Before they were photographed brandishing guns during a Black Lives Matter protest, Mark and Patricia McCloskey had made a name for themselves in their St. Louis neighborhood, suing and writing angry letters to community groups, and even accusing a neighborhood association of trespassing for taking a picture of their house.
The McCloskeys, a pair of lawyers, won internet fame this week after they were filmed pointing guns at racial justice protesters outside their mansion in a gated community. The McCloskeys said the protesters were trespassing on their private street, and that they feared for their lives. But the couple has, for decades, been wrapped up in conflict in the area, sometimes in cases that foreshadowed their now-infamous confrontation with Black Lives Matter activists.
Footage of the McCloskeys went viral on Sunday after activists walked on their St. Louis street en route to a protest outside the mayor’s home nearby. Standing outside their palatial home, the couple—Mark wearing a pink polo and carrying a rifle and Patricia with her finger on the trigger of a pistol—looked like a portrait of weaponized white wealth.
In interviews after the confrontation, the McCloskeys said they went outside with guns because they felt terrorized and worried that the marchers were going to murder them. The couple pointed to damage to a nearby gate as proof that the protest was intent on destroying property. That story has since come under some dispute, after the release of a video that showed the gate intact when the McCloskeys first drew guns on the protesters. The gate was photographed damaged later on Sunday.
Nevertheless, the presence of the gated community in the middle of St. Louis highlighted the potentially divisive role of private streets, an urban phenomenon with which the McCloskeys have long been intimately acquainted.
Portland Place is a gated street full of large and historic homes, like the one the McCloskeys currently occupy. But the McCloskeys filed their first lawsuit against the community before they even lived there.
“A lawyer in St. Louis has filed suit against a bank and a group of lawyers and real estate agents, accusing them of cheating him out of a chance to buy a unique mansion in the Central West End,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in 1987. “Another party bought the mansion for less money than McCloskey had offered, the suit says.”
McCloskey asked the court to give him the mansion or pay him damages. He won the suit and the couple bought the mansion in 1988.
They became involved with the Portland Place homeowners association, but soon were embroiled in group politics. According to a Post-Dispatch report from 1992, Patricia spearheaded an effort to enforce an obscure state law banning unmarried couples from living together. Fellow members of the homeowners association accused her of using the provision as an excuse to stop gay couples from moving in, which Patricia denied.
“This is insanity,” she told the paper. “It isn’t about gay-bashing. I want to enforce certain restrictions.” She cited a nearby doctor, whom she accused of running a business out of his home. (The McCloskeys had previously opened their home to a photoshoot of designer clothes, like a $300 paisley silk Neiman-Marcus robe, which ran in the Post-Dispatch.)
The doctor said her complaint was bogus. “I have not officially seen a patient since 1984,” he told the Post-Dispatch, adding critically that the McCloskeys “are trying to preserve the exclusivity of the neighborhood.”
Patricia was ousted from the homeowners association the following year over disagreements about the neighborhood rules.
Reached by phone, Mark McCloskey declined to comment immediately, and Patricia could not be reached. The couple’s lawyer, Albert Watkins, said he was unfamiliar with the unmarried couples dispute. But that he knew the couple had lobbied to remove anti-Black language (which had already been ruled unconstitutional and unenforceable) from the neighborhood charter. Since the video of them went viral, the couple have claimed to support Black Lives Matter.
Patricia McCloskey’s booting seems to have begun a decades-long stretch of hostile relations with the association, which the couple have since battled in court four times, in three cases as plaintiffs—most recently over the group’s alleged failure to maintain the private sewer system. That matter remains in litigation, but suits the two brought in 1995 and 2017 wound up dismissed without prejudice.
A lawyer who represents the association and multiple individual members either declined to comment or could not be reached prior to publication.
In 1996, after relations with the Portland Place homeowners association had apparently soured, Mark McCloskey took issue with the Central West End Association when the group included a picture of their stately home—alongside 25 others—in a poster of the neighborhood.
“I do not necessarily support the Central West End Association, I am not a member,” McCloskey wrote in a letter published in part by the Post-Dispatch that year. “The Association certainly has no right to use a photograph of my home for its personal profit … it could only have resulted from a trespass upon this private place … I feel compelled to request that you forward to me, at a minimum, one-25th of the gross receipts recovered by the Central West End Association from the sale of such poster.”
An Association spokesperson told the Post-Dispatch that the poster revenue “may reach $33.”
McCloskey apparently doesn’t mind fighting over small change. When a lawyer fined him $1,800 for frivolous filings in a 2000 case, McCloskey made the payment with 18,000 dimes in a box, delivered to his opponent’s office.
He has also been an opinionated author of letters to the editor of the Post-Dispatch over the years. In 1993, he wrote one such letter, upset that the paper had disparaged “yuppies” like him. “Why live where your life is at risk, where you are affronted by thugs, bums, drug addicts and punks when you can afford not to?” he wrote.
In 1999, he wrote a long letter complaining about airport security.
“On March 14, I had an encounter with airport security, which I think sends a frightening message about the state of our ‘free’ country,” he wrote, describing a security agent who asked. “‘May I inspect your bag?’ I responded, ‘Not unless you can tell me some legal reason why you have the right to.’ That response caused all the security agents to burst out laughing.”
When working for others, however, Mark McCloskey has taken a different tack. He has at least twice represented clients alleging racial bias: in 1990, when he accused federal lender Fannie Mae of refusing to finance mortgages in predominantly Black sections of St. Louis, and in 2000, when he took up the case of an African-American deckhand who claimed his white superiors had subjected him to harassment.
“Fannie Mae continues to engage in systematic red-lining and discrimination,” the attorney told the Post-Dispatch. “Local lenders won’t make loans because they can’t sell the loans in the secondary market.”
A federal judge later threw out the suit. McCloskey is also currently representing a police brutality claimant.
After the video of the McCloskeys went viral, urbanists and racial justice advocates pointed to the couple’s gated community as an example of divisive land use that disproportionately harms people of color. Trayvon Martin, a Florida teenager killed by a gated community’s neighborhood watch member in 2012, was one such example.
When confronted at gunpoint, the marchers in Portland Place noted that they were on the street or the sidewalk, not the McCloskeys’ private property. Mark McCloskey countered in the media that the entire gated neighborhood was technically private—and he was technically correct, thanks to an old St. Louis zoning code that walled off some of the city’s most elite neighborhoods.
Even so, pointing guns on the protesters remains of dubious legality. A Circuit Court attorney representing St. Louis said she was launching an investigation into the incident, noting that “we must protect the right to peacefully protest, and any attempt to chill it through intimidation or threat of deadly force will not be tolerated.”
Watkins, the McCloskeys’ lawyer, told The Daily Beast that he’d lived on Portland Place in the early 2000s, and that the street had its own armed security force at the time.
“It didn’t bother me at first blush, except that in practice what happened was that every one of my friends and guests of color inevitably would show up at my door kind of traumatized,” he said. “They’d been stopped by a cop with his hand ready on a gun asking them what they were doing there.”