Wesley Bell’s first three weeks as St. Louis County prosecuting attorney have been exceptional. He has taken command of the office and without apology and led with important initiatives that were pillars of his campaign and foundational to criminal justice reform. He has marked his territory, removing McCulloch’s scent, and sent a clear message to recalcitrant holdovers that discussion on policy is welcomed and encouraged, but insubordination will be punished.
One of the earliest memories I have of a serious conversation about life and reality was talking my father about Santa Claus as a very young boy. It was about then that I began having serious doubts about his existence. When I asked my father, he told me directly and without any reservation that Santa Claus wasn’t real. He told me that adults often make up stories for children that aren’t true to explain reality because they mistakenly think children wouldn’t understand the truth. He said if I was old enough to question the possibility, I was old enough to hear the truth, and he would never tell me something he knew not to be true.
As I read last week’s St Louis American editorial on the pushback Wesley Bell is receiving from what I would call the usual suspects, and a lot of the angst on social media, I thought the anger and surprise was misplaced energy. It’s time for us to have a conversation about Santa Claus.
What’s really important to understand is elections don’t solve any problems, they merely define who will have the higher ground in the fight that’s about to start. The structural injustice of the criminal justice system in St. Louis and America is not an accident or the overlooked, unintended consequences of well-meaning people who would have done better if they had known better. The current social condition of low-income working people and many people of color is the direct result of people of privilege having no regard for the consequences that privilege has for people who aren’t like them.
There are people who would argue that St. Louis has turned some racial corner because Bell got 57 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, but no one ever mentions the 43 percent that voted to maintain the McCulloch status quo. They have not disappeared or had a conversion on the road to some St. Louis County version of Damascus. The resistance and pushback by organized forces that we have seen to Bell’s first three weeks is the reaction of that 43 percent to his election. Get used to it, because it’s not going away. It’s a local variant of our national problems. The real crisis in America is not that Donald Trump is the president, but that 63 million Americans voted for him.
When Wesley Bell was sworn in on January 1, that wasn’t the unwrapping of a Christmas present delivered by a political Santa Claus who is the magical solution to our criminal justice crisis. It merely opened the opportunity to continue the fight for criminal justice reform, but – for the first time – with real strategic and tactical advantages.
But those advantages will be wasted if we don’t understand certain political realities. What are these political realities? You have enemies, and those enemies are dangerous, pitiless and relentless. Secondly, in politics you have only what you can take, and you can keep only what you can hold. Lastly, the fight’s not over until you win.
The African-American community and its progressive allies need to understand what Wesley Bell already knows. Bell’s election did not transform St. Louis County into that shining city (or county) on the hill. There is no brand new day, and the Good Lord did not deliver us from things that go bump in the night. The fight for criminal justice reform in St. Louis has really just started, and it won’t be over until the forces of reform accept the unconditional surrender of the forces of injustice.
Mike Jones is a former senior staffer in St. Louis city and county government and current member of the Missouri State Board of Education and The St. Louis American editorial board. In 2016 and 2017, he was awarded Best Serious Columnist for all of the state’s large weeklies by the Missouri Press Association, and in 2018 he was awarded Best Serious Columnist in the nation by the National Newspapers Association.