MIDTOWN – A town hall meeting here that began with a video of former U.S. president Barack Obama saying, “Every time I think about these kids, I get mad,” foreshadowed the evening at Harris-Stowe State University, 3026 Laclede Ave.
Earnest and angry panelists and speakers hammered home their views and solutions. Many of these were met with outbursts from teary-eyed, grieving, weary and enraged people looking for justice, hope and real answers to eradicating gun violence in St. Louis.
One woman told of losing three nephews in a single shooting in one day. A trauma surgeon on the panel told of having to tell a mother, who had already lost sons to gun violence, that her last son couldn’t be saved in the emergency room and had died too.
A question-and-answer session ensued. However, many with a chance to ask a question instead flung dismay, statements and their own answers to the panelists.
“I’m hurt, I can’t even explain this pain,” Evelyn Sutton said after speaking to the panel and walking to the back of the auditorium. She had two grandsons and two nephews killed in the same day.
“This place should be packed. … Let’s take our neighborhoods back,” she said into a provided microphone while addressing the panel.
A man had to be forced out by a sheriff because he refused to quit his tirade about his son’s unsolved murder case, calling for police Chief John Hayden, one of the panelists, to be fired. Some then hailed the chief as a success.
Along with Hayden and Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards on the panel were Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo., 1st District); St. Louis African American Aldermanic Caucus Chairman Jeffrey Boyd (22nd Ward); Christine Novalia of Moms Demand Action Against Gun Violence Missouri; and Dr. Mark Hoofnagel, a trauma surgeon at BJC.
The remaining members of the St. Louis African American Aldermanic Caucus members sat in reserved seats in the front row: Tammika Hubbard (5th Ward), Lisa Middlebrook (2nd Ward), Jesse Todd (18th Ward), Shameem Clark-Hubbard (26th Ward) and Brandon Bosley (3rd Ward). Alderman Annie Rice (8th Ward) also sat in the front row with the caucus aldermen.
The town hall on Aug. 28 was hosted and moderated by 21st Ward Alderman John Collins-Muhammad. Mayor Lyda Krewson was invited to address the audience.
Dwayne T. Smith, interim president of Harris-Stowe State University, offered the first words.
He noted that he had grown up in the neighborhood where the city’s most recent child homicide victim, 8-year-old Jurnee Thompson, was killed. She was shot to death after a fight at a St. Louis Public Schools scrimmage football game. The fight spilled down the street to a popular neighborhood takeout restaurant, Harold’s Chop Suey.
Smith said that when he was growing up, it was a normal occurrence to head to Harold’s after a football game at Soldan High School.
“And that’s what she was doing – she was enjoying life after a football game,” he said of Jurnee, who was remembered at a vigil the evening of the town hall meeting.
“The loss of Jurnee and other children to gun violence is overwhelmingly devastating because the majority of them are simply being children, playing and standing in front of their homes, and all their siblings are affected,” Smith said.
“This truly is a health crisis,” he said, explaining that children exposed to gun violence suffer post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. They may grow into adults with emotional and mental health challenges, including drug and alcohol abuse.
He then announced that the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) would hold a symposium on the impact of violence with the mission of creating a solution-based framework.
Taking the podium, Clay said, “We are at the tipping point of gun violence that is inflicting devastating carnage on our community because of the easy access to guns and the failure of some elected officials to stand up to the gun lobbyists across our region.”
He then told the audience about his bill H.R. 3435, which would give local governments the power to establish their own gun control laws. On a table at the entrance of the auditorium were letters to U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.). In the letter, Clay asks that they urge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, to call a special session on the issue.
Attendees were asked to sign the letter urging the Senate to pass H.R. 8, the Bipartisan Backgrounds Checks Act, and H.R. 1112, the Enhanced Background Checks Act.
“Let me tell you a little secret about fighting gun violence, Washington, D.C., and Jefferson City: If you want to do the right thing about gun control, all you have to do is love your constituents more than you love the NRA campaign donations,” Clay said.
Both the mayor and Moms Demand Action believe that background checks will help. Moms Demand Action has been pushing for that bill’s passage in the Senate since it passed the House earlier this year.
“We have to support Congressman’s Clay bill … and we have to look to our own state legislature right here in the state of Missouri,” Krewson said.
Earlier, she had announced an extra $25,000 reward in each case for information leading to the arrests of those responsible for the deaths of the last four children fatally shot in St. Louis. The large rewards were funded by local philanthropists Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield.
In many cases, witnesses are reluctant to go to police with what they know about such killings. Many are afraid of potential retaliation.
Coffee Wight, whose 23-year-old niece was killed, was one of those at the town hall who spoke to the panel.
“Put some money in the witness protection program, so people can come forward and talk, because we’re losing too many people,” Wright said. She also said money should be given to grassroots organizations instead of big ones.
“I agree that money should be given to grassroots organizations,” Clark Hubbard responded. “They are the ones on the ground, they know all the people, and they have been doing it for years.”
The Missouri Legislative Black Caucus here too penned a letter calling for the gun violence to be added to an already-scheduled special session on Sept. 11.
Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, veteran and former law enforcement officer, rejected the emergency request to work toward giving local governments the authority to enact their own gun laws.
He did not attend the town hall at Harris-Stowe.
Regarding his denial of the request, the governor, a staunch Second Amendment rights supporter, was quoted in Missourinet.com, stating: “While the issue of how to reduce violence in our urban areas certainly needs to be addressed, there are also many different opinions on how to find a solution. However, special session is not the correct avenue. If we are to change violent criminal acts in Missouri, it will take all of us at the federal, state, local and community levels working together toward that common goal.”
Missouri Rep. Steven Roberts (D-St. Louis, 77th Dist.), chairman of the MLBC, returned an email to The NorthSider on Thursday.
“Governor Parson missed an opportunity to demonstrate to all Missourians his concerns for the deaths of innocent children to gun violence … As the Governor has opted not to accept our call to treat this as an immediate crisis, we ask that he share his proposed solution to the epidemic of violence now terrorizing Missourians.
“We believe the first responsibility of government is to protect its citizens. If, as the Governor wrote in his response, ‘there are also many different opinions on how to find a solution,’ we ask that he list these opinions, state his preferred solution, and work to build consensus.
“Simply trying to wait out the crisis is not a solution and the parents, family, friends, and community of the next child murdered deserve more than a stagnating response. The time to lead is now.”
Edwards said that the city had asked the governor to return the Missouri Highway Patrol back to the city.
“We pay taxes, too,” Edwards said.
He also said that local law enforcement needed to boost its involvement with school safety and that public safety was everyone’s responsibility.
City police, he said, have seized 1,600 guns this year, and half of the homicides have been solved. More than 1,400 cases have been referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for federal prosecution.
Homicides in the city, 134, he noted, are up 15 from this time last year when there were 119. There have been a total 1,651 nonfatal shootings.
Going forward, he said, “Those responsible will be arrested and imprisoned. And anyone who conceals or hinders the prosecution of the shooter will also be locked up.”