Change systems or people? Beyond Ferguson debates way forward

Mar 25, 2015
Originally published on March 25, 2015 12:57 pm

Since Michael Brown was shot and killed last year, people within the St. Louis region have been immersed in social and public policy introspection.

This wrenching dialogue includes a nearly endless series of questions: What happened on Aug. 9 between Brown and Darren Wilson? How do people want police interacting with citizens? Are local municipal courts and governments failing? And how does a region reverse decades of forced and voluntary segregation?

In many respects though, Monday’s Ferguson and Beyond discussion at the Wellspring Church in Ferguson took a step back from specificity. A dominant theme throughout the two-hour event hosted by NPR’s Michel Martin: What is the most logical pathway to change? Is it through political action and legislative action? Or through personal interactions within a divided St. Louis?

For the Rev. F. Willis Johnson of the Wellspring Church, there’s no snap answer.

“I’m discouraged because it seems more than every before — particularly in this city — that we are much more ardent toward the change,” Johnson said Monday night. “I struggle with wondering if in Ferguson, in North County, in St. Louis, if we really want to change. And that’s tough for me.”

Pathways to progress

The quandary of how to change was a salient question for panelists, many of whom are either engaged in public policymaking or are trying to cajole political leaders to act:

  • DeRay Mckesson (@deray) joined the Ferguson protest movement in August and has since moved to St. Louis.
  • Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal (@MariaChappelleN), D-University City, whose district includes Ferguson, has been active as a protester and legislator.
  • Chris Krehmeyer (@BeyondHousingMO) is the president and CEO of Beyond Housing, which provides services to low-income families in the St. Louis area.
  • Johnson (@FWillisJohnson) is the pastor at Wellspring Church and a frequent protester.
  • Brittany Packnett (@MsPackyetti), executive director of Teach for America–St. Louis, also is a member of the Ferguson Commission, appointed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, and the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, appointed by President Barack Obama.
  • Rich McClure is half of the Ferguson Commission’s leadership team. The 16-member commission has held several meetings to hear from the public, and will release a report by September. McClure is the former president of UniGroup.

The tone of Monday’s event was markedly different from when Martin was in Ferguson in August of last year. That discussion featured some particularly raw moments between members of the audience and Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III. Knowles declined to take part in Monday’s event, and efforts from St. Louis Public Radio to get a member of law enforcement on the panel were unsuccessful. Thus, the discussion largely centered on how Ferguson and the St. Louis region should embrace change in the weeks and months ahead.

Krehmeyer said he’s worried that as time continues to pass between Aug. 9 and the present, “the willingness to have uncomfortable conversation subsides.”

“I hope that as a region we can continue to be in places where we have uncomfortable conversations,” Krehmeyer said. “Because if we’re not uncomfortable about how we move forward, then we’re not having the right kind of conversations.”

Chappelle-Nadal in particular spoke about a two-track form of change. She spoke at length about University City's struggles to come to terms with racial divisions, even though the community has a reputation for being progressive.

But she also spoke of the challenge of trying to get her legislative colleagues to embrace structural changes — especially to how police departments interact with a primarily black citizenry.

“There are not many senators who understand what is happening here at home,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “And that same sense, there are a lot of people who are on the streets every day who don’t understand the culture we have in the legislature. So every day is an educational opportunity to communicate with my colleagues — most of which are Republican — and try to encourage them to pass legislation.”

Packnett emphasized that St. Louis can’t “change around the chairs on the deck and pretend that we’re in a completely different place suddenly.”

But, she said, “the questions about whether systems are broken or flawed, I respectfully reject the premise.”

“I think actually a lot of the systems that are at play right now are working exactly as they were designed to,” Packnett said. “The history in this city … of housing discrimination that would lead to employment discrimination that ensured that certain kids got a good education and certain kids got a bad education was by design in order to retain power in certain communities and restrict power in other communities. And so, I think that to ignore the systemic question and only have a conversation about relationship is to quite frankly let ourselves off the hook.”

McClure and Packnett’s commission has been tasked with coming up with policy proposals by September. He said he’s been encouraged by conversations stimulated within official and unofficial channels.

“This is a long process, but it is a process that must continue to have momentum and push and a degree of intensity – and a degree of intentionality across our entire community,” McClure said.

Effects of the Department of Justice reports

Monday’s panel came after several tumultuous weeks for Ferguson.

Two reports came out from the Department of Justice: The first declined to press federal charges against Wilson for shooting and killing Brown. The other skewered Ferguson’s police department and city government for engaging in aggressive and racially-biased policing.

Soon after the reports came out, Ferguson’s municipal judge, court clerk, city manager and police chief resigned. That prompted some questions about where a long-running protest movement goes from here.

In response to a question from Martin about why people were still protesting after numerous Ferguson city officials resigned, Mckesson replied: “Why are the police still killing people?”

“We would much rather be somewhere enjoying life than fighting for the right to live,” Mckesson said. “We don’t protest because it’s fun or because it’s the new cool thing to do. We protest because we have been so silent for so long and this was like a way to confront the system in a really visceral way.”

When Martin asked Mckesson about whether he accepted the DOJ’s report that didn’t end up charging Wilson, he said: “I am OK with their finding around the civil rights piece — but I’m still ready for a trial.”

“That report to me has nothing to do with [Wilson’s] criminal responsibility,” Mckesson said.

Added Chappelle-Nadal: “I do not agree with the report dealing with Darren Wilson and not having a pathway for suit.”

“I think there’s a lot missing in that case,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “I’m not a law enforcement agent at all. I didn’t go to school for that. But what I wanted was justice for this community — and they didn’t receive that in the report. In a different report, they were validated.”

Chappelle-Nadal said she rejects the idea that Ferguson’s police department should be dissolved and replaced with the St. Louis County Police. But she is in favor of other municipalities taking over patrol of the city, and added that Ferguson’s policymakers may not have a choice on the matter.

“It may not be up to the elected people — it may be up to the Department of Justice,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “If they do not follow the guidelines and some of the ideas expressed by the DOJ, it won’t be up to them.”

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