Wednesday, October 24, 2018

When We Dream Together

In 2011, I had this ambitious idea to create an internet presence where anyone could access government programs, nonprofit resources and other information necessary to create healthier, self-sustaining, revitalized communities. The website was called “When We Dream Together (WWDT)” and was beautifully designed by local entrepreneur, Syl Peeples Wilson. Turns out, it was a huge, costly failure…oops, I mean “challenge.” I underestimated the costs involved with promoting, driving people to the site, getting sponsors and maintaining such a grand data-driven endeavor.

A year later, 2012, I started the Sweet Potato Project (SPP) which has its own set of challenges and drifted away from WWDT. Yet, as I work to expand SPP into the arena of land-ownership (particularly involving young people) the idea that we need to work together is more important than ever. There are so many positive efforts in our region  regarding home and land ownership, growing and selling food, neighborhood reclamation and revitalization and small business development, especially in North St. Louis. There are grassroots nonprofits engaged with meager resources and limited exposure.

It’s not prudent to relaunch the website at this time but I’d like to invite you to join me in posting stories, examples and ideas of collaborative, self-sustaining revitalization efforts on WWDT’s Facebook page. The goal is to generate excitement and collaboration around the possibilities inherent “When We Dream Together. 

Looking forward to your input and engagement. – Sylvester Brown, Jr.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Local Black Politicians and the Sweet Promise of Self-Assertive Community Revitalization

“If the Negro is to be free, he must move down into the inner-resources of his own soul and sign with a pen and ink of self-assertive manhood his own Emancipation Proclamation!” 
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King’s words are still relevant for me, especially in the landscape of local black politics. Take for example, some ideas from a couple black political rivals about combating disproportionate crime in North St. Louis. One spoke of bringing the national guard to troubled North side areas. The other, wants to borrow Boston’s cease fire initiative that uses social services and additional law enforcement to target those believed most likely to commit crimes.  
Have we learned nothing from Mike Brown’s death or its tragic aftermath? Unleashing a militarized presence on poor, black people will only exacerbate already simmering tensions. St. Louis is not Boston or Nashville or Chicago. We have a long, unique and continued history of segregation, abandoning, disenfranchising, targeting and profiting off the suffering of black people and black communities. These quick-fix fantasies are little more than Band-Aids for a much larger, deeply metastasized cancer in our region.  

St. Louis is not Boston or Nashville or Chicago. We have a long, unique and continued history of segregation, abandoning, disenfranchising, targeting and profiting off the suffering of black people and black communities.

St. Louis’ long-ignored, underdeveloped black neighborhoods will never be able to overcome senseless death, high crime, poverty or joblessness until African American politicians use their platforms and resources to inspire and empower citizens within those communities. To paraphrase King, we must reach down into our collective, self-assertive manhood/womanhood and commit to the long, arduous process of empowering people to help themselves build safe, self-sustaining neighborhoods. Militarized forces nor some outside grandiose idea will accomplish this task.
Politicians with do-for-self-with-government-help approaches inspire me. Where are the ones who can sidestep personal egos and motivate an entire region to invest-not in more police or more wealthy neighborhoods-but in the potential that’s already out there in the streets doing the best they can with meager resources or no public megaphone to garner needed resources and support?    
This is why Ald. John C. Muhammad’s (D-21st) $1 housing resolution excites me. It has the potential to spark a self-help community restoration movement. It’s something every black and “progressive” elected official should be discussing, tweaking or supporting in some way, shape or form.
Now, I must admit that my interest is personal. Putting hundreds of parcels of vacant land and empty buildings in the hands of vested city residents-especially, young vested city residents-is a solid step toward reclaiming neighborhoods. With vision, public motivation and resources, it could lead to more home and land-ownership, small businesses and a self-sustaining economic engine in North St. Louis.
Standing alone, however, with no resources to rehab dilapidated buildings, turn vacant land into food-producing lots or create “business zones” in high-traffic Northside areas, the resolution has limited power and slim chances of enacting holistic, wide-spread community change.


It’s by no means the first time such an effort has been launched in the city. However, as Michael R. Allen illustrates in a recent, illuminating piece titled “The return of One Dollar Housing,” it seems to be the first time such an effort hasn’t been endorsed by powerful, local black politicians. 
Allen lists a bevy of black politicians, starting in the mid-1980s, like State Representative Louis Ford, State Senator J.B. “Jet” Banks, Cong. William L. Clay Sr., Comptroller Virvus Jones and Ald. Freeman Bosley Sr. who used their offices to kick off, support or defend “homesteading” efforts in the city. The article shows how federal dollars and nonprofits, like the anti-poverty group ACORN, offered more than a million dollars in rehabilitation funds. It also details the history of short-sighted, selfish push-back from white politicians and business leaders who were doggedly determined to reserve vacant land for future potential developers.   
I know, many older folks like me wax poetic about “the good ole days.” Today, however, local black politics seem more fractured, more disjointed and un-unified.  A prime example was last year’s mayoral race when four black candidates vying for the same seat, ensured the narrow victory of the lone, well-financed white candidate, former Alderwoman, Lyda Krewson (D-28th).
It seems that personal vacuum politics is the mantra among our elected black officials. I see little-to-no collusion on a widespread, collective agenda to empower black St. Louis. Instead of rebuilding St. Louis’ long-ago dismantled black political machine, it seems that some politicos are intent on disrupting or destroying each other’s careers. This while millions of dollars and tax perks are consistently shifted downtown, midtown and to other already stable, majority white wards, and into the pockets of eager white, wealthy developers.
What happened? When will local black politicians get their communal act together? For these answers and more, I think we need to take a historical look at the genesis that has placed the black body politic in such a chaotic, impotent and self-destructive place.


Elements of this discord has probably always been a part of the city’s black political machine. Still, it seems there was much more unison and efforts to make collective gains from the late 1960s up until St. Louis elected its first black mayor, Freeman Bosley. Jr., in 1993.     
The very real fear of black politicians controlling what many consider the top three branches of local government-Mayor, Comptroller and Board President-white political and downtown power-brokers panicked. They launched a well-financed and long-term campaign to clean house. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch initiated a series of unprecedented and racially-tinged articles aimed at the mayor, his father, Ald. Freeman Bosley Sr. (D-3rd), Comptroller Virvus Jones and the vocal but popular Ald. Sharon Tyus (D-20th). In the midst of all this planned confusion, Ald. Velma Bailey (D-19th) lost her 1995 bid for aldermanic president, thanks to Mayor Bosley's endorsement of then Ald. Francis G. Slay (D-23rd).
As if to ensure blacks would never again wield the kind of power it had in the mid-1990s, Slay, with the generous, one-sided coverage of the Post-Dispatch, set out to completely disrupt the city’s black power base. 
In 2001, the newly-elected mayor hatched a clandestine redistricting plan specifically designed to throw his nemesis, Tyus, out of office. In doing so, he also dismantled the largest vote-producing ward in North St. Louis.
Ironically, the black political machine which came to power in the mid-6os under the leadership of Cong. Clay Sr., Missouri’s first black elected Congressman, started to crumble around the same time Bosley was elected.
After Slay’s victory in 2001, divisions were further seeded. Black politicians and business leaders publicly sparred as some sided with Slay’s attempts to increase his authority over the city’s police and fire departments, public schools and its board.  His failed “school reform” efforts and the firing of Sherman George, the city’s first black fire chief over the issue of racially-biased testing, left a long and damning trail of bitterness among black voters and reinforced patterns of racially-polarized voting throughout the city.   

Ironically, the black political machine which came to power under Cong. Clay Sr., started to crumble around the same time Mayor Bosley was elected.

The controversial discussion of ward reduction today began under the Slay Administration. Even though voters soundly rejected a 2004 plan backed by the mayor and some of St. Louis' most influential firms to reduce the number of city aldermen, the issue didn’t die.
“Reduce & Reform STL” a 2012 ballot initiative (Proposition R) backed by Slay and orchestrated by Krewson and Ald. Steve Conway (D-8th) was put forth to reduce the number of city wards from 28-to-14. The effort was successful. Roughly 61 percent of voters chose to cut the number of aldermen in half following the 2020 census.


As someone who’s been writing about local politics for some 30 years, I recognize my tendency to romanticize a long-gone era of black politics. I also know that this is a different time and place where “race” doesn’t necessarily dictate local political competitions. But let us not be naive. The defining line of what areas get money and tax breaks and what areas are ignored, is still very much race-based. In this old, outdated political environment, I can’t squelch the deep-seated desire to see a shared agenda that unifies black politicians and our richly diverse voting base.
Ald. Muhammad’s $1 housing plan seems to have such potential. The beauty of his resolution is that there are already grassroots activities in place and in need of resources that will make his idea less of a pipe dream and more of a city-wide, empowering movement.
With the goal of neighborhood stabilization through affordable home and land-ownership at its core, everything becomes more do-able. Imagine government funding aimed-not just at stable areas like the Central Corridor but for redevelopment along MLK Blvd. This, after all, is the street Beloved Streets of America wants to revitalize from Wellston to East St. Louis and beyond. It’s where Ald. Jeffrey Boyd has installed new street lights to increase public safety. It’s also where Friendly Temple Church has already started the work of community development.
With a collective agenda, ordinary city residents can play powerful, empowering roles in revitalizing and controlling their own neighborhoods. Vested individuals can live in new houses being built on Page Blvd. by Better Family Life, Inc. The Sweet Potato Project and other food-related nonprofits, with city resources, can help low-income residents and millennials turn vacant land into robust, profitable lots of food-production.
Former art gallery-owner Robert Powell’s desire to establish an African-American Arts District under St. Louis’ Zoo-Museum District, which oversees the distribution of $76 million in tax revenue, can become a tax-funded arts-related Shangri-La.. The Urban League can expand its efforts to train minority workers. With a serious plan, black St. Louisans can create their own wealth and vitality in their own neighborhoods, through perhaps demolition, rehab work or as entrepreneurs running small businesses along the newly revitalized MLK strip.
In other words, politicians don’t have to further militarize police or go outside the city for innovative ideas to combat poverty and crime. They can simply turn to their constituents or those already working to reclaim North St. Louis and ask, “what can we do to help you help yourself?”

Local politicians can simply turn to their constituents or those already working to reclaim North St. Louis and ask, “what can we do to help you help yourself?”

Call me an ancient romantic but I’d love to see today’s high-profile politicos like Tishaura Jones, Lewis Reed, Jamillah Nasheed, Bruce Franks, Brandon Bosley and others borrow a page from yesteryear and, for once, act in unison on at least one major, magnetic, engaging issue.
Yes, the “past” may be past, but there are lessons to be learned and attitudes that should be reevaluated, revised and re-instituted. Dr. King is gone, too, but his declaration for “self-assertive manhood” still holds the sweet promise of community-generated possibilities.


Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a journalist, former Post-Dispatch Metro Columnist and founder of the Sweet Potato Project, an agricultural/entrepreneurial program for urban youth. His upcoming book, "When We Listen" will be available soon.   

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Seizing the Moment: Empowerment Through Land-Ownership

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s series on our city’s vacant property problem has me in a Déjà vu state. 

Apparently, Mayor Lyda Krewson and other city leaders are searching for effective ways to rid the city of its 25,000, according to the PD, abandoned properties and vacant lots.  For me, I see a huge opportunity to transform some of our long-ignored North St. Louis neighborhoods. Yet, the problem reminds me of another time when lack of vision and leadership led to a blown opportunity to advance a large-scale agenda for economic and social empowerment. The following (condensed and edited) excerpt from my soon-to-be published book, “When We Listen,” speaks to my fears and outlines the possibilities I anticipate.


Chapter Nine: When they are Empowered

The year was 2009. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and I had parted ways and I was working as a consultant and researcher with SmileyBooks, owned by TV commentator, Tavis Smiley. Barack Obama was into his first term as president. At the time, I was in the company of or in close observation of some of the top black thinkers in America. I was working with Smiley when he and the Rev. Al Sharpton embarked on a bitter fued revolving around the issue of Obama creating and publicly promoting a “black agenda” …or not.
The topic took on a more public focus the following year during a 2010 Chicago summit organized by Smiley. Guest panelists included, Dr. Cornel West, Minister Louis Farrakhan, economist Julianne Malveaux, Rev. Jessie Jackson Sr., Angela Glover Blackwell, director of PolicyLink, scholars and writers Ron Walters, Michael Eric Dyson and Tom Burrell, whom I had helped on his new book, “Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority.
I wrote about this at the time on my blog. More time was spent by this intellectual group calling for an Obama-led black agenda than was dedicated to them defining and implementing one of their own. This was unfortunate considering the influence and following these individuals possess. Some, like Smiley, had talked about a “black agenda” for years. I couldn’t understand why they felt the need to bash Obama for not uttering the words instead of creating and delivering it to the Obama Administration, then promoting it among their legions of followers.
The impotence of the black leaders back then impacted me greatly. It was part of the reason, two years later, that I started the Sweet Potato Project. I felt a need to do something that was in line with Obama’s federal programs, such as the Healthy Food Financing initiative. Also, I was searching for something that would lead to self-sufficient black neighborhoods.
De-industrialization has had a devastating impact on urban cities, including St. Louis. The aftereffect of labor-intensive, manufacturing jobs sent overseas and technological inventions that require less manual labor has left many metropolitan areas, especially black areas, broken with our kids devoid of real-life opportunities for do-for-self success.
Industry may have fled many urban areas but there’s one reliable, vibrant, needed, yet unexplored, area for serious community-wide wealth-building: Land ownership and collective food growing and production. After all, everybody eats. Why not build food systems geared toward creating jobs and small businesses and community revitalization in North St. Louis?  
After some seven years of operating SPP, I’m convinced we’re on to something powerful. However, I also realize that what I imagine will never come to fruition until we, as a people, adopt an agenda that involves, engages and challenges our young people to step up, reclaim communities and become stewards of their own neighborhoods.
To make this a reality, we must go back to move forward.


“Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.” - Malcolm X, 1963

When Malcolm X addressed the necessity of land-ownership, he was simply echoing a call articulated by other black leaders since the demise of slavery. In fact, as the Civil War was coming to an end, a group of black ministers were instrumental in crafting and implementing what became known as the “40 Acres and a Mule” doctrine.
What Dr. Henry Louis Gates described as the “first systematic attempt to provide a form of reparations,” was the result of meetings initiated by Union General William T. Sherman, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and 20 black religious leaders from Savannah, Ga. 

When asked, the chosen leader of the group of mostly Baptist and Methodist ministers, Rev. Garrison Frazier, answered Sherman and Stanton’s question resolutely:
“The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor … and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare … We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.”
Although the “mule” part of the proclamation wasn’t added until later, Sherman’s “Special Field Order No. 15,” the land redistribution plan, was officially adopted by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 16, 1865. By June of that year, some 40,000 freed blacks had settled on 400,000 acres of land. Unfortunately, Lincoln’s successor. Andrew Johnson, a staunch southern sympathizer, overturned Sherman’s order and the land along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts was returned to the original owners, aka white southerners.
Still, the mandate for land-ownership remained a priority among prominent black leaders such as Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (U.N.I.A.), Scholar, WEB Dubois, Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam (NOI) and many others. They all believed that land ownership coupled with entrepreneurism were critical components to community development and the overall self-reliance of their race. 

Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew the importance of land as a valuable tool for self-sufficiency. While promoting his “Poor People's” campaign in the deep South in 1968, King charged the United States with parceling out “free” land to whites while ignoring blacks:
 “At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress, our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that it was willing to undergird its White peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they built land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms. Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm and they are the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
Two years before King launched the Poor People’s Campaign in 1967, he promoted legislation that would put the onus of control in the hands of African Americans. In an interview with Playboy Magazine in 1965, King outlined a preferential, $50 billion-dollar federal program that would specifically benefit “the Negro” and “disadvantaged of all races.”
King’s proposal included a massive public works project, investment in disadvantaged areas, job training efforts and subsidies to spur reasonable home and small business lending. Likening the plan to the G.I. Bill of Rights, King argued that the policy-based initiative, over 10 years, would lead to “a spectacular decline in school dropouts, family breakups, crime rates, illegitimacy, swollen relief rolls, rioting and other social evils.”

More than 50 years ago, Dr. King predicted that empowering poor people would be the remedy for many of the ills our children face today such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, crime and “other social evils.” That directive still has merit today.
The government’s land-reallocation plan may have failed some 150 years ago, but it has potential in our modern times.  Educational and civic institutions, religious and political leaders and wealthy benefactors should un-apologetically revisit the mandates of Garvey, Muhammad, King. Malcolm X and others. Adopting a self-sufficiency agenda doesn’t necessarily have to happen on a federal level. In outlining her “Plan to Reduce Vacant Lots and Buildings,” Mayor Lyda Krewson noted that the City of St. Louis sits on 13,200 privately-owned vacant properties, nearly 11,500 city-owned parcels with 3,400 vacant buildings, and 8,100 vacant lots. The data-heavy site provides valuable government resources, current programs and partners related to property and land reutilization.
As of this writing, Ald. John C. Muhammad’s “$1 Housing Program” had passed the Board of Aldermen's Public Safety Committee. Another bill he sponsored in 2017 would have designated urban areas as “agricultural zones," which would have qualified them for local, state and federal funds. The bill didn't pass but needs revisiting. Full passage and implementation of these bills would not only benefit poor neighborhoods they perfectly complement Mayor Krewson’s plan to reduce vacant properties in the city.

-End of Book Excerpt-

Educational and civic institutions, religious and political leaders and wealthy benefactors should unapologetically revisit the mandates of Garvey, Muhammad, King. Malcolm X and others. 

Without a serious agenda that involves and engages low-income people and provide funding to rehab properties or revitalize land for food growth, Muhammad’s bill could wind up being just another boon for wealthy developers itching to capitalize off cheap, North St. Louis land. A revolutionary, people-oriented agenda aimed at using land to empower millennials and low-income residents is a priority...right now!
North St. Louis didn’t become overpopulated with crumbling buildings and vacant properties by accident. The city’s "crisis" was man-made. More than 40 years ago, city leaders, backed by willing politicians, held a moratorium on investing, building or cleaning up North St. Louis. Mayor Francis Slay cherry-picked Paul McKee’s outlandish redevelopment plan. His administration turned a blind eye as the developer secretly bought slum properties and let them further deteriorate the neighborhood. The Slay administration gifted McKee with city money that paved the way for additional state and federal funds. 
All this was done because McKee’s project held the potential of attracting middle-to-upper-class homeowners to the downtown area. With the new government mapping agency being built near the old Pruitt-Igoe site, it’s really no surprise the city is pushing the idea of re-utilizing vacant city land.       
There’s “a plan” afoot alright but I’m concerned it’s not one aimed at helping the people who’ve been surrounded by vacant properties for decades. Either way, black leaders should view the city’s crisis as an opportunity to flip the region’s stale and elitist script. Instead of gifting land, tax dollars and special perks exclusively to wealthy developers, create a new agenda. Hell, how about politicians draft a new "Homestead Bill," designed to instigate a vested population in North St. Louis. In brief, surely, there are enough creative minds to initiate a replicable template for community empowerment through land and home-ownership in designated areas of North St. Louis.

Back in my days with Smiley, I realized that the black leaders I admired weren’t prepared (or interested) in leading a “do-for-self, with government help” agenda. That would have meant publicly articulating the plan and its possible benefits. All the powerful players would have to have been corralled to speak from one playbook. It would have meant creating powerful, repetitive narrative as persuasive as “We shall Overcome!”
It would have meant UNITY, the collective Achilles Heel that doomed the agendas of Garvey, DuBois, Malcolm, Martin and so many other black visionaries.      
Perhaps I’m just an old, naive dreamer. But the young students of the Sweet Potato Project have convinced me that they are up for a bold community challenge. Surely, they are but a mere reflection of thousands of young people in our region.
What if we answered their call and need for equity with a do-for-self agenda and the necessary resources to implement their own version of self-reliance in their own neighborhood?
Here’s hoping my Déjà vu moment results in a different outcome. Maybe we can do locally what black leaders failed to do nationally during Obama’s presidency. Maybe, just maybe, Black St. Louis can pave a powerful path toward real empowerment.

Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a journalist, former Post-Dispatch Metro Columnist and founder of the Sweet Potato Project, an agricultural/entrepreneurial program for urban youth. His upcoming book, "When We Listen" will be available soon.   

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Bob McCulloch’s Defeat: When Justice Rolls down like a Mighty Stream

Four years ago, a good friend, mused about the death of Mike Brown and the protests aimed at his killer, Ferguson police officer, Darren Wilson.

“Maybe Mike died for a reason,’ she told me. “Maybe there’s a bigger meaning to all of this.”

At the time, seething from the mounting injustice in the so-called investigation of the officer, I didn’t want to hear her. Reason was blocked by images of an over aggressive, militarized police force gassing, tasing and brutalizing protesters. As time passed, my journalistic mind wouldn’t allow me to ignore St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s bodacious efforts to ignore evidence and influence the grand jury impaneled to indict Wilson.


I couldn’t overlook the fact that Wilson was never ordered to write a police report.  His story seemed incredulous at best. Supposedly, after ordering Mike Brown and a friend to get off the street, Brown became irate and tussled with Wilson while he sat in his police car. Wilson said Brown reached for his gun, which discharged. Mike, who was shot in the hand, took off running. Mike, who was wounded, ran more than 100 feet away from Wilson. Apparently, Mike decided the hand wound was insignificant, so he stopped, turned around and ran into more blazing, hot bullets from Wilson’s gun.

I cry B.S.! The only rational explanation for the shooting was that Mike had the audacity to disregard Wilson’s orders, tussle with him and take off running. What was more than obvious to me, was that Wilson, probably angry and insulted, decided to exact a bit of street justice in the heat of the moment.

Days after the shooting, police released a video of Mike Brown allegedly assaulting a neighborhood liquor store owner and “stealing” a pack of Cigarillos. The video was offered to the public as evidence of Mike’s violent behavior.

Turns out, it was doctored. Police left out a portion of the video that seemed to indicate Mike’s attempt to trade a bag of marijuana for the cigarillos. Jason Pollock, director of "Stranger Fruit," an independent film that chronicled the shooting and case against Wilson, said the edited film was critical in defining Brown’s guilt. Had the footage been released in its entirety, Pollock told CNN, “it would've altered the narrative that Brown was shot after robbing the store.” Instead, Pollock continued, investigators lied “to make Mike look bad, so they put out half a video to destroy his character in his death."

McCulloch’s father, a K-9 police officer, was killed by black men at the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Complex in the 1960s. Several of his relatives has worked for the St. Louis police department. McCulloch, throughout his 27-years in public office, has never prosecuted an officer-involved shooting to the point of an actual indictment. Because of his loyalty to police and his own personal experience, a special prosecutor should have been assigned to the incendiary, highly controversial case. Instead, McCulloch decided to go the grand jury route, which critics say was intentionally designed to exonerate Wilson. 

McCulloch once told reporters, “Ever since I saw my father pull on that blue uniform and go to work . . . I know that the true police officers always have been and always will be the heroes of this nation.” In an interview with St. Louis Magazine one year after Mike’s death, McCulloch asserted “there’s nothing wrong with bias. It just depends on how it manifests itself.” 

Well, his bias manifested greatly in the Darren Wilson case.   

Somehow, the witnesses, including a group of white contractors who said Brown had surrendered and had his hands in the air as Wilson emptied his gun into him, were deemed suspect or unreliable. Somehow, Wilson and his attorney were allowed the unprecedented opportunity to listen to all the grand jury witness’s testimony before offering his version of events. McCulloch failed to get an indictment against Wilson and some voters never forgot or forgave him.

Call it poetic justice, but this week, four years, almost to the day of Mike Brown’s death, voters sent Bob McCulloch packing. A virtual unknown, under-funded, black candidate, Wesley Bell, a Ferguson City Council member, beat McCulloch with nearly 57 percent of the vote. Because there’s no Republican challenger, Bell presumably has a lock on the office.

The election, to me, serves as a sweet referendum on injustice. It’s a sign that perseverance, tenacity and focus can pay off in the long run. It’s an affirmation to the hundreds of protesters who were maligned, mistreated, jailed and brutalized for standing on the side of justice. St. Louis, which garnered the world’s attention after Mike’s death, has once again offered a template for redressing systematic injustice.

Bell’s campaign promises include criminal justice reform and fundamentally changing “the culture" of the prosecutor's office. posted an article detailing how prosecutors are the driving force behind mass incarcerations. Prosecutors, who are enormously powerful in our criminal justice system, are given huge discretion as to who gets prosecuted, or not, and when grand juries should be used for indictments. Since more than 90 percent of criminal convictions are resolved through plea agreements, the article asserts, “prosecutors and defendants — not judges and juries — have almost all the say in the great majority of cases that result in incarceration or some other punishment.

The “ByeBob” hashtag floating around the Twitter-Verse lately has much bigger implications than just St. Louis.  Despite the pro-cop, no-matter-what-they-do, “Blue Lives Matters” rhetoric exploited mostly by the conservative crowd, McCulloch’s defeat indicates that all kinds of people-not just “Black Lives Matter” protesters and black people-are fed up with systematic injustices. From their graves, Travon Martin, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown and so many others whose killers were either exonerated by the criminal justice system or were brutally slain by irresponsible police officers, can still impact elections in this country.

I find myself reflecting on my friend's observation about the meaning of Mike Brown's death. Perhaps, in retrospect, she was right. Mike's death still has meaning even four years after he left us. 

Wesley Bell’s victory is a sign that giants can be toppled, wrongs can be righted and justice-as Dr. Martin Luther King so eloquently stated-“can roll down “like water and “righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

From Protest to Progress. Where will the BP Gas Mart Protest Lead?

Photo by Richard Reilly
      As protest go, no one can really predict what incident will kick off a series of demonstrations or what the end results may be. This thought occurred to me last week when I attended a protest at the BP Gas Mart at the intersections of Goodfellow and Delmar.

Earlier that day, two BP employees, Ahmed Qandeel, 19, and Jehad Motan, 32, were taken into custody and charged with assault. A bystander recorded the two men kicking a female customer. The video shows the workers threatening the woman:

“I’m going to put my feet in your a-s!” one shouts, just moments before kicking the woman to the ground. “You gotta go,” he continued, “You gotta go!”

Photo by Richard Reilly

The patron, Kelli Adams said the incident ensued after she tried to purchase lottery tickets at the store and was turned away. The fact that Ms. Adams may have had drug or mental health issues was a side note to people who showed up to speak for her humanity. Regardless of the details, the video went viral and drew dozens of people to the business to collectively voice their disapproval of the employees’ actions.

Assault victim, Kelli Adams 

         The genesis of the outrage stemmed from two grown men assaulting a woman. But the comments I heard ranged from how Middle-Easterners, who own a plethora of gas stations in black neighborhoods, disrespect their customers to the lack of opportunity to own and operate our own businesses. 
As I listened and talked to people at the station, I wondered where this might all lead? 

State Rep. Bruce Franks Jr., who attended one of the protests told reporters: “We saw a video where a young lady got kicked by the store owner,” Franks said. “The [workers] walked away, walked back up, and kicked her. That ain’t happening, so folks are talking about taking their community back.”

Photo by Richard Reilly
State Rep. Bruce Franks: 
"...folks are talking about taking their community back.”

What does “take our community back” really mean? And how can this incident amplify and/or move that message forward? Is it possible to parlay an economic negative into a long-term positive without alienating those who don’t live in but live off the black dollars?

In St. Louis, we have a long, proud history of mass resistance that predates the “Black Lives Matters” movement in 2014 after the police shooting of Mike Brown. Other than the fact that St. Louis created a template for mass resistance to police shootings, the end results of that tragedy are still in the making. Still, in reflection, tangible outcomes from local demonstrations are revealed.

In the summer of 1930, a black physician, Dr. Bernice A. Yancey, was electrocuted while using a defective X-ray machine at the horrendous, unsanitary City Hospital No. 2. That incident served as a rallying cry to pressure city leaders to address the health needs of its black residents. The protests eventually led to the building of a new, $3-million-dollar, state-of-the-art, 728-bed black medical facility, Homer G. Phillips Hospital in 1937.

Activists in 1963 launched daily protests aimed at Jefferson Bank & Trust Company’s discriminatory hiring practices. This led to better jobs for blacks and ushered in a new era of black political leadership that including Con. William L. Clay and Missouri legislators, Raymond Howard and Louis Ford.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, ACTION (Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes) led by Percy Green, launched sometimes aggressive protests to force major, local employers such as McDonnell Aircraft Company, Southwestern Bell, Laclede Gas and Union Electric to hire African Americans workers for higher-wage jobs. The fact that I was hired at Laclede Gas in 1977 was a direct result of ACTION’s efforts to persuade the company to hire minorities for 40 percent of its new job openings at the time.

If St. Louis history is any indication, the BP situation can have the potential to address larger issues in our region.

“For years, we’ve talked about economic injustice in our own community,” the Rev. Darryl Gray told me. “We’ve talked about the lack of black businesses and we continue to talk about black unemployment. But we don’t talk about is our own ability to employ our own.”

Photo by Richard Rielly
Rev. Darryl Gray: “We’ve talked about the lack of black businesses and we continue to talk about black unemployment. But we don’t talk about is our own ability to employ our own.”

Gray’s comments about economic injustice was echoed by many in the crowd. Their words, however, were underscored with direct action. They used their cars to block access to the gas pumps. A few protesters positioned themselves at the front doors to dissuade any potential customers from making purchases. They made an economic statement, but Gray calls for a larger conversation:

“Ninety-nine percent of this businesses’ money comes from black patrons. So, we’re saying, ‘we’re going to withdraw our enthusiasm, our finances from this business today and force a conversation’ and not just between these business owners but us and politicians and us and the community.”

I was struck by the “us” part of Gray’s assertion. As he said earlier, we’ve been talking about “economic injustice” in the black community for years. What will it take to move “us” from talk to action? Again, I wonder if effective sustainable economic can change come out of the BP conflict.

There was a Muslim gentleman, who served as a liaison of sorts at the demonstration. I later learned his name. Faizan Syed serves on the Council of Islamic Religion and is a founding member of the StLouis Metropolitan Council of Imams. Among heated questions and accusations, Syed calmly explained why he was trying to get the BP owners to come out and make a public apology, which they eventually did.

Representatives of the BP gas mart make public apology
Photo by Richard Reilly

“Their livelihood comes from all of you. You’re their customers. You’re the people who live in this neighborhood.” Syed explained adding, “Unfortunately, the owners don’t build relationships with the community. Some look at the community with suspension and that’s a cultural thing that needs to change.

“If that can come out of this situation…if the other gas station owners can see what happened here, if they can train themselves and their employees…they’ve never learned how to build community relationships.” 

Faizan Syed, photo by Bill Monroe
 “Their livelihood comes from all of you. You’re their customers. You’re the people who live in this neighborhood.” - Faizan Syed

Somewhere in between Rev. Gray’s comments about building black businesses and Syed’s concerns, I believe, there is the starting point for fruitful dialogue. The demonstrations have ended for the most part, and it seems it’s business as usual at the BP gas mart.  It would be a shame if the window of dialogue has closed without further discussion and action.

I believe, we must cautiously approach the topic of immigrants or so called “foreigners” doing business in black communities. In today’s highly toxic, xenophobic political environment, this issue can be easily exploited to drive a deeper wedge between blacks and Muslims.  

Photo by Richard Reilly 

America has proven fertile ground for immigrant entrepreneurism. Unlike blacks, immigrants have been able to transplant their cultural values and attributes into successful enterprises. They work together, raise their own seed money and employ a culture-based system of supportive, collective economics. Immigrants may have a rough go at it, but they have not been hampered by centuries of legalized cultural annihilation, dissimilation or laws that prohibited economic opportunity based on skin color, like African Americans.

German, Jewish, Korean and, now, Arab-Americans have always found opportunities in black communities, including St. Louis. They provide services many white business owners pass up. Foreign-owned gas stations in the region have perfected the art of catering to their customer’s wants and needs. In areas where grocery stores are scarce, gas stations and convenience stores provide the food, cell phone services, clothing and gold-plated bling blacks seem to desire.

There is an opportunity to build off the highly publicized incident involving Ms. Adams and the store’s employees. If black leaders are serious about creating black enterprises in their own communities, Muslim business owners can be an asset by sharing knowledge and resources aimed at creating cross-cultural economic alliances in long-ignored neighborhoods.

A couple years ago, I had a conversation with a Muslim entrepreneur who owns several gas stations in Missouri and Illinois. He welcomed the idea of selling our sweet potato cookies at his stores and, when we’re ready, I plan to revisit that conversation. What may come if we extrapolated that idea to include products-food, clothing, jewelry, etc.-made by black entrepreneurs? What’s the possibility of partnering with or supporting qualified black entrepreneurs and helping them open gas stations or other types of businesses in black neighborhoods?

It is my hope that the protests do not wind up building a bigger wedge between Muslims and the black community. I have written often about the inherent business, housing and land-ownership opportunities in economically-depressed neighborhoods in St. Louis. Muslims, like so many immigrants before them, have found gold in areas deemed worthless by prestigious developers and vision-less politicians. I for one, am looking for another historic negative transformed into a collective positive.  

Hopefully, the moment hasn’t been lost. Harkening back to the words of Rev. Gray, I’m looking forward to that “forced” conversation where Muslim business owners, politicians and “us” go from simple protest to holistic, healing all inclusive progress.