The four-day Beloved Community Conference at Saint John's Church, whose theme this year was Radical Reconciliation, concluded on Sunday, November 1 with a Public Accountability Meeting, whose stated purpose was to "partner with local organizations to call on critical accountable bodies to articulate their plans to advance the recommendations of the ‘Forward Though Ferguson’ report."
The Sunday meeting, held on the campus of Saint Louis University and moderated by, was heavily attended – perhaps by more than a thousand – with an audience that appeared to be predominantly white, with many from the Christian ministry. Indeed, the meeting at moments had the feel of a revival, with a stirring rendition of the civil rights gospel anthem "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” sung during the meeting, and "This Little Light of Mine" sung to close it out.
The meeting was designed to extract "commitments" from the institutions of power to address the various areas of racial inequity highlighted in the Ferguson Commission report. Those who were invited and expected to make commitments were political leaders, corporate leaders, police chiefs, court officials and education leaders. Those who actually showed up were the heads of the two major corporate organizations, two state senators, three state representatives, an alderwoman, the St. Louis treasurer, and representatives of three St. Louis County school districts.
The no-shows included the Missouri Attorney General, any other statewide elected official, the mayor of the St. Louis, the St. Louis County executive, the St. Louis chief of police, the St. Louis County police chief, the police chiefs of the 56 county municipalities with police forces, any representative of the municipal court system, the superintendent of the St. Louis Public Schools, and the superintendents of all St. Louis County school districts with the exception of Normandy.
The two corporate leaders who showed represented Civic Progress, the organization comprised of the 33 largest employers in the region, and the St. Louis Regional Chamber, whose corporate members account for nearly 30 percent of the region’s employment base (according to its website). These organizations made a commitment at the meeting to work to establish the creation of a Racial Equity Fund, a 25-year fund recommended by the Ferguson Commission report to provide funding for social organizations and projects oriented toward ameliorating the depressed socioeconomic conditions of the black community.
No commitment was made by – or asked of – these corporations to employ more blacks.
The elected officials who showed all committed to seeking a $15 per hour minimum wage, and the Normandy school superintendent committed to ending the disparity in the disciplining of black students versus white students, a point poignantly illustrated through a role-playing exercise by the high school students who addressed the gathering.
What clearly stood out the most at the meeting, however, was the absence of the invited white leaders who hold the critical strings of power. And to emphasize their absence, Wilson placed empty chairs on the stage. Their absence was so conspicuous that it seemed it was intended to send a message – that power concedes nothing without it being demanded.
This seems to be the crossroads now faced by the leaders and activists pushing the policy changes recommended by the Ferguson Commission report – whether to engage in radical action that causes a response to demands, or seek reconciliation.
Eric E. Vickers is an attorney, activist and former chief of staff for state Senator Jamilah Nasheed.