Faith leaders from across the St. Louis region gathered at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant last night and asked for sustained efforts to bridge racial divides and support for young African Americans.
They also sought answers to lingering questions that surround the fatal police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson this past Saturday.
The St. Louis County Police Department is investigating the police shooting, while the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducts its own investigation. When asked why the name of the officer who shot Brown has not been released, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said he is following department policy.
“As far as releasing the name of any suspect, we do not do that until they’re charged,” Belmar said.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch said law enforcement has to be careful when releasing the names of suspects if they have not been charged with a crime.
“What we’re mindful of is the power that we have by naming somebody and nothing comes of it, then we’ve done some damage, and we don’t want to do any of that,” McCulloch said.
When asked about the logic behind releasing the names of suspected looters before releasing the name of the police officer, McCulloch responded that the names of the looting suspects became part of the public record when they were charged with a crime.
“We didn’t release anything until the actual charges were filed and put in a courtroom,” McCulloch said. “That’s when the names were released.”
Racial tension and a lack of trust in law enforcement in St. Louis County were the themes that ran through several of the questions submitted by members of an audience of around 400 people.
“It breaks my heart to see what’s happening here, what’s happened here over the past couple of days,” said Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson before the question and answer part of the forum. “It breaks my heart what happened on Saturday. And what really breaks my heart is that some in this community consider me part of the problem. I’m going to change that, I’m going to be part the solution.”
To that end, Jackson said he will work with community leaders as well as U.S. Justice Department Community conciliation specialist, Rita Valenciano, to rebuild trust in his department.
“I told her the day we sat down and met, ‘tell me what to do and I’ll do it,’” Jackson said.
When asked about a lack of diversity on the police force in a majority African-American community, Jackson said he has worked to promote the African-American officers on the police force to higher ranks. And while Jackson said diversifying the Ferguson Police Department has been a focus for him, they've fallen short of the mark.
“My success rate has not been as good as I would like it to be,” Jackson said, who added that he would redouble efforts to recruit a more diverse police force.
Alicia Street lives in Florissant and said she walked away with some answers, but too many questions remain.
“The way we heal is we need answers,” Street said. “We say it’s one issue, but it might just be another issue. We want to get all of our information correct and then judge on that.”
‘Justice must not simply be pursued, but achieved’
In a speech delivered at the start of the forum, Gov. Jay Nixon said he’s done a lot of praying in the past few days.
“We stand together tonight, reeling from what feels like an old wound that has been torn open afresh,” Nixon said. “A wound that hadn’t quite healed right in the first place, and now the pain is just as searing as when the injury first occurred.”
He asked for patience and calm as investigators piece together details surrounding the fatal police shooting of Brown this past Saturday.
“To keep the peace, while remaining uncompromising in our expectation that justice must not simply be pursued, but achieved,” Nixon said. “To express the anger and frustration that we rightfully feel in a way that respects the living, and honors the memory of the young man we mourn. In the face of crisis, we must show calm. Instead of burning bridges in anger, we must build them with love. And when these traumatic events threaten to open a chasm of distrust, we must fill it with understanding and compassion.”
Rev. Traci D. Blackmon of Christ the King United Church of Christ hosted the forum and acknowledged widespread frustration in the wake of Brown’s death.
“We are here to stop the bleeding in our streets,” Blackmon said. “We are here to take our communities back. We are here to take our children back. We are here to take our voices back. And this time, we will not go away.”
During the forum, Blackmon urged the audience to use a new website — prayingwithourfeet.org — to share information about events and community resources that have sprouted up in the days following Brown’s death. The crowd was also urged to support students of the Normandy Schools Collaborative when they return to school on Monday next week.
Several other speakers offered other support services, ranging from mental health to mentoring geared toward African-American youth.
During the forum, Amy Hunter described what it was like to be an African-American mother in America. She said racism is at the heart of the conversation and told the story of her 12-year-old boy asking her about being stopped by police.
Her son was dressed nicely, she told the crowd, and didn’t understand why the police stopped him.
“When I got to the corner I was only five houses away,” her son told Hunter. “I knew you were home, so I thought about running home to my mom. Then I said to my son, ‘don’t run.’”
Tears running down his face, Hunter said her son asked her: “If this happened because I’m black, I just want to know how long this will happen to me.”
Hunter said she responded: “For the rest of your life.”
Hunter said when she heard about Brown’s death, she reached out to her son who’s now attending Howard University.
“He called to tell me that they’re protesting at Howard University, too,” Hunter said. “Because this doesn’t just happen here, this happens everywhere.”
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