A new year is supposed to usher in hope and new possibilities. Sadly, there is little in the St. Louis region’s history that exudes the promise of change. I am the eternal optimist only because I put my faith in everyday people, not the corrupt and incompetent people who thrive off power and privilege. I have confidence that any iota of change will be led by the activists, the organizers, the change agents. These are the people who know they must constantly raise hell to shake up the oppressive status quo.
During 2019, there was a questioning in the air about what progress had been achieved in the five years since the murder of Michael Brown and the ensuing Ferguson Uprising. Forward Through Ferguson (FTF) issued a report card on the 47 signature priorities synthesized from the 189 recommendations which came out of the robust community process facilitated by the Ferguson Commission. FTF is the nonprofit organization responsible for moving this racially divided region from talk to action, from racist practices to equitable policies.
The overall progress report was not impressive, especially in the Justice for All area, even regressing in some policies and politics. Only five of the 47 areas were deemed successfully achieved. A more comprehensive report, the State of Police Reform, was even more damning. The report looks at the Ferguson and St. Louis police departments along with the North County Police Cooperative. I was lucky enough to attend FTF’s presentation to the public where what most of us know was confirmed: very little substantive progress and lots of bureaucratic resistance to change.
This illuminating report took me to a section of my book, “Ferguson is America: Roots of Rebellion.” It is a section that pulls from historian Lerone Bennett’s “The Shaping of America.” Bennett tells us there is always a scenario involving a forked road that leads to two very different outcomes. I’ve thought about that fork since the Ferguson Uprising and the many times people in power chose the road towards more oppression, more suffering, less equity, less democracy. It’s an almost predictable path.
For example, I wonder where the City of Ferguson would be had voters elected an African-American councilwoman in 1977. Bette Jones, an educator turned attorney, had lived in Ferguson several years before stepping up as a candidate in Ward 3. Her campaign slogan was “Jones for a Fresh and Forward Ferguson.”
The name may not be familiar to you, but her husband Dr. William Jones is well-known as a prominent dentist and community advocate. As a feminist, I am only making the association as a point of reference because candidate Jones came into the race with her own identity and accomplishments. (Full disclosure: Dr. Jones has been taking care of my pearly whites for decades.)
One of Bette Jones’ campaign issues that struck home with me was a commitment to make the Ferguson City Council “accountable and accessible so that all segments of the community are involved in problem solving.” The road not taken.
Ferguson chose this road many times. The accumulation of 37 years of racist policies and exclusion exploded on August 9, 2014. That’s when the apartheid-like government was exposed to the world. An all-white regime ruled over a 70 percent black population. The demographics of the school board and the police department didn’t fare any better. The dreamer in me wants to believe that the election of Bette Jones would have made Ferguson a different city today.
Our change-resistant region continues down the wrong road. The decision process that Lerone Bennett describes as indelible always leads from one bad decision to another. A spiraling process “which distorts everything and alienates everybody.” In most cases, everybody is non-white people whose quality of life is distorted by a racist system.
We have police departments and courts alienating citizens. We have civic and elected leadership creating a distorted world where a few corrupt people consolidate power over the masses. Between police shooting their own and efforts to make the region a kingdom, there is plenty of work for those of us who believe in justice and democracy.
When I think of 2020, I think of vision. We need to create a vision where all the road signs lead to a more just and equitable society.