If the Ferguson Commission wanted a frank discussion of St. Louis’ racial divide, Lydia Adams was ready to deliver it.
“This Michael Brown case bust the discussion of race wide open in this nation and it needs to keep happening,” Adams said. “Because when you don’t talk about things, nothing happens. Talk about it to the point where it makes you uncomfortable.”
The 16-member commission met for the first time on Monday at the Ferguson Recreational Center. Gov. Jay Nixon asked the nine black and seven white members to tackle St. Louis’ systemic racial and economic divides — vexing problems that gained international attention after Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Brown.
The Rev. Starsky Wilson, co-chairman of the commission, said the 16 members plan to talk about changes to policing, municipal governance and systemic poverty. He said the “entire world” would be watching to see how St. Louisans respond to the aftermath of Brown’s shooting death.
“As much as we are called to focus on citizen and law enforcement relations, we know that the eyes of the world are on our work,” Wilson said. “More than anything else, the eyes of our region, our neighbors, our friends, our families, our church members are upon us. Because our work will affect their life outcomes first and foremost.”
While most commissioners steered clear of re-litigating the Darren Wilson case, some in the audience released immense frustration after nearly four months of tumult. Some, such as Dell Taylor, were upset that the commission spent about three hours on introductions and organizational details, as opposed to letting the crowd talk.
“We are honored that you all have credentials and you’re educated,” Taylor said. “But you do not reflect the community that we live in.”
Taylor said she asked her son what he thought about the proceedings, including a portion where the commissioners talked about why they decided to be a part of the process.
“My son sat here and said, ‘He may be interested. Her over there, she may be concerned. But the rest of them, they’re just sitting there,’ ” she said. "The Bible says ‘the truth comes out of the mouth of babes.’ ”
Charles Wade, who has been active with the protest movement that emerged after Brown’s death, questioned the pace of the meeting and whether the commissioners could relate to ordinary people throughout the St. Louis region.
“They don’t look at you and see you as their neighbor,” Wade said. “You guys have to understand that. And the reality is you have to do some work to build that trust. One meeting is not going to be enough. And having it be open and live streamed and all of those things. It’s not enough.”
“Because the reality is the conversations are happening on the parking lot,” he added.
Ready For Discomfort
The commission is made up of businesspeople, religious leaders, academics and attorneys. It also features members who have been active in protesting Brown’s death, including the Rev. Traci Blackmon, Brittany Packnett and Rasheen Albridge.
Blackmon had to think “long and hard” about becoming a part of the commission. But she said she had “a strong desire to be at this table.”
“I was afraid because of all the tension in the community that signing up to be on the commission would lessen my impact in the community,” Blackmon said. “My decision is because I do believe that it’s better to be at the table and seeking change than to be outside of the table.”
“I look forward to sitting in the discomfort that happens when we have real conversations about race,” she added.
Felicia Pulliam, a commission member and development director at FOCUS St. Louis, said, “The scab has been pulled off this wound numerous times — and we find ourselves in a place where we put a Band-Aid on it.
“I think it’s time we found an antibiotic for the issues, the separateness and agitation in our community so that we can all move forward together,” Pulliam said. “It’s important for the culture of the community; it’s important for our economics.”
The commission also includes law enforcement officials like Missouri Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Ahlbrand. He said he wants to bring “some insight into why law enforcement does some things — also get feedback from the community on areas of concern that they have. Without cooperation between law enforcement and the community, we aren’t able to keep the people safe,” Ahlbrand said.
Missouri Public Safety director Dan Isom, the former chief of the St. Louis Police Department, said he wants to explore a fairly simple question: “Why do some people love the police and why do some people hate the police?”
“There are a communities that you go into in St. Louis that simply love the police. There are other communities that want you only when they need help or only when they’re in a crisis,” Isom said. “And that’s always been a perplexing question to me. Because what’s the reasoning for that? Is it the cops? Is it the people in the community?”
“There’s always been a tension, or a tear, in my position as a police officer — but me as an African-American in St. Louis,” he added.
Nixon said he wants the commissioners to issue a report of policy recommendations by September. Wilson and other commission members assured some in the audience that meetings would occur at night when members of the public could attend.
Florissant resident Ashley Bernaugh said the often-tense discussion must continue — even if it makes people uncomfortable.
“When someone is allowed to lie in the street and their mother is not allowed to approach, it is hurtful,” Bernaugh said. “It is hurtful for the whole community and it is reminiscent of things that I thought we were long, long past.”