Forward Through Ferguson with Public Accountability.

by Chuck Ramsay

The recent Public Accountability Meeting, held Monday, November 23, 2015 at the Union Avenue Christian Church in St. Louis, was the second meeting in an attempt by several organizations to acquire commitments from elected officials to pursue the recommendations of the Ferguson Commission.

The Commission, appointed by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon in 2014, worked for nearly a year examining racial equality, opportunity and possibilities in the St. Louis region.  Their final report, after making tough inquiries, studying existing public policies (many of which were found to be illegal and unconstitutional), and spearheading work groups to consider remedies, was issued as “Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equity.” That report highlighted the path the Commission took, what they discovered along the way, and 148 specific calls to action.

One of the pitfalls of appointing commissions, we know from history, is that stellar panels can do excellent work and come up with stellar solutions. But their reports are then, often, put on a shelf only to gather dust. Following advice from a commission in Cincinnati, Ohio, who had a similar challenge almost 15 years ago, the Ferguson Commission sought to put into motion mechanisms for assuring that the work would continue to alleviate the racial inequities in the St. Louis region and deliver great racial equality for everyone.

At the first meeting, held November 1, 2015, none of the elected officials who had been invited and had indicated they would attend, showed up. To many, this was a slap in the face because when the Ferguson Commission was initially organized, most of these same people encouraged their work and said they wanted to be “at the table” when their findings were revealed to hopefully help with implementation.

There are a limited number of ways the goals of the Ferguson Commission can be achieved. First, our elected officials can make changes to existing, or develop new, public policies that will make racial equality possible where it does not exist today. As our civic leaders, they can create mechanisms through law that would encourage everyone to adhere to the new policies – for it is accepted than many will resist anything that removes prejudice and bias from the way we currently function as a society.

A second and, perhaps, more challenging group who can make a difference, is our state legislature. These law makers in Jefferson City have shown on occasion a reluctance to pass laws that make sense for urban populations, especially when it comes to changing the status quo. However, we do have some who are ready to help – including Missouri State Senator Jamilah Nasheed, who was at the meeting the other night.

The third group is everybody else. Individuals. You and me, him and her. As individuals who come together as activists and organizers; or who work individually to reach out to others, we can make a huge difference. Even if it is no more than speaking out when one sees or hears an instance of prejudice or racism, or if white, by curbing our own white privilege in favor of fairness and equal treatment.

At this second Public Accountability Meeting, City of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay showed up. So did Attorney General Chris Koster. Absent again were St. Louis City Chief of Police Sam Dotson, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, and St. Louis County Chief of Police Jon Belmar. Considering that Ferguson is located in St. Louis County, it is interesting that Stenger would deem it helpful or unnecessary to attend this type of gathering whose sole purpose is to keep communications open and acquire a simple commitment from our leaders to pursue the action items found in the Ferguson Commission’s final report. By the way, many of the same “problems” and “solutions” identified by the Ferguson Commission were also cited in the U. S. Department of Justice’s report from their investigation of the City of Ferguson and the Ferguson Police Department.

One has to ask if this continuing snub is their way of saying that the City of St. Louis Police Department and the St. Louis County Government and Police Department are not interested in improving race relations, or finding better ways to be even handed by not criminalizing poverty, participating in racial profiling, or reforming our municipal courts, and turning many police departments from revenue generators into public safety organizations once again?

At the meeting, Mayor Slay agreed to work toward getting subpoena power for the newly-formed Civilian Oversight Board and to make it independent of the Public Safety Department of which the Police Department is also a part.  He also indicated he would work to consolidate training of the City and County police departments.

Attorney General Chris Koster agreed to work toward the action items, but was met with boos when he saluted the police officers who “worked the protests” last year following the announcement by the County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McColloch that Police Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Those protests, as you may recall, were largely peaceful until they were met with an over aggressive response including tanks, tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades, and water canon by police after another group began looting and set fires apart from the protesters. This pattern of over policing was reproduced on several other occasions over the last year and has been deemed unnecessary and non-productive by many policing experts and criminologists.

Still, there is hope that our elected officials will take action. At the opening of the meeting, Rev. Starsky Wilson, Pastor of St. John’s Church and Co-Chair of the Ferguson Commission told the over 400 attendees that “the watch word is accountability.” He said the people elected these officials and gave them their power, and as such can take away that power at the next election. He also reminded the crowd that we must be patient, that this is “a marathon, not a sprint.”

The organizations who were represented at the meeting included ArchCity Defenders, Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, Empower Missouri, Metropolitan Congregations United, Missouri Jobs for Justice, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, Organization for Black Struggle, and Students for Change.

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