Sid Hastings/ AP

Ferguson Commission faces difficult task, with locals hungry for change

Sick of talk, residents interrupted the group’s opening session with cries for action

FERGUSON, Mo. — In a crowded gym at the Ferguson Community Center, the Rev. Starsky Wilson talked about how violence affected his child.

“My 9-year-old told me that every time he hears about Michael Brown, his stomach starts to hurt,” he said. “He does not know that that is a manifestation of trauma that he has gone through and our entire community has gone through.”

Creating a brighter future for his kids was one reason Wilson volunteered to co-chair the Ferguson Commission, a group of 16 leaders whose task is to evaluate the social and economic conditions that led to the death of Michael Brown, then propose solutions. The group’s report is due in September. Its first meeting was Monday.

Gov. Jay Nixon has not been a popular figure here in the months since Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Brown. Nixon’s initial response was panned for being too slow. He was criticized for the militarized police reaction to protests, for not appointing a special prosecutor to handle Brown’s case (a grand jury decided last week not to indict Wilson) and for calling in the National Guard. But he received wide praise for forming the commission.

The group is diverse, with nine black and seven white members, 10 men and six women, with a wide range of expertise. In Starsky and the Rev. Traci Blackmon, the panel has two black pastors who have been vocal supporters of the protests. It also includes St. Louis police Sgt. Kevin Ahlbrand and former Police Chief Dan Isom. The other co-chair is Rich McClure, a longtime St. Louis business leader. There are university professors, two lawyers and a social worker. The council’s youngest members, 20-year-old protester Rasheed Aldridge, who wore a “Demilitarize the police” T-shirt to the group’s swearing-in, and Teach for America executive Brittany Packnett, missed Monday’s session because they were at the White House meeting with President Barack Obama.

The marathon meeting, scheduled to last five hours, began in earnest with the commissioners introducing themselves and explaining their hopes.

“We aspire to a stronger, fairer region, for all,” McClure said. “I hope for concrete public policy actions.”

Click here for extensive coverage of the situation in Ferguson.

Clear themes emerged. The group didn’t want to be just another committee, producing a report for bureaucrats to bury in some forgotten filing cabinet. The goal was tangible action, visible change. People spoke of easy wins, simple reforms that could be enacted immediately, to show the public that this panel meant business. They said that the process should be open and inclusive, with ideas coming from the community. There was also a strong Christian component to the discourse, with several commissioners including Bible verses in their remarks.

Isom talked about exploring and improving the relationship between police and the community. “One thing I ask myself, being an African-American living in St. Louis and being a police officer for so long, is why do some people love the police and why do some people hate the police?” he said.

Blackmon was the only commissioner whose introduction received a round of applause. “I look forward to sitting in the discomfort that comes when we have real conversation about race,” she said. “Race, which I think is the basis of our economic disparities. Race that I think is the basis of our educational inequity. Race that I think is the basis of our health disparities … I am committed to sitting in the discomfort until real change comes.”

When residents arrived at the meeting, they were given two Post-it notes, a yellow one for their hopes and a pink one for their concerns. They stuck them to white posters on a wall.

“I hope we can come to an understanding of the real problems behind this mess,” one yellow Post-it read. “Mike Brown was wrong for stealing; Darren Wilson was wrong for being judge, jury, executioner and God.”

“I am concerned that the commission is not independent, that the commission is political cover for Gov. Nixon, that the commission will not talk to residents across the city, that the commission will not try to understand issues of discrimination that are systematic,” a pink sheet read.

Keypads were distributed so attendees could take a long survey, which asked them more questions about their demographics than about their desired reforms. As the meeting dragged into its fourth hour, the commission spent 45 minutes discussing a set of guiding principles, such as “equity and fairness” and “diversity and inclusion.” They voted for their favorites by putting green stickers on a wall, wrote their definitions of the words on worksheets, then shared them aloud.

Residents grew restless. Throughout the months since Brown’s death, they have voiced anger at the chasm between what leaders say and what they do. For instance, on the night the grand jury’s decision was announced, Nixon promised to protect both businesses and the rights of protesters. A few hours later, police arrested people for failure to disperse but stood by idly while buildings burned. Now this commission that said it wouldn’t act like a commission seemed to be acting a lot like a commission. The first anniversary of Brown’s death would come before the group’s report.

“How is this process going to fix the problem?” a woman wondered aloud.

Eventually, the audience had enough. A grandmother stood up and interrupted the session, asking when it would be her turn to talk. Several others echoed the call. A man in the front row burst into a loud rant.

“This is a bunch of bullcrap, and it’s always been a bunch of bullcrap,” he said, “because the politicians that are in there haven’t even come out and spoken to the citizens.”

A few rows back, Dell Taylor started in too.

“We don’t expect you all to come up with a miracle. That’s why we’re here, to support you. But don’t waste our time with the same innuendo and the same rhetoric. We don’t want to hear it,” she said, crying. “Forget all them special words! We hurting! You killed our babies! You disrespected us as people! We tired! Y’all killing our babies! The justice system is a mockery!”

Again and again, Wilson attempted to regain control, only to be shouted down. After about 30 minutes of disorder, he gave up, and the commissioners went out into the crowd. Wilson sat down with a group of young men and talked out their differences. Blackmon gave Taylor a shoulder to cry on. Eventually, the meeting came back to order. The guiding principle discussion was scrapped so residents could speak, forming an orderly line down the center aisle.

Unlike the commissioners, who spoke about wanting concrete reforms but offered few, residents had plenty of specific ideas. A former police officer and current school board member suggested ways to improve public schools. A college professor proposed combining some of St. Louis County’s 90 municipalities, small jurisdictions often criticized for using their cops and courts to harass poor African-Americans.

Ferguson resident Orlando Travis spoke about his run-ins with police, who he said pull him over for no reason and rough him up. “The interaction with police and the general public is terrible,” he said. “It hurts to know that my tax dollars are going into you treating me like I’m just meat.”

At 6 p.m., an hour after the meeting was scheduled to end, there were still a dozen or so people in line to speak.

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