Sunday, August 9 marked the one-year anniversary of both Michael Brown’s death and the birth of movements that drew attention to racial bias and policing in America.
“St. Louis on the Air” immediately tangled with those complex issues, discussing social justice, political protest, and police brutality with its guests. The show has continued to steep itself in those issues over the past year.
On Monday, host Don Marsh discussed what has and has not changed since 2014 with community leaders, protesters, and others intimately connected with the civil and political initiatives that followed the initial August protests.
Sunday’s anniversary was also marked by the shooting of a young man by plainclothes police officers who were allegedly fired on. The violence disrupted a largely peaceful day and night of remembrance and protest.
DeRay Mckesson, a prominent Ferguson activist who relocated to St. Louis following Brown’s death, said that despite Sunday’s shooting incident the Ferguson movements have achieved great success in promoting public awareness of racial justice issues. “I think we’ve made tremendous strides in terms of making this an issue,” Mckesson said. “I think the next phase of the work will be figuring out how we end police violence. What do solutions look like?”
Mckesson called it “disappointing” that regional police departments have not taken the initiative to change policies without prodding from other institutions, like the U.S. Department of Justice. “That shows their unwillingness to change despite the evidence that they need to,” Mckesson said.
“It’s not enough,” he continued. “You shouldn’t have to be threatened to know that your work needs to be better.”
Dan Isom, former chief of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and a professor of policing and the community at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, agreed that finding solutions is the next step. He and Brittany Packnett, executive director of Teach for America—St. Louis, are both members of the Ferguson Commission, which was set up by Gov. Jay Nixon last December to provide recommendations for change in local government.
Isom said that some improvements are simple. St. Louis’ fragmented police departments, for example, ought to be consolidated for consistency, accountability, and organizational ease. While some of these changes might require legislative action, he said, many do not; police departments can institute some organizational and structural reforms on their own.
On the federal level, there has been a significant shift in rhetoric and focus, said Packnett, who is also a member of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. President Obama’s eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, and his recent outspokenness regarding prison reform, has generated important momentum in higher government. That momentum is important, she said—but just as important is the momentum shown on city streets throughout the country.
To that end, the Ferguson Commission strives to make sure that the desires of the St. Louis-area community are fully present in its work, Packnett said. But at the end of the day, “a report is just a report,” and unless police and governmental institutions are willing to enact the Commission’s recommendations, they will have little tangible effect.
“In my full time work I train teachers,” Packnett said, “and, you know, one of the most important things about the field of teaching is gaining constant feedback and observation from everyone…and implementing that feedback in real time, right, and doing so proactively.”
Civil institutions—and individual citizens—should also take that approach, Isom noted. The level of mistrust in the community is a “relationship issue” that must be bridged as police and government change structurally, procedurally, and organizationally.
Still, the constructive dialogue about privilege, use of force, and systemic racism that has happened since last August is critically important, said Ferguson councilman Wesley Bell. Changing hearts and minds is half the battle—the harder half—than policy reform. Community interaction on race and social justice has begun, he said; it simply needs to continue in deeper and more active ways.
“The more we talk to each other, the more that we worship together, the more that we eat together, we start having a better standing,” Bell said, “and that has to be coupled with [policy] action.”
Protest momentum in St. Louis has kept its strength over the past year. As recently as Monday afternoon, a demonstration in front of the federal courthouse in downtown St. Louis led to the arrests of over 40 peaceful protestors, including Mckesson.
Packnett and Mckesson expressed pride and happiness to be part of the protest movement as well as other civil organizations trying to effect change.
“I’m glad that we’re having more honest conversations about race, about oppression, about poverty—it was certainly about time. But conversations don’t change people’s lives. Conversations don’t save peoples’ lives. Conversations don’t make Mike alive, don’t make Tamir Rice alive, don’t bring Sandra Bland back,” Packnett said.
“I think that the great theme of this day, this reflection, at least for me, is of how much there is left to do,” she said. “We could cast a light anywhere, quite frankly, to know that we haven’t done enough. As long as there are still bodies falling…there is still work to be done.”
St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.