Community leaders gather to plead for Ferguson protestor Joshua Williams’ release from prison

State Rep. Bruce Franks Jr. spoke at a press conference in front of the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton on August 3 to urge Gov. Parsons to grant clemency for Ferguson protester Joshua Williams, who has served three years in prison on an eight-year sentence. Photo by Rebecca Rivas

Joshua Williams was 19 when he was arrested for lighting a trash can on fire, along with stealing a pack of gum and a bag of chips from a QuikTrip in Berkeley during the Ferguson unrest. He was sentenced to eight years, and he has already served three.

He was one of the youngest activists protesting the police shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in 2014. Williams did not burn down the QuikTrip in Ferguson on August 11, 2014, as some have mistakenly claimed. The incident in Berkeley happened months later after a separate police shooting of another black teenager, Antonio Martin.

On Friday, August 3, about 30 community leaders and protestors gathered together at the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton to ask Governor Mike Parson to pardon Williams and grant him clemency.

“We should be treating kids as kids,” said Mustafa Abdullah, lead organizer for ACLU of Missouri.  “Josh is a young man who should have been headed to college, not to prison. As a part of our Smart Justice campaign, we are calling for smarter sentencing reforms in Missouri.”

Sgt. Heather Taylor, president of the Ethical Society of Police, said that the judge was trying to make an example out of Williams.

“Black and brown people are always the examples,” Taylor said. “It’s ridiculous. When the judge decided to make him the example, he did what the criminal justice system has always done – send people with minimal criminal history to prison.”

Taylor said that a former president of a police association received a lighter sentence for having child porn than Williams did.

“No one was hurt,” Taylor said. “It was a bag of chips. That’s what we’re talking about.”

Williams’ sense of humor and willingness to confront authorities made him stand out during the protests, many said. He yelled at officials at public meetings and stood face-to-face with heavily armed police during the unrest. He marched alongside the philosopher Cornel West and spoke at a rally in Washington, D.C., that the Rev. Al Sharpton organized.

Then, just before Christmas 2014 and a few months after Brown’s death, a cop fatally shot a teenager whom the officer said pulled a gun on him outside of a gas station in Berkeley, a town near Ferguson. Protests erupted at the scene and there were clashes with police officers. People looted a nearby QuikTrip convenience store, and video footage showed Williams (wearing a hoodie he frequently wore at protests and actions) attempting to light a fire near the building’s entrance. St. Louis County police arrested him on December 26, 2014. His bond amount was set at $30,000.

Many activists were in court to support Williams, as he pleaded guilty on December 10, 2015, to first-degree arson, second-degree burglary and a misdemeanor for stealing. His attorney told the judge Williams had never been in any major trouble before and that the medical evaluation had labeled his then-teenage client as “child-like.”

Yet Williams was sentenced to eight years in prison. That’s longer than other Missourians who committed similar crimes, including a 28-year-old man who started a fire that caused $1 million damage at the University of Missouri and Stephens College, who was sentenced to six and a half years.

State Rep. Bruce Franks Jr., who is also a frontline Ferguson protestor, said that Josh made a mistake, but his sentence was excessive. And he has served enough time in a maximum security prison.

Franks and others came together to file for Williams’ clemency last year, under the former governor’s administration. But now they have to start over under new Governor Mike Parson.

“I’m fairly optimistic about this new governor,” Franks said. “At the state Legislature, we are focusing on criminal justice reform, and making sure folks that shouldn’t be in jail don’t stay in jail. We are at the point where it’s time to come to the table and talk about what we need to do.”

Mariah Stewart contributed to this report.

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What about the justice that the stakeholders and long standing citizens of that community deserve? How about those who did set fires and stole and was never apprehended should they turn themselves in so fair justice can be served?

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