Local Activists Hope For Change After Meeting With Obama

Dec 2, 2014

St. Louis area activists who met with President Obama Monday say their meeting is an “affirmation that the movement is working.” Ashley Yates, co-founder of Millennial Activists United, says the meeting was the result of “people power” and an “agitation of the system” that got the attention of the White House.

She says the meeting gave young civil rights leaders from Ferguson and other communities across the country the chance to engage in some “truth telling” with the president.  As a result of events in Ferguson, she says “a lot of people have been awakened to the fact that our lives don’t really hold value in this American society and that the status quo… seeks to criminalize us before we even get a chance to turn into something, to actually be humans.”

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with elected officials, community and faith leaders, and law enforcement officials on Dec. 1 to discuss how communities and law enforcement can work together to build trust to strengthen neighborhoods.
Credit Lawrence Jackson | White House

St. Louis hip-hop artist T-Dubb-O, who missed the meeting with the president due to travel delays, says the group’s next step is to find a way to sustain the movement and make it “the push for real comprehensive accountability concerning racial profiling and police brutality.”

T-Dubb-O, Yates and others who participated in the meeting with the president spoke with reporters in a conference call Tuesday. 

The president outlined several proposals resulting from a day-long focus on issues arising from events in Ferguson since August. Included in those announcements is a $263-million plan to improve community policing across the country with $75-million of that money going to help pay for 50,000 body cameras for police officers.

The president also wants to issue new rules to govern the oversight, distribution and purpose for giving federal surplus military equipment to local police departments. And he’s appointed a task force to study way to strengthen trust between local law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. The task force will have its recommendations back to the president within 90 days after conducting a series of meeting across the country. 

Yates described all of the president’s proposals as just “small steps” that must lead to bigger change. She discounts the value body cameras will have on improving relations between police and black Americans. “We have seen that that does not stop them from killing us,” she said, pointing to police shootings caught on video as evidence that cameras provide little protection for blacks.

Among the examples she mentioned is the police shooting of John Crawford in an Ohio Walmart on Aug. 5 after he was seen carrying an air rifle he picked up from a shelf in the store. She also points to the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, of Cleveland, who was killed after he allegedly pointed a toy gun at police, late last month. Police said the orange safety ring had been removed from the toy weapon.

Brittany Ferrell, left, and Ashley Yates walking in Ferguson this summer.
Credit Emanuele Berry | St. Louis Public Radio

She also called the president’s plans for new rules on police use of surplus military property a “step,” but she’d prefer to see the program ended. Yates finds police use of Humvees to be intimidating. “It is a form of psychological torture to walk down your street and see Humvees posted on the corner. I do not see a need for those in our cities,” she said.

James Hayes, with the Ohio Student Association agrees with Yates. “We need to have a sustained conversation and movement that pushes true accountability and also a culture shift so that we’re not just demilitarizing the weapons stock, but also demilitarizing the mind-set.”

T-Dubb-O also says he wants to see an end to the Pentagon’s 1033 program to keep small communities that don’t have “training or the know-how to properly use that equipment, and know when to use that equipment” from receiving military grade weapons and heavy vehicles.

In addition to demilitarizing local police, the group is also pushing for other changes including having the Department of Justice withhold federal funds from local police departments that use excessive force or racial profiling. Another change the group is backing calls for having independent prosecutors handle cases against local police rather than local district attorneys. They also want community review boards to make recommendations in cases of police misconduct rather than having such cases reviewed internally by police officials.

When asked for what specific changes she is looking for from the president’s proposals, Yates said, “I don’t measure my specifics in policies and numbers, I measure my specifics in the quality of life. I want to be able refresh my (internet) browser 28 hours later and not see another headline that a black, unarmed citizen is gunned down at the hands of those who are supposed to protect them.”

She added that she hopes that, as a result of the meeting with the president, “mothers don’t have to have that conversation with their children any more about wearing a hoodie, and where you can and can’t go at night in this supposedly free country. That would be something that needs to come out of this meeting.”

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