As the Ferguson Commission prepares to release its report Monday, looking back may be useful to put the work in context. Three hundred people responded to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s call to serve on the Ferguson Commission, which he said would have three main tasks:
- Conduct a “thorough, wide-ranging and unflinching study” of the social and economic conditions that received national attention after Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
- Secure the “expertise needed to address the concerns identified by the commission — from poverty and education, to governance and law enforcement."
- Offer “specific recommendations for making this region a stronger, fairer place for everyone to live.”
The governor selected 16 members: “The group includes teachers, attorneys, community organizers, law enforcement officials and protesters from across the region. It has nine blacks and seven whites; six women and 10 men.”
The members are Kevin Ahlbrand, Rasheen Aldridge, Traci Blackmon, Rich McClure (co-chair), T.R. Carr, Rose Windmiller, Gabriel Gore, Becky James-Hatter, Starsky Wilson (co-chair), Daniel Isom, Scott Negwer, Bethany Johnson-Javois (managing director), Brittany Packnett, Felicia Pulliam, Patrick Sly, Bryon Watson
Early meetings were listening sessions that often became emotional. At the first one in December 2014, Lydia Adams had a clear message to the commissioners: “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.”
That meeting was in Ferguson. At the next in St. Louis' Shaw neighborhood, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson “faced the ire of a hostile crowd. Some members of the audience shouted at him as he tried to speak, while others turned their backs on him in protests.” After Dotson left, the tensions cooled to the point that the people there could work in small groups.
Continuing with regular forums, the commissioners heard from younger people, at a meeting at the Florissant Valley campus of St. Louis Community College. For the seventh meeting, organizers selected racial and ethnic relations as its focus.
Racial tensions of the region provided the underlying pulse at every meeting.
As Affton resident Peggy Keilholz said at one, "… the death of Michael Brown Jr. is a wound which needs to be healed. Some people who were not peaceful protestors hurled insults, spit and other objects at law enforcement personnel. This is a wound which needs to be healed. National, state and local policies of the past helped to create the segregated housing pattern which divides the St. Louis metropolitan area. This is a wound that needs to be healed.”
After the broad-based public meetings, groups formed within the commission to come up with proposals. Commissioners said they understood that the timeline for change stretched far beyond the life of the commission: “What we learned from the Kellogg Foundation when they came in is they said very clearly if you’re talking about generation — which is what we are — we’re talking about 25 years' commitment ....”
In the middle of the summer, the commission agreed to adopt an operating principle that required its working groups to "use a lens of racial equality as they consider their recommendations for the September report.
"Specifically, the groups will have to consider three questions:
- Who does this particular policy benefit?
- Does it impact different racial groups unequally?
- Which inequities are not being addressed as part of the policy?
"The core of why we are here, and the underlying sin, if you will, that we are dealing with is one of race and racism," said Rev. Starsky Wilson, president of the Deaconess Foundation and a Ferguson Commission co-chair.
Those were cut down to more than 40 items within signature calls to action under the topics of Racial Equity, Justice for All, Opportunity to Thrive and Youth at the Center. While most public comments have praised the efforts, many have echoed a variation of comments by St. Louis Alderman Antonio French: “The Ferguson Commission is a powerless body appointed by the [governor]. Don't confuse calls for action with actual action.”