It’s been five years since the night of Nov. 24, 2014, when then-St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, with little warning, after dark and late into the evening, made that fateful grand jury announcement that then-Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the killing of Michael Brown.
Much work remains.
As a region, St. Louis let the small city of Ferguson bear most of the shame for the events of 2014. But as anyone who lives here knows, Ferguson was not alone or unique when it comes to its systemic mistreatment of poor minorities.
In fact, the kinds of problems put on full display for the world to see after the killing of unarmed teenager Brown by Wilson have, sadly, been the reality for decades for hundreds of thousands of people who at one time or another called St. Louis home. Most of them have left.
We who remain, the Leftovers, had an opportunity in the months and years after the fires were extinguished and the national media left.
We had an opportunity to make real, lasting change in a region that has been bleeding population and jobs for decades.
We had an opportunity to come together as city, county and state to be bold. To change the systems and structures that led dozens of tiny municipalities, without sufficient resources or tax bases, to rely on law enforcement for revenue generation. To change the conditions that lead to high crime and unemployment in north St. Louis, prompting poor black families to move to municipalities such as Ferguson in north St. Louis County in search of a better life – only to fear their children might become the next Mike Brown.
We had that opportunity, and we blew it.
We didn’t come together. We became more entrenched in our own beliefs, less willing to understand our neighbors’.
We became divided by political campaigns and turf wars. We allowed the inaction of our highest elected officeholders (then-Gov. Jay Nixon, then-St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger, then-St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay) to stop us from acting, ourselves, to build broad coalitions instead of reverting to the kind of modern tribalism made too easy by social media today.
Over the last year, one group, Better Together, did attempt to push for change in the region. Unfortunately, they blew it too.
They took the easy route. They offered a top-down proposal prepared in the shadows, to be approved statewide with or without the support of city and county voters, and to be implemented by a man now headed to jail.
But even more important than the “Steve Stenger as Metro Mayor” nightmare we all thankfully avoided, the proposal failed to offer solutions to actually improve the lives of poor and working-class people.
It failed to offer any solutions to stop the bleeding of middle-class population in the northern parts of St. Louis and St. Louis County, which allows too many neighborhoods and townships to become areas of concentrated poverty with insufficient tax bases.
It failed to address the division of black population, which mostly resides in St. Louis County now, from black political power, which solidly remains in the city.
It failed in many regards, but none greater than its lack of buy-in from city and county residents.
We have another opportunity in the still-being-formed Board of Freeholders. This body will be made up of a diverse group of residents from St. Louis and St. Louis County — nine appointed by the St. Louis County executive, nine appointed by the mayor of St. Louis, and one by the governor.
I have been nominated to be one of the representatives from the city.
In this Board of Freeholders process is yet another opportunity for those of us who, despite the difficulties and frustrations, still call St. Louis home, to take a hard look at our collective failures. To identify the reasons so many people have left our city. To identify where we are falling short and to ask why. To work together to find solutions and common ground. To ask our neighbors questions and listen to their answers, opinions, stories and experiences. To compromise. To move our region forward.
This Thanksgiving, as your family sits down at the table together around the turkey, after you have prayed for safety and happiness for your loved ones, say a prayer for the rest of us, the Leftovers.
May those of us 307,866 remaining city residents and 996,648 remaining county residents grow closer together in 2020.
May we understand that our fates are tied together, regardless of political boundaries or party.
May this Board of Freeholders process do as intended, and bring people together for a common goal, rather than further divide us.
I remain hopeful that enough of us can work together to produce positive change in the lives of city and county residents and once again make St. Louis a place more people are moving to than moving away from.
This time, let’s not blow the opportunity.