“As COGIC holds its 110th Annual International Holy Convocation during a time of outrage and grief, we are compelled to work in the interest of justice,” Church of God In Christ Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr. read at the steps of St. Louis City Hall on the afternoon of Friday, November 10.
While church members from around the world were gathered at America’s Center, Blake and the leadership body of COGIC – which has more than 6.5 million members – held a press conference after a brief meeting with Mayor Lyda Krewson. They met in response to weeks of unrest following the not-guilty verdict in the Jason Stockley trial for the 2011 fatal shooting of Anthony Lamar Smith. Blake didn’t discuss what took place during the conversation, but he shared the letter presented to Krewson.
“As pastoral leaders, we understand the frustration and outrage of citizens at yet another failure of justice regarding the shooting death of a black man at the hands of a police officer,” Blake read. “We encourage lawful protests that seek the redress of grievances and offer our prayers for the family of Mr. Smith and the entire community.”
Several faces from the frontline of the Stockley verdict protests were on hand to observe the news conference – including Melissa McKinnies, Cori Bush, Rev. Darryl Gray, State Rep. Bruce Franks Jr. and Tory Russell.
“As an organization, we have been responsible for generating over $125 million in the St. Louis regional economy over the past seven years, so we must also challenge responsible parties to correct the wrongs of a justice system that is deeply broken,” Blake read. “We thank you for your willingness to meet with our delegation to discuss strategies to improve police-community relations and to address the concerns of residents.”
Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis President and CEO Michael McMillan was also on hand to hear Blake read the letter.
“We are concerned about both the actions of former officer Stockley and the way law enforcement and its administration are carried out. We unequivocally affirm the excellent job that many police officers do daily. We appreciate the fact that police officers literally put their lives on the line daily,” Blake read.
“Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that there are numerous citizens who have experienced unjust targeting, humiliation, loss of physical freedom, and even physical harm at the hands of a relatively few St Louis police officers. The historical record will show that this is not a new phenomenon, nor simply the perspective of a few troublesome activists.”
The letter included recommendations such as independent investigations for police-involved shootings and proactive efforts with regards to police-community relations. Blake said COGIC stands in agreement with community demands that included mandatory use of body cameras (and support of legislation that would make it a criminal offense for police not to wear issued body cameras or to properly upload the footage), subpoena power for the Civilian Oversight Board and adoption of the Ferguson Commission report’s calls to action.
“We are obligated to urge strong consideration of steps to ensure that there will be justice in police-involved shootings,” Blake read. “We also support the enactment of necessary systemic changes in this critical area. In response to community concerns, COGIC supports our members engaging in orderly and peaceful direct action during our conference. Movement toward the goals and initiatives outlined above will greatly impact our deliberations regarding where to hold future convocations and other conferences.”
St. Louis has been the host city of the Holy Convocation since 2010. Before then, it was held in Memphis – the location of the denomination’s headquarters – for more than a century. COGIC is contracted to bring Holy Convocation back to America’s Center through 2019.
“Every effort must be made to blunt reasonable cries for transparency and to give the community greater confidence,” Blake said. “We call all community stakeholders to speak clearly, in a unified voice against police misconduct and for systemic changes in the best interest of the entire city of St. Louis.”
Once the letter was read in its entirety, COGIC pastor Rev. Phillip Brooks closed the news conference with prayer.
“It has been said that justice delayed is justice denied. We have come to lift our voice for justice and equity. We thank you for our presiding bishop, Bishop Charles Edward Blake, representing the millions of members of the Church Of God In Christ who have come to this fair city for the last seven years to add to the growing economy. Economy is important, but justice is more important,” Brooks prayed.
“Today we pray that for the voices of those who have been voiceless. We pray for those who have been victimized by this violence.”
Rev. Darryl Gray, who has been an active organizer in the Stockley verdict protests, said the gesture was appreciated, but could have been stronger
“They should have come down here before they got started to let us know that they are standing with us – and we should have been up there with them right now,” Gray said. “If they stand for us, then they should have been standing with us.”
Gray said the situation is symbolic of a disconnect between the activist and faith communities.
“We talk about white silence is violence,” Gray said. “But church silence is violence too – and I’ve been in ministry for 35 years. Oftentimes, the church will stay quiet for too long. Local clergy has been standing beside the protesters, and not apart. Today, this church stood apart.”
Melissa McKinnies, another active protest organizer, was more optimistic about the gesture.
“The leaders of the church said that they would present these suggestions to the mayor, and they did it,” McKinnies said. “These are things that we want in place. They said they were going to do their part to try to hold the city accountable.”
She was especially impressed by COGIC’s threat to move its lucrative convention business elsewhere. “Hopefully,” she said of COGIC, “if it comes down to it, they will be willing to hold onto their check.”