A North St. Louis deacon says Alderman Joe Vaccaro, Ward 23, harassed him multiple times while the deacon was outside the Hampton Schnucks collecting petition signatures for Proposition R on behalf of Show Me Integrity’s campaign Reform St. Louis.
Charles Chatman, a deacon at Saints Fellowship Mission, said Vaccaro has harassed him on three separate occasions, telling The St. Louis American that Vaccaro threatened to tear up his signed petitions, called him a liar and tried to stop voters from reading the petition, among other things.
“He told them they shouldn’t read it and shouldn’t sign it,” Chatman said.
The situation escalated to police involvement during their third encounter when a store manager called officers to diffuse the situation. Even though no one from the store asked him to leave, Chatman eventually felt it was best to vacate the area. No police report was filed.
It was after these three incidents that he found out the man was Vaccaro.
“That's exactly why I'm out here — that's exactly why [Prop R] needs to get on the ballot,” Chatman said. “To hold them accountable, to stop them from being able to do the things that they are doing … this is the reason we the people need to take back the power and at least have the ability to vote on making changes.”
The deacon noted he’s collected signatures at that store for almost three months and has not received a complaint from anyone else. Chatman, who is Black, said the other man who collects signatures at that location is white and has not received similar treatment from Vaccaro or anyone else.
“The elephant in the room is that … him attacking me is basically a racist issue, you can sugar coat it, you can do whatever you want. But if it looks like a duck, it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it's a duck,” Chatman said.
Vaccaro declined to be interviewed but wrote in an email that he was not harassing Chatman but was well within his rights to ask people not to sign it or to ask them to read what they were signing. He denied trying to tear up the signed petitions and maintains that Schnucks managers don’t want Chatman collecting signatures on the private property.
The store’s manager declined to comment on the matter but directed inquiries to the customer service team, which could not be reached.
A lawyer informed the Reform St. Louis campaign that it is in fact legal to gather signatures, sell Girl Scout cookies, solicit donations for Salvation Army and do other types of activities outside grocery store entrances, unless the property owner asks the person engaging in such activities to leave — which is something Chatman said did not happen during his interactions with Vaccaro.
Chatman said Vaccaro also accused him of being paid more per signature than he is. A spokesperson for Show Me Integrity noted that both volunteers and paid workers collect signatures for the campaign.
“I was totally perplexed because if this is an alderman, okay, he is supposed to know that anybody has the freedom of speech and I was expressing my freedom of speech, but he was trying to deny that … I just felt like honestly, I don't really have a racist bone in my body, but he was racist. He wanted me to get belligerent. He wanted me to do some things, but I refused and the more and more I refused, the more and more [angry] he got,” Chapman said.
Activists expect Proposition R to be on February’s ballot. Its goal is to increase aldermanic accountability and ensure racial equity in redistricting. It proposes the city does this by decreasing the influence of big money by stopping aldermanic conflicts of interest; ensuring ward boundary maps drawn by an equitably selected independent citizen commission; preventing the Board of Aldermen from overriding the will of voters; and ensuring the public knows if an alderman has a personal conflict of interest in something they are voting on.
To learn more about the Reform St. Louis campaign and Proposition R, visit reformstlouis.com.