For the past few days, Alderman Terry Kennedy has been through a complex whirlwind.
Kennedy’s 18th Ward includes the intersection of Walton and Page, the place close to where police shot and killed Mansur Ball-Bey. Protests, tear gas and arson followed after the 18-year-old’s death in the Fountain Park neighborhood, the latest epicenter of a police shooting in the St. Louis area.
As he’s talked to residents of a neighborhood that’s struggled with violence and crime, Kennedy says reactions can’t be compartmentalized in tidy boxes. Some people, he said, are upset and skeptical about what happened on Wednesday morning. Others were concerned about destruction to their property. And some are expressing a combination of those sentiments.
“They feel that, though they didn’t support the police in how they handled things, they still didn’t want people out in the street – nor not having the ability to traverse the streets easily to get from their home to someplace else or to their home,” said Kennedy, describing people he’s talked to with “plain old mixed reactions. ... So with that in mind, people just basically wanted to overall just improve their area and live in a decent community.”
That aspiration to live in decency is what Kennedy believes is at the heart of what happened this week in St. Louis. He said the “intersection between race, poverty, discrimination and disparity" has created “environments that are often times very explosive.
“Certainly, Page and Walton is one of those locations,” Kennedy said. “And so, the area’s had over most of this year quite a bit of crime problems taking place. Drug sales. Vandalism. There was a shooting there on Monday or somebody shot into the market there on Monday before then. There had been a young man shot at Aubert and Page, and then carjacking of one of the Tuskegee Airmen in that area.”
“It is not the only area in the city that has the intersection of those different elements,” he added. “But it is certainly one where it seems very heightened.”
Turning this type of reality around, Kennedy said, isn’t easy – but it’s also not impossible. He pointed to the North Sarah development, a multi-faceted effort that cultivated impressive-looking mixed-used development.
“The development of North Sarah came from a plan of the residents and over the time we were able to find the sources to be able to do it,” Kennedy said, noting that people in the Fountain Park neighborhood are trying to do the same thing. "It is happening," he said. "But it takes time, commitment and all of the resources to be able to do it. And that’s what we’re presently working on. Those residents are working to make that kind of difference.”
According to Kennedy, “the key element is ... just straight-forward recognition in addressing the underlying issues that create that type of environment. Until we do that and until really that’s done, you’re not going to heal it. It will not be healed. If anything, you’re just moving from one spot to the next.”
A matter of trust
Kennedy has a first-hand view of the tenuous relationship between police and African Americans. He’s been a key backer of a police citizens review board, an idea that was finally enacted earlier this year after a long legislative struggle.
Some of that distrust could be seen throughout the week. Even though police have said Ball-Bey pointed a gun at officers before he was shot, some doubt that account. And Friday's revelation that Ball-Bey was shot in the back may add fuel to the skepticism.
Kennedy said it shouldn’t surprise anybody people raised questions in this case– or other recent police shootings.
“You’re talking about a community that’s been historically disenfranchised. You’re talking about a community that also during segregation in this country suffered at the hands of police brutality on an ongoing, daily basis,” Kennedy said. “Now, that doesn’t say that it’s happening exactly like that today. But you cannot take the people out of their history and their experience in the interaction of police.”
Kennedy said that back in the 1800s, police departments were often responsible for capturing runaway slaves. He noted that his grandfather, who was born in the 1880s, told his family about how his great grandparents were slaves in Missouri. That, he said, shows that what we're talking about witness being given "within the lifespan of individuals who are still living."
He then wondered: “What do you think that community or those individuals who have had that historical experience are going to think about those individuals several years down the road?
“Generations teach them: ‘Well, they protect us. But we can’t fully trust them because of this history and the ongoing abuse that many in the African-American community feel has happened,’” Kennedy said. “So that’s why. And until you address that directly and not just think it’s going to change on its own, it will not change.”
Things like citizen review boards of police, Kennedy said, can help forge better relationships between law enforcement and citizens. But dealing effectively with a trust gap, he said, is going to take a whole lot more work.
“People simply want to say, ‘We need to forget that. That’s not happening today. We have a black president – and so, you should get over it.’ Well, no,” Kennedy said. “That’s what they talk about when military comes back from overseas and they have this traumatic stress syndrome. Well, what do you think the effect on a whole group of people will be with those kinds of decades of discrimination and brutality?
“The only way to really change it is to address it head on and take the necessary steps to heal it,” he added.
The perception divide
The divide in how police are perceived manifested itself vividly throughout the past year.
This reporter, for instance, witnessed St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson getting a warm reaction during a tree lighting ceremony near my St. Louis Hills home. Dotson received a much chillier reception in a Shaw, the area where Vonderrit Myers was killed. Shaw has a fairly large African-American population, while St. Louis Hills is predominantly white.
And then there were the countless stories that my St. Louis Public Radio colleagues and I heard from African Americans who felt harassed, discriminated against and wrongly target by policing. Especially searing, even a year later, is Ted Kyles’ story about how an officer drew a gun on him after mistaking him for a robbery suspect.
After listening to Kyles’ clip during a recent edition of the Politically Speaking podcast, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said, “I’ve been a prosecutor for over 20 years, and every time we pick a jury in the city of St. Louis we hear those things.”
“There are a lot of people who are very, very reasonable who have beliefs about police officers stemming from a bad interaction that they had,” Joyce said earlier this year. “I know Chief Dotson is aware of that. And I know he’s concerned about it. And he is the one who’s primarily in charge of this effort of training police officers and rebuilding the trust of the community.”
Joyce went onto say that she’s “very troubled” by police shootings in South Carolina and Oklahoma, adding that “sometimes it turns out that the police officer is in the wrong – and they need to be held accountable for their actions.
“Sometimes it’s not,” Joyce said. “It’s the role of the prosecutor to gather evidence and expertly analyze and review that evidence and make a decision on whether a prosecution should go forward.”
So how does Dotson react to the people in the St. Louis that don't believe what the police say? He said on Friday that "it's something we struggle with every day."
"I know it’s difficult to believe and I know anytime there’s violence, whether it’s community member on community member or law enforcement-involved, it is difficult," Dotson said. "And there are always lots of questions. What I urge is the community doesn’t rush to conclusions. That they allow the facts to come forward. And that’s why we go very slowly, very methodically to make sure that we don’t miss anything and we can paint a true and accurate picture."
"That’s my goal. There is no benefit to not putting out the complete truth," he added. "What the community has to understand is the complete truth takes time to put together."
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.