Many people around the country saw Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson as the catalyst behind a new civil rights movement.
But, even with the Ferguson protest movement going from the streets to the halls of government, political change in the St. Louis region was slow, as activist-preferred candidates lost elections and some policy demands went unmet.
St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell has a message for people who believe little has been accomplished or gained here in five years.
“I would say with all due respect, me sitting in this office now would be evidence of change,” Bell said. “And in my opinion obviously positive change.”
With attention refocused on the St. Louis region at the five-year anniversary of Brown’s death, the county where he died is going through a major political and policy realignment.
The multiracial coalition that swept Bell into the prosecutor’s office is also influencing the rest of county government, especially as St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and some County Council members seek major overhauls to housing, policing and criminal justice policies.
Coupled with the election of state and local officials involved in or inspired by Ferguson, some activists are more optimistic about the political environment here than they were shortly after then-Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Brown.
But that bullishness is tempered by the election of a president who made the loud rejection of the protest movement that followed Brown’s death a part of his campaign pitch — and by less rapid progress on the state level.
“Locally, I would say we’re still behind the mark,” said Cori Bush, who was part of the Ferguson protest movement and later ran for the U.S. Senate and House. “I do a lot of traveling. And I hear people from around the country, activists and other politicians, talk about the things that are changing in their communities. And some of them have referenced, ‘But you know in Missouri, you all can’t seem to get anything through.’ I think that we have a long way to go.”
Others believe that even substantial political change can’t instantly wipe away the effects of centuries of systematic racism and discrimination, especially in a place like St. Louis where profound distrust remains between white and black residents.
The Bell revolution
Political and policy change appeared out of reach in the months and years after Brown’s death.
Candidates some Ferguson activists strenuously opposed, such as Steve Stenger and Lyda Krewson, won races for St. Louis County executive and St. Louis mayor, respectively. While other states passed bills that changed how police officers do their jobs and are investigated, Missouri lagged behind the pack — with the noted exception of a measure that curtailed the percentage of traffic fines cities could have in their budgets. (And even that accomplishment went through a major change thanks to the Missouri Supreme Court.)
But the political ground began to shift in 2018, when Bell upended longtime St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch. It was an election rich with political symbolism, as McCulloch was in office when a grand jury declined to charge Wilson.
Bell’s victory was about more than optics, though. His candidacy heralded the arrival of a new voting majority that consisted of black voters in north St. Louis County and white progressives in the county’s central corridor. This coalition rocketed Bell into office in an overwhelmingly white county with a legacy of racial segregation in housing and education.
“This region has been divided long enough,” Bell said. “And I think people are tired of the reputation that St. Louis has of being one of the most segregated communities, and that we’re perceived as having all these racial issues when there are a lot of good people who live in this community. And that’s what we tried to do, just to bring people together.”
Bell’s tenure in office hasn’t been without conflict, as his staffers voted to join the St. Louis Police Officers Association — a group with leaders who have often been loudly critical of the Ferguson protest movement. But Bell contends he’s been successful at transforming his campaign pledges into concrete policy.
For instance, Bell has been pushing for an expansion of diversion programs aimed at steering nonviolent offenders to treatment as opposed to jail. He said that approach steers people “from the formal criminal justice system and all the negative connotations that come with it.”
“So what we’re doing is we’re catching them at that nonviolent stage when they just need help,” Bell said.
Bell also set up a division within his office that looks into instances where police officers use deadly force. Since Brown’s death, one of the common policy suggestions was coming up with a different way for prosecutors to investigate police officers — especially because of the historically close relationship between prosecuting attorneys and law enforcement.
The Ferguson Commission recommended that the attorney general come in whenever a police officer uses deadly force. What Bell ended up doing was creating a division that “won’t have a caseload with the rest of the office, so it won’t have the same interactions with law enforcement.”
“There are many who trust me and maybe some who take issue with me. But an independent unit can address not only use of force, not only public corruption, but also cases of wrongful convictions,” Bell said. “If we have a dedicated unit that looks at those independently, I think that helps build that trust component that’s so needed in this region.”
Trickle down to county policy
There’s some evidence that the political and policy push that brought Bell into the prosecutor’s office is having an impact on the rest of county government.
That didn’t seem to be the case at the beginning of 2019, especially since then-County Executive Steve Stenger had little incentive to cater to black political leaders and progressive activists who worked against his 2018 re-election. After Stenger resigned when indicted on federal corruption charges, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page appears, at least early on, to be taking a different policy approach.
In fewer than 100 days of Page’s administration, the county council has approved a deal delivering body cameras for the St. Louis County Police Department. He’s appointed a board to look into problems at the county’s justice center — and intervened in a bid to save public housing in the largely black city of Wellston. Depending on how the Aug. 6 elections turn out and how the county council votes, Page may be able to sign a bill barring landlords in unincorporated parts of county from discriminating against tenants paying with Section 8 vouchers.
"I think to a certain extent, I see myself executing a lot of things that I always thought were a good idea — I just didn't have the ability to get them done," Page said. "And now that I do, I'm certainly part of the wave. And I recognize the wave of civil justice reform that's emerged over the past five years. I think that's real."
Page has also brought Hazel Erby, who championed landmark legislation to increase diversity in county contracting, into his administration. This comes as white candidates for county council districts, such as Lisa Clancy and Kelli Dunaway, have made racial equity a major part of their campaign pitch.
"I think in the St. Louis region equity, diversity and inclusion are ideas that everyone is accepting and where everyone wants to help," Page said. "Just about everyone wants to be involved in change in making their community better — whether you live in an area that is not prospering or you don't. I think everybody understands that's important."
This culmination of activity within St. Louis County that gained notice from participants in the Ferguson protests, such as Rasheen Aldridge.
“It’s hard to put benchmarks or to say, ‘Oh the city has completely changed after five years.’ Because during the process where Michael Brown was killed, you had a lot of activists that had never organized before,” said Aldridge, the Democratic committeeman for St. Louis’ 5th Ward. “You had individuals that never really felt that they had to step up and speak for themselves or to speak for a larger community like you see now.”
Progress has been slower in Jefferson City, where the GOP-controlled Legislature has been hesitant to adopt Ferguson-related agenda items. But Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, said she saw some movement this session in the criminal justice arena.
May noted that she worked with GOP Sen. Ed Emery to pare down mandatory minimum sentences. The Missouri General Assembly now includes members who either participated in or were inspired by the Ferguson protest movement.
“White and black people are working together to heal those wounds,” May said. “It’s just not big enough.”
Indeed, the impact of the post-Ferguson agenda hasn’t extended as far as they would like.
The most glaring setback may be in national politics, where Donald Trump captured the presidency. Part of Trump’s campaign pitch was a bellicose rejection of the movement that followed Brown’s death. And many candidates followed Trump’s lead by making support of law enforcement a core part of their rhetoric.
That was frustrating to people like Bush, who said it would “drive her nuts” when people “would say, ‘I stand 100% with law enforcement.’” She said you “don’t stand 100% with your spouse.”
“If I have a nurse that’s going in and I know that they’re reckless and they’re negligent and they’re killing patients — I need not have that nurse working on that staff,” said Bush, who works in the nursing industry. “I can’t turn my head and say: ‘Oh, we still need people. We can’t get rid of people.’”
Some political figures who won election with the support of voters attracted to the Ferguson protest movement experienced turbulence. St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner, who like Bell promised to overhaul the city’s criminal justice system, became ensnared in controversy for how she handled the scuttled invasion of privacy case against former Gov. Eric Greitens. Others, like former state Rep. Bruce Franks, faced intense scrutiny after being elected — including some GOP lawmakers who were upset when he was arrested for taking part in blocking a highway during the Jason Stockley protests.
Aldridge said the passion of some of these protesters-turned-politicians has often been hard for the “old guard” to accept.
“And sometimes that passion can come off to some folks as anger,” Aldridge said. “And to some folks, it comes off as not trying to get along. Calling out elected officials instead of maybe sitting down at the table. I think it’s about us understanding that once again with all this passion, how do we make sure we don’t take it and let it destroy us.”
Franks has stepped down from his House seat, citing a need to take care of his depression and anxiety. While he’s been heartened by the elections of people like Bell and lawmakers like state Reps. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, and Kevin Windham, D-Hillsdale, he’s been dismayed by infighting within the black political community — and the lack of cohesion with left-of-center white political figures in the city.
“We got to stop voting in people that got these same last names and who have been doing the same thing for the last 30 or 40 years,” Franks said during an interview on St. Louis on the Air. “And we keep wondering why change hasn’t come. Because we’re changing leadership, but we’re not changing leadership at the top. We’re not changing leadership at the top of the city, the top of the state — or on top of our national politics.”
Politics versus people
Gauging progress in St. Louis through election results and passed bills may not be a fair metric. It took a lot longer than five years for housing and educational racial segregation to fester — and for racism and distrust to take hold among residents.
That’s why some believe that politics is only part of a solution to a problem that’s spanned generations.
Kareem “Tef Poe” Jackson is a rapper who was also a major figure in the Ferguson protest movement. He said he’s glad that many people involved in demonstrations “awakened to the power of politics.” But he added that some of the path forward involves getting ordinary people more aware of St. Louis’ black history and culture.
“I think that political engagement goes so far beyond just voting,” Jackson said. “And if you’re looking for voting to be the sole mechanism to spark change in your immediate life, then you’re going to be waiting forever.”
For his part, Bell said he’s traveled to places that forced ordinary residents to come to terms with racism and bigotry. In countries including South Africa, people “are comfortable in those uncomfortable spaces of addressing this issue.”
“And so often in this country and so many places, St. Louis to a certain extent as well, we haven’t addressed those issues. In many places, we don’t teach the real history of this country — of slavery, racism, Jim Crow,” Bell said. “And as a result, it’s not individual racism that is as much of the problem. It’s still a problem. But it’s not as much of the problem as systemic racism.”
Ferguson and the protests that followed prompted people to have uncomfortable conversations, he said. Without them, “We’re going to continue to see some of the same issues.”
“But these issues have to be addressed as more than just African American or black or brown problems,” Bell said. “They have to be addressed for what they are — American problems.”
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