After the demonstrations that followed a Ferguson police officer’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, the 16-member Ferguson Commission came up with a list of recommendations to address policing and the region’s disparities in jobs, education and policing. But many African-Americans say elected leaders have yet to adopt those proposals —and that has helped fuel a new wave of protests.
In the three weeks that followed a judge’s decision to acquit former St. Louis officer Jason Stockley of first-degree murder in the death of Anthony Lamar Smith, people have again taken to the streets. The Rev. Starsky Wilson and others say the latest protests — including Tuesday night’s shutdown of Interstate 64 — are acts of social disruption aimed at compelling regional leaders to act.
St. Louis police arrested 143 people after Tuesday’s protest. Among them was Wilson, head of the Deaconess Foundation and a former member of the Ferguson Commission. St. Louis Public Radio’s Willis Ryder Arnold spoke to Wilson about the emerging and youthful civil rights struggle.
Willis Ryder Arnold: So what do actions like this mean for you?
The Rev. Starsky Wilson: Ultimately what this means for me is that this is a broadening movement for the affirmation of black life, a broadening movement for police accountability in our community. A broadening movement that is getting ever more diverse, richer — diversity in age, socioeconomic status, race, gender — and is led by more and more people of different generations.
What are your impressions of the last three weeks of protests?
People are reacting and responding to lip service that has been given by many civic and regional leaders to the Ferguson uprising, to the Ferguson Commission Report, to the 3,000 citizens who engaged in the civic engagement process that ... that gave more than 30,000 volunteer hours to make their best aspiration for a community that is marked by racial [in]equity. And folks who thought they could kind of run out the clock on that process and not pay attention to it are now being reminded that the community hasn’t forgotten.
How do you see people being in the streets now as a continuum of that work?
Well to be clear, the Ferguson Commission was a response to the uprising which young people led before there was a commission, before there was a call to create a commission, so I, appropriately situate I think, even the commission in the continuum of youth leadership and uprising that compelled civic leadership to react and to respond. So I see what's happening now is much more consistent with that leadership that compelled a response and it's my hope and prayer that there will be a response this time that is commensurate with the continuing pain of young people that's now being expressed three years later.
So what do you perceive as an appropriate response to what's going on right now?
I think a very serious and detailed reaction to the police actions is important. In the city of St. Louis, it is interesting to note that one thing that happens now that was not the case in 2014 … is that there is local control over the police. So there is one direct accountable office for the actions of police and that is the mayor's office in the city of St. Louis. Bringing greater control, oversight and management over the police is a responsibility of [Mayor Lyda Krewson] and she needs to step up and demonstrate how she's going to get that kind of control. We have a road map. The mayor has specifically said the Ferguson Commission will be our roadmap. OK, that's great. So let's look at what is going to be her 90-day plan for responding to the specific calls to action that are laid out there that 30 organizations have then amplified even since, that folks like Deaconess Foundation have put out resources to support policy campaigns for. What are the things she's going to push? What are the ways in which she is going to hold the police department accountable?
You mentioned reform and accountability. Are you looking for that primarily in terms of policy or are you looking also in terms of cultural shift?
One of the secrets I tell folks when I speak in different spaces around racial equity is that, yes, we desire cultural shift. And I speak specifically for black people, so let me put this in a specific context. I say, yes, black people are concerned about prejudices. But they are less concerned about what people think and more concerned about the capacity of people to execute their thoughts on them to subjugate and oppress them. So I say that to say policy would take away the power to subjugate and oppress people. Cultural change takes more time. And so right now I think we need the policy change so that people can live into the cultural mindset and shift and change.
A lot of the protests we have seen have an attention to economic disruption lately. Why do you think that's also an important strategy?
I think it's an important strategy because we paid attention post-Ferguson. One of the things we found in the spring of 2015 was a headline on the top of the [St. Louis] Business Journal, above the fold … declaring victory, if you will, saying that the Ferguson protests had not harmed the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s capacity to bring conventions St. Louis. It was an economic metric that came out. It even boasted the extension of a large African-American convention with the Church of God in Christ that they had been able to negotiate that. So boasting that economic impacts were not had based upon racial conflagrations and economic inequity. So if it is the case that you know that the finishing line for the civic community is going to be whether this has economic impact, then the protests have to be responsive to that and say, yes this does have an economic impact; this is bad for business. If this is the language that folks speak.
We also recognize quite frankly that economic strategies and messages have been quite critical in winning civil and civic fights for human rights across the globe and locally or across the globe and within the United States of America.
Follow Willis on Twitter: @WillisRArnold