Earlier this month, ArchCity Defenders commemorated its tenth birthday with a celebration including many of our dearest friends, partners, and supporters who continue to make our work possible. We were especially honored to be joined by clients that have entrusted us to stand alongside them as they navigate crushing obstacles—poverty, homelessness, state violence, and deep structural racism—and manage not only to survive, but to do so with their dignity and humanity intact.
In reflecting on this unique moment, one theme keeps returning to me: audacity. If there is a word that encompasses the spirit of American public life over the last decade and a half, it just may be this.
In 2008, the country had a whirlwind affair with a charismatic leader who swept into office on “the audacity of hope.” In our current media and social media culture, the most rewarded, in both attention and treasure, are often the most audacious among us. Even the current occupant of the White House—let’s call him “45”—frequently exhibits his own brand of reckless audacity to ever-more-adoring fans.
But there is a different kind of audacity that concerns me. It is the kind that we see exhibited daily by those in power to maintain the very systems which are the source of their power. This, too, we see in 45; the same way we saw it in tobacco companies that blatantly lied about the deadly effects of their products for decades; the same way we see it in fossil fuel companies who shamelessly pretend that there is an active debate about the science of climate change.
This is the audacity of the status quo, and it is not just a problem among presidents and multinational corporations. It is a problem right here in St. Louis.
Earlier this week, Mayor Lyda Krewson sent out a tweet lauding, purportedly, a group of grand jurors who described the Workhouse and City Justice Center jails as “professionally run,” “clean,” and “transformed.” Through the notes the mayor attached to her tweet, we learned that “it was explained”—by whom, we do not know—“that the MSI [Workhouse] and courts had worked hard to cut the number of inmates in half…”
No mention, naturally, of the continuing national embarrassment that the Workhouse represents, the many formerly detained people who have repeatedly exposed the truth, the ongoing efforts to bail out as many people as possible from its cages, the two separate lawsuits challenging the continued caging of poor people in inhumane conditions on unaffordable bail, or the two-year-old campaign to close the hellish jail for good.
Alongside Action St. Louis, the Bail Project, other community partners, and a growing contingent of members who have been directly impacted by the Workhouse, ArchCity Defenders has been proud to take part in the campaign calling for its closure. We have re-learned countless times from our clients and others of the misery imposed by this jail and the system it represents. But is that what the mayor and her team chose to tweet about?
No, it was all about the city’s successful efforts at cleanliness and “[w]ork opportunities for the inmates” that pay pennies on the dollar in a jail that remains open largely because the mayor and her allies choose to keep it open. That takes some serious nerve, and such nerve is required to make acceptable an unacceptable amount of injustice and human suffering.
Not only is this phenomenon not unique to Mayor Krewson; it is emblematic of public policy across the board. So many in this region have been brazen in what they are willing to say and do, or not do, to maintain the status quo. Every year, various departments approve and the Board of Aldermen passes a budget that spends a majority of general funds on police, prosecution, and jail while hundreds of families go hungry, lack habitable housing, and send their children to failing schools. We should be outraged by such obvious neglect, but instead we have come to expect it.
This is not just a city problem. More than four years ago, the Ferguson Commission set forth a work plan for the region with 189 calls to action. On most, those who control the levers of power have responded with bold inaction.
Jason Purnell and his Washington University research team, alone, have authored two reports—“For the Sake of All” and “Dismantling the Divide”—outlining the extreme state of racial health disparities and residential segregation. Few of their recommendations have been implemented fully.
And every year we carry out a ritual around the Missouri Attorney General’s Vehicle Stops Report in which we decry the fact that basically every police department in the region (and the state) targets black drivers for stops, searches, and arrests, and yet precisely no police budgets get slashed and no chiefs or other brass get fired.
The audacity of it all.
It is not hard to understand how one—many—can become frustrated to the point of disillusion. But what would it look like if we tried another way?
A few months before ArchCity Defenders’ 10-year celebration, our organization completed a months-long process that resulted in a clarified vision among our team of the region and world we are seeking to build: “a society liberated from systems of oppression where the promise of justice and racial equity is realized; communities where our approach to public safety prioritizes investment in well-being, health, and transformation without relying on criminalization and incarceration; and people living freely in their communities, thriving regardless of their race or income.”
I could not be more proud of the role that ArchCity Defenders has played over the past ten years in our work with clients, partners, and the communities we serve. Yet, I am struck by the immeasurable distance left to travel before those who are committed to justice reach the St. Louis that we envision. And if we want to have any chance of surviving the journey, and overcoming the forces of status quo, we are going to have to muster up some audacity of our own.
Blake Strode is executive director of ArchCity Defenders.