One of the many peaceful activities marking the first anniversary of the police killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown Jr. was First Ferguson Friday, a community leadership brunch held Friday, August 7 by the St. Louis County NAACP at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley.
Local, regional, state and national elected leaders, along with state and county law enforcement, came together to talk about changes that have been enacted or they are supporting in the community as a result of the tragic event a year ago that prompted the national #BlackLivesMatter movement.
“Rather than talk about the problem and pass judgment and want to have a press conference, let’s do a program and come up with solutions and make those solutions work in St. Louis County,” said John Gaskin III, a member of the NAACP national Board of Directors.
The NAACP announced two initiatives to solve problems in the area.
The first is Advocates for Education Reform, which puts volunteer legal minds together at no charge to families to represent school students in questionable discipline hearings. African-American students make up a disproportionate share of discipline cases in schools. The program will serve general education students ages 12 to 19 (to age of 21 for students with disabilities), who were illegally removed from school or are awaiting school disciplinary hearings, said attorney Pamela Meanes, former National Bar Association president who heads the County NAACP Legal Redress Committee.
“The ultimate goal of each case will be to keep the student in school with appropriate educational services,” Meanes said. “Missouri is one of the few states that does not recognize education as a fundamental right.”
A second initiative by the county NAACP will address legal reform in matters of police brutality.
“Focusing our attention on Jennings, Ferguson and Normandy, we are going to introduce a local law that will ask those communities to pass it,” Meanes said. It would mandate “stricter mental health testing, mandatory diversity/race training and mandatory de-escalation of force training.
“Never in the history of our generation should you ever commit a crime and your sentence automatically be death,” Meanes said.
U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay asked constituents to support bipartisan efforts in Washington for training and retraining of local police officers, so they know how to diffuse volatile situations and a more sensitive to different cultures they encounter in their day-to-day police work. He also wants to remove the specter of police armed with military equipment focused on citizens carrying out their First Amendment right to free speech.
“I need you to support a bill that my good friend, Sen. Claire McCaskill, and I have introduced to restrict the flow of military surplus weapons to local police departments so that what we all witnessed on the streets of Ferguson never happens again.”
About the young protestors, Clay said, they are brave, smart and they have courage.
“When you hear young protestors chant, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ what they are really saying is some lives are still worth less than others in this country,” Clay said.
“They know this is true, and they are angry about it. And they are absolutely right The lessons from Ferguson are many, but until we can say the lives of all of our children are valued equally across this country, we have a lot of work to do.”
“We also have to remind ourselves why Michael Brown is a gift to each and every one of us,” said state Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal.
“Don’t forget the gift of having a voice, because prior to Mike Brown, we didn’t have a voice. We didn’t have a champion. He sacrificed his life for us, and that is why we shall be thankful to him and his family for giving us that voice so we can champion what he wanted us to do.”
“Born out of the tragic events of Mr. Brown’s death, we have come a long way together,” St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said. “If we didn’t have the issue – the events that came out of that tragedy – we wouldn’t have Senate Bill 5; we wouldn’t have the McArthur Grants; we wouldn’t have court reform; we wouldn’t have additional implicit bias training; we wouldn’t have police departments as focused as they are right now on where we are with minority hiring.”
“In these months that followed some of the darkest days that we could ever imagine, I have been humbled by the resolve of a community, a state, a country to be better,” said Captain Ron Johnson, Missouri Highway Patrol.
Kathy Osborn, executive director of the Regional Business Council, said through the Reinvest North County Fund, in partnership with North County, Inc., it raised over $800,000 and allocated over a half million dollars to help 55 small businesses and four school districts in and around Ferguson over the last year.
“The fund continues to be a vessel for donors of all walks of life,” Osborn said. “It was a way for them for them to come together and show their financial support for the community. I’m optimistic, because I’ve met in the last year, hundreds of people I didn’t know, hardworking business men and women committed to the community to which they do business.”
“Our community was awakened and it is responding to the need for fairness, equality and justice for everyone, and we have so much work ahead of us,” St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger said.
The county’s new office of Strategy and Innovation will help craft a blueprint of tangible ways to address pervasive disparity that exists in the St. Louis region.
“We want to disrupt the dynamics that lead to disparities in infant mortality, education preparedness, health outcomes, education itself and job readiness skills,” Stenger said. “We will be using wrap-around approaches to help us build a community where our youth are ready for college, work and life.”