With a fateful grand jury decision expected any day, Gov. Jay Nixon swore in 16 people to serve on the so-called Ferguson Commission. It's a group charged with studying the underlying social and economic conditions that sparked protests over the death of Michael Brown.
Speaking to a crush of national and local media at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, Nixon said the commission will examine policy changes to policing and municipal governance.
It will also seek to tackle a long-standing racial divide that's been internationally showcased since Brown was shot and killed.
“Let us heal the divisions exposed by the death of Michael Brown and use this defining moment as the moment we begin to walk a different path,” Nixon said.
Nixon selected a group of law enforcement veterans, faith leaders, business executives and even a protestor. He said "they have a broad range of experiences that I think melded together have a real opportunity to tackle tough questions that have not been dealt with effectively."
Here's the full list of members:
- Rev. Starsky Wilson, CEO of the Deaconess Foundation
- Rich McClure, former president and COO of Unigroup
- Reverend Traci Blackmon, pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ
- Dan Isom II, director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety
- Scott Negwer, president of Negwer Materials in Ferguson
- Bethany Johnson-Javois, CEO of the St. Louis Integrated Health Network
- Gabriel E. Gore, attorney and partner at the law firm of Dowd Bennett LLC
- Brittany Packnett, executive director of Teach for America
- Rose Windmiller, assistant vice chancellor for government and community relations at Washington University
- Rasheen Aldridge, Jr., community organizer and director of Young Activists United
- Grayling Tobias, superintendent of the Hazelwood School District
- Becky James-Hatter, president and CEO, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri
- Felicia Pulliam, director of development for FOCUS St. Louis and Ferguson resident
- Kevin Ahlbrand, detective sergeant with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and president of the Missouri State Fraternal Order of Police
- Patrick Sly, executive vice president, Emerson
- T.R. Carr, Jr., professor of public administration at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and former mayor of Hazelwood
Co-chair Wilson said the commission is made up of civic leaders with diverse viewpoints and experiences. He said this was a once-in-a-generation chance to tackle some of the region's systemic problems.
While the group is expected to deliver specific recommendations next September, Wilson stressed there could be proposals that come out before that time. The proposals would be implemented either through legislation or through executive orders.
"We think that's going to be critically important for us to sustain the credibility and taking advantage of the opportunities we have -- even in this legislative session and the remarkable environment we have where there's a desire for change in our community right now," Wilson said.
Wilson's co-chair McClure said the commission is an example of how the community must come together to reconcile and heal.
"You don't have to see eye to eye to walk arm in arm, and we've had too much of you and them and not enough of we and us and together," McClure said.
Dust on a shelf?
The commission comes at time when a St. Louis County grand jury is expected to decide whether to indict Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson. Nixon declared a state of emergency yesterday to prepare for the decision.
Some political figures -- such as House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis -- praised the formation of the commission.
“The last few months have forced the St. Louis area to confront a variety of difficult and uncomfortable issues that our region has desperately attempted to ignore for generations," Hummel said. "With the creation of the Ferguson Commission, we are taking an important first step toward addressing long-simmering grievances, eliminating institutionalized injustice and building a stronger St. Louis region.”
While a bipartisan group of lawmakers was on hand for the governor's announcement, at least one statewide official questioned whether the commission will amount to much.
Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder told St. Louis Public Radio that he supports making big policy changes to respond to Michael Brown's death. He said he's spent a lot of time talking to people in Ferguson since Brown's death, and is especially interested in "school choice" and economic development efforts.
But at Tuesday's meeting of the Missouri Development Finance Board, Kinder voted against giving the commission $100,000. He said other commissions that formed after riots in the 1960s didn't make a particularly long-lasting impact.
"Over the last eight weeks since I heard about the idea of this commission, I have conducted my own survey of Missourians wherever I went in the state for the last two months," Kinder said. "And I have not found one person – Democrat, Republican or Independent – who believes that a commission sitting and taking testimony and producing a report that is going to gather dust on shelves is going to be a big part of the solution to Ferguson."
“I think one thing government is very good at is forming commissions to study things. And producing reports,” he added.
Nixon has been in public life for nearly 30 years and is a native of the St. Louis region. When asked why he couldn't come up with his own policy proposals to respond to the protests, Nixon said: "I haven’t lived all of the experiences that a commission like this has."
"As I announced when we were going to form a commission, I was born in a small town in Jefferson County where the railroad tracks divided the town – on one side lived folks of color and the other side whites," Nixon said. "So the point is that having on this commission people that have been involved with and lived – whether it’s a young person like Rasheen who’s been on the streets or an experienced officer who leads the state [Fraternal Order of Police]."
"Ultimately these are issues that run deep in our community -- they run deep in this country," he added. "And if we are to get to those, it's going to take some independent voices like these folks of good faith and good will who are willing to spend their time gnashing through those challenging issues."
Where does the buck stop?
Still, Nixon's overall response to the Ferguson protests made Tory Russell of Hands Up United question whether the commission would have credibility.
"It can set the foundation for solution if they have the right people on it. But it’s still run by Gov. Jay Nixon. He’s the same guy who won’t recuse Bob McCulloch," Russell said. "He answered questions from HuffPost and he had no answer about who’s in charge. The same person who couldn’t answer to the press or to the public about who’s in charge is in charge of a Ferguson Commission. So I think that’s where my skepticism lies."
Russell was referring to a moment in Nixon's conference call on Monday explaining his decision to declare a state of emergency. A reporter from the Huffington Post asked whether he had ultimate responsibility for what happens after the grand jury decision, which prompted a stammering and rambling response from Nixon.
Asked again on Tuesday whether he was ultimately in charge, Nixon answered definitively "you're the governor -- the buck always stops with me."
"But it's important to note that this is a team effort and we've got a very strong team in place working around the clock to make sure that we're prepared to keep people safe and protect constitutional rights -- no matter what the grand jury decides," Nixon said.
Some -- including Kinder, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive-elect Steve Stenger -- issued statements supporting Nixon's declaration. St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, though, said Tuesday night the decision was "premature."
"I can't be the spokesman for the governor," Dooley said. "If you asked me what I would have done -- would I have done that? No I would not have done that."
Russell -- a 30-year-old native of north St. Louis -- said the decision to call out the National Guard was an example of misplaced priorities.
"If you sit on the North Side – which is one of the poorest ZIP codes in the state, the highest infant mortality levels – that’s a state of emergency," Russell said. "The fact that I drive down my street and there are four or five abandoned houses – and then I get to the corner there’s homeless people sleeping outside of City Hall. That’s a state of emergency. Not 20 or 30 people marching down Clayton or chalking in the middle of the Delmar Loop."
"I don’t think that’s a cause for a state of emergency," he added.