McCloskeys, cosmopolitan elites themselves, have come to represent the flashy collision of class, race, privilege, public safety, and the First and Second Amendments. They feared death that day, they said, but they survived to join the culture wars.

“I thought that we’d be overrun in a second,” Mark said June 30 to Tucker Carlson, who referred to the McCloskeys as “folk heroes.”

“I’m still scared,” Mark said July 2 on “Good Morning Britain.”

“I thought we were going to die,” Mark said July 17 on a Trump campaign livestream.

The McCloskeys have been through it. They were each charged with one felony count of unlawful use of a weapon. They were ridiculed on social media as bourgeois vigilantes; a 2018 St. Louis Magazine article on the painstaking restoration of their extravagant home was recirculated to fuel the mockery. Their long history of petty legal battles was aired by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Neighbors tsk-tsked.

“We condemn the behavior of anyone who uses threats of violence, especially through the brandishing of firearms, to disrupt peaceful protest,” said an open letter signed by 38 residents of Westmoreland Place, the private street adjacent to the Mc­Closkey’s.

Westmoreland resident Tim Noonan said the protest passed peacefully through the area, he says, and neighbors later reached out to organizers to listen and let them know they had been heard.

The twin streets, Portland Place and Westmoreland Place, are lined with Tudors, Georgian revivals and Richardsonian Romanesques. They “express a well-ordered and graceful stability which was undoubtedly intended to oppose the prevalent chaos and activity of the surrounding urban milieu,” according to their 1974 nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. It is this architecture of exclusivity, and the real and imagined threats to it, that the McCloskeys spoke about with vague foreboding Monday.

“No matter where you live,” Patricia said, “your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.”

“At this moment in history,” Mark said, “if you stand up for yourself and for the values our country was founded on, the mob — spurred on by their allies in the media — will try to destroy you.”

The McCloskeys were seated on a tufted settee the color of chocolate, hands crossed on their laps, with a backdrop of glowing, carved wainscoting. One of their attorneys had previously likened them to “rugged individualists” from the “heartland of America,” and said that they invested in St. Louis during a period of White flight, made careers out of representing the vulnerable and lawfully defended their property from an angry mob. The McCloskeys, whose first court appearance is scheduled for Aug. 31, were not available Tuesday to comment on their appearance at the convention, according to Joel J. Schwartz, their criminal legal counsel.

“I advised them against their appearance, among many others that they’ve done,” Schwartz told The Washington Post, but “they believe this issue is bigger than them. They believe that individual Second Amendment rights are being stripped away.”

Schwartz said the McCloskeys had every right, under Missouri’s castle doctrine, to brandish their weapons once protesters entered the private street.

St. Louis has been at a boiling point all summer, with citizens anxious for overdue changes in crime prevention and law enforcement, says Heather Navarro, the alderwoman of Ward 28, where the McCloskeys have lived for 32 years. She points to the murder rate of children in St. Louis, which is quadruple that of comparable cities such as Indianapolis and Kansas City, according to the Post-Dispatch, and says it’s important to focus on which residents experience threats and violence as a way of life.

“When we look at the neighborhoods facing the highest levels of crime, it’s not where the McCloskeys live,” Navarro said in an interview, and “when you look at who is suffering from disparities in the city of St. Louis, it’s not the McCloskeys.”

You wouldn’t know it from their four minutes Monday night, during which these city dwellers seemed determined to scare a certain voter demographic with hyperbole about how Joe Biden supposedly is going to “abolish” the suburbs via zoning changes that would “bring crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartments into now-thriving suburban neighborhoods.”

“The Marxist liberal activist leading the mob to our neighborhood stood outside our home with a bullhorn screaming, ‘You can’t stop the revolution,’ ” Mark told the convention, as a photo of a Black woman with a bullhorn lingered on-screen. “Just weeks later, that same Marxist activist won the Democrat nomination to hold a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.”

This was a reference to Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist who won her primary Aug. 4, ending a Democratic family dynasty’s 50-year hold on Missouri’s 1st Congressional District. “The McCloskeys tried to villianize [sic] me @ the RNC tonight,” Bush tweeted 90 minutes after their appearance. “They can call me whatever they want — I’m used to it. People have called us everything you can imagine since we started protesting in Ferguson. It didn’t stop us then & it won’t stop us now.”

For their intended audience, the McCloskeys’ speech was a warning about a perceived threat just beyond the gate, a forecast that someone is coming to take something away, a stand against lawlessness and chaos. By invoking Bush, though, their remarks described a functioning democracy — albeit one with a strong sense of irony. The 1st District of Missouri is reliably Democratic, which means that, come January, the woman brandishing the bullhorn will probably be the McCloskeys’ congresswoman.

Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.