ST. LOUIS – Five years after “Ferguson” became both world-wide shorthand for often-deadly brutality against black people by white police officers and a metaphor for urban uprisings countered by para-military law enforcement, members of the Ferguson Commission have come to grips with two seemingly discordant truths.
On one hand, the 16-member Commission’s 45 major recommendations for reform have made halting progress, but progress nonetheless in a city with a long history of racism it had previously refused to discuss.
On the other, a backlash against the Ferguson unrest by Missouri’s white voters helped to elect one of the most conservative state legislatures in America, and swept Democrats out of power in all but one statewide office, while nationally, the majority of white voters elected a racist as president of the United States.
Appearing on “The Jaco Report,” three members of the Ferguson Commission recognized both realities while remaining relentlessly upbeat about the potential for change in St. Louis, in Missouri and in the country at large.
“You have a president and leaders in power pushing this hate message,” said Rasheen Aldridge Jr., a veteran of the campaign for a $15 minimum wage and the Ferguson protests who, at 25, is the youngest Commission member. “We’ve got to get beyond all that and get to what the issue really is.”
That primary issue, according to lawyer and Commission member Felicia Pulliam, is money, or more properly, the lack of it in St. Louis’s African-American communities.
“Poverty is a plague. Poverty is a disease,” said Pulliam, co-founder of an activist group called St. Louis Renewed. “And having $15 an hour, a living wage, provides an opportunity for people in their lives to address the other systemic issues that are causing the actual illness.”
Among the most contentious of the other systemic issues addressed by the Commission report is criminal justice reform, from police interactions with young black men to mass incarceration and prosecutorial reform. Commission co-chair the Rev. Starsky Wilson, the CEO of the Deaconess Foundation, said that the criminal justice reform plus kickstarting honest conversations about race in St. Louis had been the Commission’s top achievements so far.
“We have moved forward, because of the Commission’s report, in our conversation, our capacity and in the courts,” Wilson said, while also noting that most of the Commission’s work hadn’t moved the needle much yet.
“On a five-point scale, we were about a two and a half, as far as moving those policy recommendations,” he said. “A significant amount have received some sort of implementation, but only five of the 47 signature priorities have been fully implemented.”
With reform of the region’s municipal courts to stop them from using poor residents as ATMs, and the election of reformers Kim Gardner as St. Louis Circuit Attorney and Wesley Bell as St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney, the Commission members agreed that judicial and prosecutorial reform had been a bright spot.
Another, according to the Commission members, has been the willingness of many white residents to make an effort to discuss openly topics such as “white privilege” or “institutional racism” without defensiveness.
“Equity works for everyone,” Pulliam said. “It’s not as if black and brown folks are the only ones that are feeling the tension and the terror and the negative impacts of white supremacy and inequity. Everyone is.”
The downside, the Commissioners agreed, was the white backlash in Missouri, and the nation, against uprisings in Ferguson and in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police. Commission co-chair Starsky believes that backlash led not only to Donald Trump’s election, but to the purging of Democrats from almost all Missouri statewide office in the 2016 election that voted in both Trump and Eric Greitens.
“What you saw turn with the weaponization of the uprising is those statewide offices, which were primarily blue before this and became red immediately after,” he said. He noted that the process had already started because of re-drawn gerrymandered legislative districts after the 2000 Census, but was accelerated by conservative reaction to the Ferguson protests.
But Aldridge, who’s running for the Missouri House seat vacated by Bruce Franks, said his work on the Commission had made him hopeful that even white Republicans in Jefferson City might be convinced, using the Commission’s economic equity argument.
“Those issues are in rural Missouri; their schools are closing, our schools are closing, too,” he said. “A lot of the jobs out there are low-wage, just like the jobs in the city of St. Louis. So there’s common ground, but we have to get out of using the terms the president uses to scare people and use hate.”