A town hall meeting called by the NAACP in the wake of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson was urged Monday evening to channel anger into productive change, but not every member of the overflow crowd seemed ready to leave the community’s rage behind.
For about 90 minutes, speakers at Murchison Tabernacle CME Church at 7629 Natural Bridge Road talked about what some called an “unfolding tragedy,” reminding everyone that the real focus should be on the fatal shooting of Brown by a Ferguson police officer, not the disturbance and looting that followed.
“It is important for us to remember that the images on television, that the images on social media, do not capture the humanity of this young man who lost his life,” said Cornell W. Brooks, national president and chief executive of the civil rights group.
“We’re not just talking about police brutality. We’re talking about a young man…. We’re not talking about an abstract issue. We’re not talking about a social justice. We’re talking about somebody’s son. We’re talking about a son of our community.”
As the meeting went on, various media reported that tear gas and rubber bullets filled the air in the same area where stores were looted Sunday night. In an apparent effort to stem traffic in the north St. Louis County area, authorities closed Natural Bridge from Hanley to Lucas and Hunt on Monday afternoon, but that didn’t stop the crowd from flocking to the town hall session. In Richmond Heights, according to KSDK reports, the Galleria was temporarily shut down.
Though most of the speakers talked in terms of improving their community through education, good jobs and political power, not all of them were so hesitant to talk about more direct, more confrontational action.
Berkeley Mayor Ted Hoskins said that no one should try to make the issue in the case more complicated than it really is.
“This is not complex,” he said. “One person died. One person was shot. If you let them tell you how complex this is, you’re going to miss the point. If you don’t have education, that does not make the police shoot you….
“You don’t forgive this because if you forgive this, you are next.”
As the crowd stood and cheered and stomped, Hoskins told them:
“When you leave here, you want justice. We can talk about going to school next year.”
But for the most part, those who addressed the crowd spoke in more measured terms. James Clark of Better Family Life noted that St. Louis has often been judged the most dangerous city in America, and “the eyes of the world are on us right now.”
To get better, he said, parts of the area that have seen violence and poverty have to get the information and the resources necessary to improve their lot.
“What we’re dealing with right now,” Clark said, “is no different from what any major city in America is dealing with. Any city with a football team and a basketball team has an urban core that has morphed into a subculture….
“We’re in a new era right now. We cannot do business the way we have done it before and expect it to get better. Brothers and sisters, this will only get worse.”
In his efforts to get the crowd to focus their sympathies on Brown, Brooks said that following through on making sure that the policeman who shot him is brought to justice will help make things right.
“The central figures are not public officials,” he said. “The central figures are not law enforcement. The central figures are not prominent members of the media. It’s not those who have engaged in lawlessness in the streets in the name of a young man who obeyed the law…..
“We owe it to this young man to seek justice. We owe it to this young man to have a thorough, complete, transparent, accountable investigation by those charged with the responsibility of protecting and serving. We want no more, and we certainly want no less. We want the truth, and we want the truth for his family, for this young man and for this community. We deserve that.”
Brooks said he understood the rage that his audience and those who have taken to the streets feel, but they cannot let it consume them.
“I wish I could say to you that you should not be angry,” he said. “I can’t say that. I can’t say that. We remember all too well the morally confused and ethically befuddled looks on our children’s faces when they asked about the Trayvon Martin verdict….
“Transliterate your anger into righteous indignation. Turn your anger into action. If you believe that he lived nonviolently, we have to conduct a campaign for justice nonviolently.”
A 21st century Birmingham?
Two miles west of where police shot tear gas into a crowd of protesters, a small group gathered for a prayer service at Wellspring Church in Ferguson Monday evening.
At the service, members of the Association of Black of Psychologists handed out information and offered services to members of the community shaken by recent events.
“People are tired of being dehumanized,” said Dr. Marva Robinson, president of the local chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists. They’re “tired of being marginalized and ignored, they want to be heard, they want to be seen, they want someone to stop and hear what they have to say. And not just pacify them and give them clear responses that answer some of their questions.”
The church was filled with a multiracial crowd, often holding hands and embracing.
“We don’t care about the color of your skin,” said Keith Scarborough, pastor at the Word at Shaw Church. “We don’t care about your background, we don’t care how many degrees you have or don’t have. We’re all here together, unified in your name.”
Jamal-Harrison Bryant, pastor of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore, Md., flew in on Monday afternoon for the event. He called St. Louis the 21st-century Birmingham and questioned how law enforcement is trained to interact with African-Americans.
“We have to call for the manual of police officers. Where was protocol broken?” Bryant asked. “Where did he go beyond the line? And if there were 10 bullets, did all 10 bullets come from the same gun?”
'We have to plan a funeral'
At a news conference earlier in the day, Brown’s parents struck a similar note.
His mother, Lesley McSpadden, carried a photo of her family; his father, Michael Brown Sr., wore a T-shirt with his son’s picture on it and the civil rights slogan, “No Justice. No Peace.”
“We need justice for our son,” Brown said.
The parents asked for anyone who had information about what had happened to Michael – photos, video, anything – to make sure to come forward, to counter what until now has only been the police’s version of what occurred.
Brown urged those who have been taking part in violent demonstrations and looting to stop.
“We don’t want no violence,” he said. “Michael wouldn’t want no violence.”
McSpadden broke down in tears and was only able to speak a few sentences. At one point, she noted that Michael would have begun college this week after graduating from Normandy High School in the summer.
“We can’t even celebrate,” she said of what should have been a happy time.
“We’ve got to plan a funeral.”
Tell us what you know
This report contains information gathered with the help of our Public Insight Network. To help St. Louis Public Radio continue to report on this issue, click here: How is the police-community turmoil in Ferguson affecting you?