August 9 was such a towering milestone in the St. Louis region – five years after the Ferguson Police killing of Michael Brown – that not much public attention was paid to another anniversary two days before. August 7 marked one year since Wesley Bell crushed incumbent St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch in the Democratic primary, with his general election victory a given. It marked one year since everyone knew that Wesley Bell, and not McCulloch (one of the chief villains of the Ferguson unrest), would be the next chief prosecutor in the county. The St. Louis American asked Bell, who also is the first African American to hold the position, to look back – and ahead.
The St. Louis American: So it’s just over a year since you beat an incumbent running as a change candidate. What have you been able to change so far?
St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell: Many were told, in 1912, that the Titanic was unsinkable. Newspapers drove public opinion, and the world agreed: this ship would never sink.
Leading up to 2018, we were told McCulloch was unbeatable. And not just by political insiders, but by those who were desperate for change – and even several of my close friends.
One in particular – who will remain nameless – laughed at the prospect of running against a 30-year incumbent, telling me that “I was crazy to challenge him.”
I thought differently. Myself and a small but motivated group of supporters got to work – relentlessly sharing our message and making our case directly to voters. Over and over again, people who had never heard of me stepped up to support us when they understood our case for change. We saw how this support was building all over St. Louis County. We saw the enthusiasm in places that many candidates and campaigns historically ignore. That small group, which was already motivated, now began to believe. And on August 7, we saw that group had grown over 100,000 strong.
I think the biggest change is that there has actually been change. Let’s put this in perspective: This is ST. LOUIS we’re talking about, after all.
I think it’s hard to fathom how many people become invested in a political structure over the course of three decades. Typically, change occurs gradually, but in this case, a storm came out of nowhere and a sea change happened seemingly overnight. The Titanic sank. As a result, many who had made a good living and had been entrenched in that culture were now facing a vastly different, grassroots-powered landscape.
Power does not concede itself easily. We see the remnants of that power grasping to hold on: from many in the legal community, ancillary benefactors, the usual race-baiting political consultants, and unfortunately even some mainstream media.
I think the biggest change my election has produced is reminding people that they have a voice and that their vote matters. I remember an older gentleman approaching me at a church and saying: “Young man, you proved that my vote actually mattered.” The August 2018 election was about so much more than criminal justice reform. It was a demonstration of democracy doing exactly what it’s supposed to do: people uniting in the belief that change is possible and that they have the power to make that change.
When we’re talking about actual policy change inside the prosecutor’s office, just about every campaign promise we made can be illustrated by what we’re doing with our Diversion Program and our partners in the community.
We are working toward ending the criminalization of mental illness, addiction and poverty. When police bring cases to our office, we are screening those files and looking for people who need treatment, instead of jail. Specifically, we’re looking at low-level, non-violent offenses where the facts show that some combination of mental illness, addiction or poverty is likely the root cause of an individual being arrested.
Our diversion team is focused on the intersection of the safety of the community and the health of the individual. Is prosecuting that person going to increase public safety? If so, then that’s what we do; and this helps free up more resources in the office to prosecute the serious and violent crimes and protect victims.
Too often, though, we find that prosecuting people who struggle with addiction and poverty doesn’t make our communities safer. Prosecuting and jailing illness hardly ever results in curing illness; in fact, it’s likely to make that illness worse. This is 2019 – the public health research, the criminology research, all the data points to the overwhelming necessity of communities coming together to change the way law enforcement and public health are utilized in keeping our residents safe and healthy.
The policies and culture of this office have changed for sure, and that’s an ongoing process, but it’s the magnitude of what an entirely new coalition of voters accomplished that made the prosecution shifts possible. The people have seen what their power can accomplish. We are in the formative years of building a new St. Louis.
The St. Louis American: What and who have been resistant to positive change and what strategies do you have to overcome that resistance?
St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell: Well, unfortunately – and despite the groundswell the voters demonstrated across St. Louis County last year – the usual suspects continue to throw up resistance. We didn’t get here overnight. Those who have held power over the criminal justice system in St. Louis County had decades to entrench themselves, decades to perfect how they worked behind the scenes to keep the status quo in place. Now, it’s not going to take decades to dismantle that power structure – the Titanic sank pretty quickly – but it is going to take some time for that power structure to realize it cannot exercise the same control that it did for almost 30 years. We knew this going in, and we were prepared for it. I won’t say that there haven’t been surprises along the way, but the usual suspects are operating from an old playbook. The voters, very clearly, are operating from a new playbook.
Even the harshest resistance we’ve seen in the last eight months isn’t surprising, it’s unfortunate, but it’s understandable. The scope of what must change is vast. The structure believed itself to be impregnable. What we’re seeing now are the last gasps from individuals who got awfully cozy with the way things were. The resistance we see is coming from fear, fear of change and fear of the unknown. And I think you could say it’s a fear of the expansion and inclusiveness that we are building. I’m not in office because of entrenched power; I’m in office because of the people’s power.
Now, to speak specifically to your question, the previous administration still has loyal minions. Minions who may pretend to be advocates, minions who may be very skilled at screaming loudly on social media, minions who are convinced that if they just scream loudly enough they can get things to return to the way they were; but, unfortunately for them, that is just not the case anymore.
The old playbook says “attack, attack,” and their attacks are built on twisting truths into lies and feeding salacious stories to willing accomplices in the media. There are unfortunately, a few reporters and editors out there who are still operating from the old playbook. They happily lap up the packaged lies and present them as news to the people of St. Louis County. These media people are benefitting themselves by short bursts of interest in their “news” stories – it may be uncharitable of me, but we could also call it “clickbait.”
There are of course people in the public who seize on the salacious and predictably feed the negativity. We see that echoed through social media, and the junior-high-like gossip mill that feeds off causing pain, but it’s all part of the old playbook.
I will say this: myself, my team, the majority of my administration, we know that there is a new playbook and that it’s the path forward to the St. Louis region becoming one community, where everyone is treated fairly. That’s all people want. It doesn’t matter what part of the county you’re from. I’ve talked to so many people from all across this region, no matter what their backgrounds, everyone agrees we just want to be treated fairly and to know that that fairness extends to everyone.
We continue to put in place policies that create a level playing field and extend fairness to everyone who comes in contact with the criminal justice system in St. Louis County. We continue to fulfill the promises made during the campaign. We continue to remind ourselves that the minority of loyalists to the previous administration are operating from a place of fear, and we operate from a place of unity.
And it is in that unity that we find a greater power than fear. We can and we must do the work that the people demanded at the ballot box, we can and we must do the work of criminal justice reform, we can and must continue to expand the coalition of St. Louisans coming together to build a safer and healthier community for every one of us.