In the hours after a judge acquitted former St. Louis Police officer Jason Stockley of first-degree murder last week, St. Louis Alderman John Collins-Muhammad appeared at the street where Stockley fatally wounded Anthony Lamar Smith roughly six years ago.
The 21st Ward alderman is part of a younger group of African-American politicians who are fed up that, again, the judicial system has not punished a white police officer who killed a black person. Collins-Muhammad made clear last week that he and his fellow elected officials would continue agitating and advocating for change.
“This is something that we will not stand for any longer,” Collins-Muhammad said. “We want justice today. We want justice for every black man, every black woman that has died at the hands of police, that has died at the hands of a racist white privilege system — an institution set up for the black man or black woman to fail. No more of that! That will change right here today!”
Collins-Muhammad and other black elected officials of his generation are seeking policy changes in St. Louis and the Missouri General Assembly that would change how police interact with African-Americans. They’ve also joined people in the streets to protest Stockley’s acquittal.
These politicians know it won’t be easy to get their message through, especially in the Republican-controlled Missouri General Assembly. But state Rep. Bruce Franks said a movement sparked by Michael Brown’s 2014 death in Ferguson and the Stockley verdict has larger goals than turning bills into laws.
“You can tell me that my life matters from some bullet points on a piece of paper,” said Franks, D-St. Louis. “You have to feel it. And we have to make you feel it. We have to make you uncomfortable. We have to make sure you’re not at ease and business isn’t at usual.”
More than a dozen city and state elected officials in the St. Louis area younger than 40. Nearly every state House district that takes in part of north St. Louis is represented by a young politician, such as state Rep. Joshua Peters.
When St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson delivered his verdict in the Stockley trail last Friday, Peters spoke at a news conference with Collins-Muhammad and Franks. In his remarks, Peters, D-St. Louis, recalled how five of his friends were murdered while he attended Beaumont High School as a teenager — prompting him to ask “when does any of this stop?”
“As a state representative and an elected official, we can only do so much, until we have the other side of government willing to cooperate and willing to acknowledge the [inequalities] that exist,” Peters said.
Before transitioning to electoral politics, Franks was part of the protest movement that arose after Brown was killed in 2014. Franks’ brother, Christopher Harris, was killed in 1991. And Franks has spent years mentoring young people throughout St. Louis.
“We’re three years in the game now,” said Franks, referring to the time that’s passed since Brown’s death. “You live and you learn. And so, we’ve just prepared to fight. So I just wanted to send a message to let the city know, and the system know, and the state knows that we are here. We ain’t going anywhere. And get used to it.”
John Bowman represented parts of north St. Louis County in the Missouri House from 2000 to 2008. He said he’s been impressed that younger politicians have taken a stronger leadership role since the Stockley verdict. In additin to Franks, Peters and Collins-Muhammad, state Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis, and St. Louis Alderman Brandon Bosley, D-3rd Ward, took part in protests after Stockley's acquittal.
“When you grow up in a neighborhood where you can actually see somebody killed and then go through life with that memory, your perception of what should be happening in a community is totally different from a lot of people,” Bowman said. “And no one can tell you about the changes that need to be made in your community better than you, because you’ve lived through it. ‘
The new generation of black elected officials from St. Louis faces steep obstacles, especially in Jefferson City. Franks and Peters are working in a Republican-dominated legislature that’s been slow to make changes after Ferguson.
And Republican lawmakers like Rep. Rob Vescovo, R-Jefferson City, don’t believe protesters are making a compelling pitch.
“I will listen to your cause and understand your cause more if you’re speaking to me about your cause rather than spitting in my face or tearing my room up or throwing things aside,” Vescovo said. He added that he’s been concerned with how some people have committed property damage since Stockley’s acquittal.
Democratic Sen. Jamilah Nasheed has faced resistance from the Republican-led Senate. She said that activist-politicians can be successful if they remain persistent. Before she was a legislator, Nasheed helped block a highway in 1999 in support of getting black workers more jobs on government contracts.
“They go out. They advocate. They activate,” said Nasheed, referring to politicians who come from activist backgrounds. “And they galvanize the people.”
For decades, activists have built on their work in the civil rights movement to launch political careers. Former U.S. Rep. William Clay, D-St. Louis, won a congressional seat after participating in civil rights era demonstrations. Mike Jones won a Board of Aldermen seat after participating in the black student movement in the 1970s.
Jones said politicians coming to power now are in a unique position, because a renewed movement for African-American empowerment and police accountability is propelling them forward.
“I think what I will bequeath to John and Josh and Bruce is the struggle,” Jones said. “You can keep Barack Obama’s hope. But change will always be slow and the system will fundamentally always be resistant to it. And that’s the attitude and frame of reference you’ve got to have when you get into structural politics.”
St. Louis Public Radio's Willis Ryder Arnold contributed information for this story.
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