Friday, March 13, 2015

The Good, Bad & Ugly Sides of St. Louis

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
March 13, 2015

There’s an upside and downside to being born and raised in St. Louis and writing about the region for more than 25 years.

First, the Good; the region has a very cool collective of resilient innovators-people who challenge and refuse to cooperate with the status quo. They do their own thing with the notion that they can bring real, progressive change to the region. They are the folk opening bars, coffee shops and speakeasies on Cherokee and Grand Avenues and in the Grove area. This eclectic group includes college kids who ignore their parents and teacher’s warning to stay on the “safe side” of the Delmar Divide. They are among the proud and strong protesters demanding justice and systematic change. The “good” in St. Louis is also reflected in the works of the Incarnate Word and Deaconess Foundations, Beyond Housing and Better Family Life and other nonprofits and corporations seeking to empower “extraordinary ordinary” individuals in their own neighborhoods.

The flip side is the historically “bad and ugly” part of St. Louis. Those not raised in the region can’t quite understand the segregated mindset that still exists here. They are unaware of the ramifications of “white flight” when the city lost more than half of its population between 1950 and 1970. Those from real metropolises can’t reconcile the open biases and sentiments that led to the violations of the constitutional rights of black residents in Ferguson and beyond, as cited in the recent Department of Justice (DOJ) report. They find it bizarre that city leaders are talking about investing millions of taxpayer dollars into a new football stadium while long-neglected neighborhoods are still in desperate need of economic attention and innovative investments.

Those not raised here can’t quite understand the segregated mindset that still exists. 

The systematic “bad” reinforces and validates “the ugly.” These voices were loud and clear when plans to stretch MetroLink's light rail transit system into St. Charles were rejected because voters feared blacks would have public access to steal their TVs. The “ugly” appears daily in the comments section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch where anonymity gives courage to the most vile forms of blatant racism. There is a strong conservative bend in mainstream media here that coddles its “Red State” viewers, readers and listeners. This might explain why-in a time when St. Louis has been depicted nationally as the “new Alabama”-KDNL (Channel 30) launched The Allman Report.  Nothing personal against conservative talking head Jamie Allman, but it’s a little backwards to choose a platform that doesn't employ diverse voices and widens the region’s historic racial divide.

The “ugly” appears daily in the comments section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch where anonymity gives courage to the most vile forms of blatant racism. 

Like I said, there’s an up and downside to my life in St. Louis. I’m no longer an employed journalist but I can’t shut down that part of me that knows this place; that’s oh-so-tired of seeing the same damaging thoughts and things occur in a region with so much people potential.

I run a nonprofit, the Sweet Potato Project (SPP). Even though it demands my full attention, I find myself stuck between the two worlds of a writer and an executive director. Writing about the bad and the ugly releases me to focus on the good in our region. 

We are entering our fourth year of operations and have been blessed with the support of many, many engaged, benevolent volunteers, supporters and donors-small business, corporate and individual. It’s easier to get past the negative when you’re surrounded by people who truly get your mission. We invest our time, talents and resources into empowering young people and disadvantaged neighborhoods. Since 2012, SPP has recruited teens (ages 15-20) from low-income areas of North St. Louis. They “earn while they learn,” receiving a summer salary to plant sweet potatoes on vacant lots while learning essential entrepreneurial skills such as marketing; social media design; business plan and food-based product development. The idea is to show them that there are dignified and self-sustaining ways to generate incomes while improving their communities.

It’s easier to get past the negative when you’re surrounded by people who truly get your mission. 

This year, we’re introducing a vacant land procurement initiative. The idea is to invite residents, churches and organizations to lease/purchase land with our students in low-income neighborhoods so we can collectively grow fresh produce. The good news; we already have an institutional buyer committed to purchasing produce harvested through this collective.  

This is no pie-in-the sky endeavor. Across the country, the neighborhood and small business impact from locally-grown, fresh foods and sales by local vendors have generated millions that mostly stays within targeted areas. Tower Grove’s Farmers Market, for instance, draws about 100,000 weekend customers per year with annual receipts as high as $2 million.

Like me, there are thousands of good people here seeking ways to reverse the ugly trends stubbornly lurking in our region. I’m not talking just black or white or liberal either. Our program resonates with those who voice the need for “do-for-self,” self-sustaining ideas that can offset crime, violence and poverty in our region.  We invite like-minded individuals to become a part of our long-range mission. Our goal is to create a neighborhood-based food system that promotes land re-utilization, ownership, massive farming, product distribution (major grocers, restaurants, farmer’s markets, etc.) and large-scale development of consumer-ready products from North St. Louis.

There are thousands of good people seeking ways to reverse the ugly trends stubbornly lurking in our region.

To borrow another Clint Eastwood reference; “a man has got to know his limitations.” The writer can now step aside; he knows he can’t change the mindset of the bad & ugly. His counterpart, however-the nonprofit guy-can help make a dent by humbly offering ways for others to get un-stuck from the muck and mire of nonsensical biased rhetoric and practices that unfortunately define our region.

 By reaching out to the concerned and connected; by rolling up our sleeves, investing in our young people, redeveloping long-neglected neighborhoods; creating sustainable ways to address “food deserts,” tackling malnutrition, crime, unemployment and poverty while seeding fertile ground for small business growth in North St. Louis, “the good” can effectively reduce the impact, influence and power of the “bad and ugly” in our region.


Please Join Our Mission:

The Sweet Potato Project is about to start its summer program and it 2015 land acquisition initiative. We need your support. Please visit our website and donate today.  Thank you.-SBJ

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Step Outside Yourself to be Your Best Self

“Remember, Sylvester; you’re writing for an audience for whom the majority of which do not share your life experiences.  You have to anticipate their responses and back your words with facts.”

This sage advice was shared with me back in 2003 by the then managing editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I had just written a particularly controversial column that didn't bode well with most readers. I know, big surprise right? But for those not familiar with my writing, it was a huge deal at the time. I had just started my columnist gig at the Post and was a bit shaken when I received real-life death threats over the column and nervous when the newspaper was inundated with calls and letters calling for my immediate dismissal.

Instead of firing me, my editor chose to educate me. She encouraged me to see myself as a reader. In essence; step outside myself to be my best self.

Ethical Society of St. Louis
 Fast forward 12 years and I find myself reflecting on those words. On January 18th, I spoke at the Ethical Society of St. Louis. The Title of my speech was “Ferguson & Beyond; Building Communities where ‘race’ matters.” I discussed the 100-year+history of racial exclusion and disinvestment in North St. Louis city and county. The saddest part of post-integrated America, I said, was that working class black folk and business-owners abandoned historically-black neighborhoods. I suggested that the only real solution is for African Americans to lead the charge in coming back, reinvesting and rebuilding the “pockets of poverty” we live in throughout the region. The goal is for black, white and others (the “concerned and connected”) to do the hard work of saving disenfranchised youth and empowering the poor to effect real, long-term change.

I was a bit shaken when I received real-life death threats and nervous when the newspaper was inundated with calls and letters calling for my immediate dismissal.

After my presentation, 15 to 20 people met with me for a discussion. An older woman-whom I was later told spent a lifetime in the civil rights and integration movements-took exception to some of my words. That editor’s advice came back as I listened to this woman explain that, based on her experiences, I came off like a segregationist demanding separate societies.

I was surprised. I told the woman that I was not a segregationist but a staunch advocate of “self-preservation.” I mentioned that, in almost 50 years-even with a black president-African Americans are still the most impoverished and endangered demographic in America. I used national polls and surveys to underscore just how far apart whites and blacks are on matters of “race” and said that blacks no longer have the luxury of depending on government or the benevolence of whites to “save us.” Anybody can help but, like so many other immigrants to America, WE must be the cultivators and stewards of our own culture, opportunities and economic destinies.

I am not a segregationist but I am a staunch advocate of self-preservation.

It’s hard for me to ignore that during the period of segregation, blacks had no choice but to do-for-self. They were legally excluded from the social and economic mainstreams, so they created their own alternative, educational, economic and social opportunities. Where would we be today, if our own “systems” were still in place? Would 50 percent of black children still be dropping out of high school? Would blacks still dominate the numbers locked up in our nation’s prisons? Would the unemployment and poverty rates remain basically unchanged since the 1960s if we had chosen not to desert our communities and held on to our own neighborhood businesses?

It’s hard for me to ignore that during the period of segregation, blacks had no choice but to do-for-self. 

I’m thankful that the woman in our discussion group challenged me. It reminds me that this message of creating new alternative “systems” and “doing for self” might be a hard pill to swallow; especially for those dedicated to Martin Luther King’s dream of an integrated, totally equal society. Anticipating one-on-one push-back and remembering that we all come from different spaces and places, demands that I articulate and educate better. Just because I think “self-preservation” is the responsible and necessary course for black people doesn't erase the negative, violent interpretation of that term in people’s minds. Just because I fear that a truly color-free America is decades away; I must remember to encourage those protesting, challenging the system and fighting the fine fight to make it a reality.  

Lastly, I must clearly state that there is not one, sure-fire way to address racial inequity or to create a more just, colorblind and economically inclusive society. I operate the Sweet Potato Project. All I can do is invite others to consider our way: We recruit at-risk youth who plant sweet potatoes on vacant city lots. We provide them with summer jobs while teaching them how to make products, offer services and become entrepreneurs in their own communities…today!

This year, we want to expand our mission by inviting low-income residents, churches, organizations and some of the youth behind the police brutality demonstrations to grow food and make products with us. We see this as a real, sustainable way to create inner-city jobs and small businesses. It’s a tested model that introduces real economic activity in long-neglected, low-income areas through a food-based, revolutionary movement.

What if poor and working class people grew massive amounts of produce and produced a quality, marketable line of food-based products that can be purchased by local restaurants, major retailers, schools, institutions and consumers? I believe this is a viable way to institute an alternative, sustainable system with the potential to blossom within the current, broken systems.

What if poor and working class people grew massive amounts of produce and produced a quality, marketable line of food-based products that can be purchased by local restaurants, major retailers, schools, institutions and consumers?

This is a big vision that requires big visionaries. In my mind, nothing I described is threatening or unsettling to those pursuing various other paths to equality and justice. In fact, I foresee a scenario where anybody and everybody can put their resources, passions and skills to work. We’re talking about growing, packaging and distributing food locally, regionally and even nationally. It’s about helping urban kids and generational downtrodden adults capitalize off opportunities right outside their doors. Most important, it's a cost effective way to get disenfranchised people to become landowners who-along with the concerned and connected-can collectively create jobs and small businesses in their own neighborhoods. Call me a naive optimist but I believe we’re talking about stepping on the brink of systematic change that could very well serve as a template for revitalizing distressed communities all over the country.

I’m doing a lot of talking this month. On Wednesday, I’ll speak at a Saint Louis University College conference designed to address the complex issues of race, class, and inequity in our community. Thursday, I’ll be among the speakers at Better Family Life’s forum on “The Business of Healthy Eating.” Then next Sunday, I’ll be in Washington DC addressing the audience at the annual United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

No doubt, all members of these diverse gatherings won’t share my life experiences or perspective. But I’ll talk about our mission and present the facts as I know them. I’ll work to meet the challenge of building connections, stressing common goals and convincing folk that we have an endeavor here in St. Louis that’s worthy of their attention, time, resources and talents.

In short, I’ll be mindful of the wise words of a former editor.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Ferguson & Beyond...Ethical Society of St. Louis Podcast

The Ethical Society of St. Louis has graciously posted a podcast of my speech last week. Even though watching the film "Selma" the night before caused me to go completely off script, I think I managed to get my main points across. Please take a listen if you have time. It speaks to the challenges the Sweet Potato Project plans to address with your help and involvement. Click photo below to start podcast:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Redemption Song

Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom? -
'Cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.

How do we redeem ourselves with this generation of youth? For most of their lives, they've been taught that they must be held accountable for their actions. We've told them that America stands for equality, human rights, democracy and freedom and justice the world over. Yet many of our youth believe “justice” has been denied in Ferguson and the nation’s other metropolitan areas.

Many adults have justified the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Gardner, Tamir Rice and countless other unarmed black teens and men killed by police. This justification, however, runs counter to what we've taught our youth about the consequences of our actions. Believe me, they are not oblivious to rules and procedures engineered to exonerate policemen and solidify their roles as on-the-street judge, jury and executioner.

Based on what we've taught them, our youth valiantly stood strong in the face of slathering dogs, militarized police forces, flash-bang grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets. Still, they summoned the moxie to say “no more!”

Although their actions reverberated around the globe, they have been dehumanized, criminalized and portrayed as “looters” (even though looting was an insignificant fraction amongst the hundreds of national demonstrations). With the media’s help; they've been targeted, arrested and ludicrously portrayed as domestic terrorists with ties to Isis and an agenda to kill police.

The saddest tragedy of the Ferguson melee is that this generation of young people has to grapple with the racial injustices that their parents and grandparents endured. How do we help them make sense of a world that arrogantly decries; “black lives really don’t matter?” How do we save those who have lost faith or are on the brink of disengaging from society? How do we take their bold start and turn it into something powerful and long-lasting?

How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look? Ooh!

As I wrote in my commentary, “TheLong Fuse to Ferguson,” the region’s problems didn't start in St. Louis County. We have a 115-year-plus history of racial redlining, displacement and economic exclusion that has left most African Americans living in pockets of poverty throughout St. Louis. In many of these areas, the poor are regarded as stereotyped pawns to be used and misused to pump profits into city, county and municipal coffers.

Many demonstrators and activists have opted for systematic change through protests and politics. This is all well and good but we must face a few harsh realities. We are fighting against a stubbornly ingrained mindset. Recent polls show that whites and blacks are severely divided on all matters pertaining to race and police brutality. Most whites believe that “the system” works, that cops are fair and unbiased and that racism is dead. In fact, based on surveys, most whites believe that they are the real victims of racism today.

Those fighting to change the system must contend with the fact that it will be slow change...maybe. Remember, right after slavery, America used the prison system (arresting and detaining blacks for minor and/or nonexistent crimes) to continue using them as free labor. More than 150 years later, this “system”-with the addition of private prisons-still rounds up, charges, detains, oppresses, profits from and even allows the killing of black and brown men and teens at disproportionate rates.

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds.

The educational, economic and criminal justice systems are all broken. Many white adults are hesitant to disrupt systems that are not negatively impacting their lives. God bless those speaking out and standing up for justice but, again, as polls indicate, their numbers are far too few to enact immediate change.

Make no mistake about it; poverty is the root cause of much of the decay and dysfunction in many Black communities today. The African-American poverty rate (12.7%) is more than double the rate among whites and only 1.4 percent higher than it was in 1966. Nearly half of poor black children (compared to a 10th of poor white children) live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.  The black unemployment rate in 2012 (14.0 percent) was 2.1 times higher than the white unemployment rate (6.6 percent).

Passage of civil rights legislation in the late 1960s was regarded as a huge gain for black people. And perhaps it was; but it came at a huge cost when working class black adults and entrepreneurs abandoned their neighborhoods to seek the shining opportunities that “integration” promised.

We cannot deny that almost every other ethnicity-East Indians, Asians, Jews, etc., have developed their own systems within the American system. While they participate in society, they have built independent educational, political and economic mechanisms so that their children will understand, protect and propel their cultural values and to make sure they are never reliant on outsiders for their survival.

With the absence of engaged, working class black adults; underfunded, disconnected and inadequate “systems” have become stewards of poor black children for generations. Growing into adulthood, most became little more than statistics and stereotypes. It’s a lot easier to lock up, lock out or shoot a stereotype than it is to protect and nurture human beings.    

We forward in this generation…triumphantly.

African Americans don’t have the luxury to wait on systematic change. Yes, fight that fine fight but as you do, implement new, alternative systems-especially for the generational poor. We don’t have time to wait for those whose minds are still stuck in ‘60s to change. As far as I’m concerned, there's only one solution; Blacks must work with those who truly “get it” and go back to that post-integration period when we had no choice but depend on ourselves.

WE must adopt a "do-for-self" agenda. Neither the government nor whites can give us mental or economic freedom. In fact, in today’s political climate there’s a concerted effort to relieve government of its obligation to poor people of color. We step on the path of redemption by listening, responding and empowering our youth to be the aggressive, independent change we seek.

This is the mission of the Sweet Potato Project. We recruit urban youth; teach them how to plant produce on vacant lots; provide summer jobs where they learn marketing, branding, sales, product development and much more. They sell products made from their produce. Our goal is to raise a generation of urban entrepreneurs who will lead in transforming long-deprived neighborhoods into independent Mecca’s of food-based economic activity.

This year, we will launch a landownership initiative where young adults and city residents can secure land to grow food that will be turned into marketable products. We have a buyer willing to purchase all the sweet potatoes we and our partner gardeners can grow this year. This is only the first step toward building an environment where food grown in North St. Louis can be sold at farmers markets or packaged and distributed to restaurants, grocery stores, schools, hospitals and consumers in and outside the region.

For the past three years, I have been inspired by the ideas, hopes and dreams of the youth we serve, some of whom are involved with the Ferguson demonstrations. The region is exploring dozens of efforts to rectify the deficiencies that led to the eruption in Ferguson. My prayer is that these leaders not ignore the youthful energy that ignited this call for sustainable, positive change. It was their resilience, passions, voices, artistry and bravery that brought us to this valuable place in history.

Let us not blow it…again.

While we promote and pour money and resources into the ideas of those embedded and reliant on the current system; let us also use, employ, fund and follow the lead of young idealists intent on creating new, more inclusive systems. Let us challenge them to go beyond protests and into that glorious, mystifying realm of unexplored possibilities.

We’re living in that rare, magic moment and we need to thank the activists and youth of St. Louis for sparking an opportunity to redeem ourselves. To them, I say if you find yourselves dismissed, demeaned or disregarded, we at the Sweet Potato Project have a place for you.

Come; help us rebuild and create sustainable jobs and small businesses in our own neighborhoods. Come; bring your youthful creativity and audaciousness and let us work with activists, churches, organizations and those of like minds. Come; help us fulfill a mission designed to empower the powerless and once and for all create alternative systems where accountability and responsibility is revered and respected and where sustainability is in our ever-lasting control.

Yes, some say it's just a part of it:
We've got to fulfill the book.
Won't you help to sing?
These songs of freedom
'Cause all I ever had:
Redemption songs 

Sylvester Brown, Jr., journalist and executive director of the Sweet Potato Project, will speak on the topic:"Ferguson and Beyond; Building Communities Where 'Race' Matters" this Sunday, January 18th at 11:am at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, 9001 Clayton Rd, St Louis, MO 63117

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

After the Betrayal:

Rewarding the Young Soldiers of Justice 

“In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” 
 – Alabama Gov. George Wallace

by Sylvester Brown, Jr. 
Dec. 2, 2014 

The privileged and powerful possess a certain kind of arrogant ignorance. It prevents them from seeing how they will be viewed by the world or recorded in history. Remember that look of obnoxious righteousness the late Governor George Wallace's face during his stupid attempts to prevent black kids from integrating Alabama elementary schools? Think back to the jubilant faces of Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam after they were acquitted of murdering 14-year-old Emmett Till? A year after the 1956 trial, the pair (because of double jeopardy) publicly admitted to killing Til. They were paid handsomely to tell their stories to publications like LOOK Magazine without repudiation. 

Fast forward to 2014. With public demonstrations in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, New York, Washington D.C., London and elsewhere, St. Louis’ powerful and privileged seem oblivious to how they’re viewed around the world or how backwards the region will appear in the nation’s history books. With stubborn determination, brute force and legal trickery, they exonerated Darren Wilson-the Ferguson cop accused of killing an unarmed black teen. With one fatal swoop, St. Louis, Missouri became the new Selma, Alabama and Darren Wilson (as he makes his media rounds) as the new  Bryant and Milam

Once again, the region has missed a magic moment: Demonstrators-many of them young and newly activated have creatively, audaciously and consistently given us potent scripts: “Don’t Shoot, Black lives matter, No more killer Cops!” With the “no-indict” grand jury verdict, the status quo provided a dangerous counter narrative: “We will shoot; Black lives don’t matter and we will protect ‘killer cops.’” 

No matter what side one falls on regarding Wilson's guilt or innocence, the judicial process was tainted. If you or I shot an unarmed suspect and more than one witness said the man had surrendered, we'd be in a trial trying to prove our innocence. Wilson, simply because he was a cop, was coddled by the powerful, allowed to skip due process and is celebrated by many as a "hero."

Arrogant ignorance prevents the region’s elected and appointed officials (and those who tolerate their racial nonsense) from seeing the damage they've wrought. Young St. Louisans struck an international chord that's resonating with millions around the globe. We taught our young to side with human rights, to stand against tyranny-no matter the source. We drenched their brains with the mantra of “liberty and justice for all.” Yet, when they stood up for justice; we treated them like domestic terrorists and assaulted their sensibilities with sanitized chicanery and legal subterfuge. 

The privileged and powerful don’t seem to realize that our youth-future lawyers, doctors, teachers, artists, writers, technicians, construction workers and more-are not stupid. They know what “justice” looks like and, with all the resources of the Internet, they can quickly detect, dissect and discard the establishment's manure as soon as they smell it. 

They saw it moments after Mike Brown was shot; when cops left his dead body on the ground for four hours. They felt it when police responded to their angst with dogs and automatic weapons. It was crystal clear when commanding officers used tanks and tear gas to stifle citizen frustration. They knew the “huge, dangerous black man” defense was again in play when Ferguson Police Chief, Thomas Jackson, released an edited video of Mike Brown stealing a pack of cigarillos but refused to release the name of the cop who shot him. They sensed the anatomy of injustice when supervisors failed to order Wilson to turn in a mandatory incident report after applying deadly force. With no written statement, he had the unheralded advantage to craft an after-the-fact story based on witness accounts. 

They sensed the anatomy of injustice when supervisors failed to order Wilson to turn in a mandatory incident report...with no written statement, he had the unheralded advantage to craft an after-the-fact story based on witness accounts. 

They instinctively knew the whole grand jury process was a sham orchestrated by a biased prosecutor, Bob McCullochWith a mother, brother, uncle and cousin that worked for the St, Louis PD and a father-a city cop killed by a black suspect in 1964-those calling for justice expected none from the county prosecutor. Rarely will defense attorneys allow their clients to appear before a grand jury. Protesters understood Wilson’s appearance before the grand jury was a signal that he had a friend in the prosecutor’s office.

They called for a special prosecutor because they knew McCulloch would use the process as political cover to exonerate Wilson. An example of the prosecutor's misuse of the grand jury system was reported by MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell who noted how assistant prosecutors handed jurors a copy of a 1979 Missouri law that was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1985. This is why St. Louis attorney and president of the National Bar Association, Pamela Meanes, publicly expressed concerns about the way McCulloch mis-handled the grand jury process. The "why" was explained by award-winning author and journalist Bryan Monroe in this Huffington Post commentary: “’s clear prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch never had any intention of indicting officer Wilson. Never.”

Young people gave St. Louis the grand opportunity to grow beyond its segregated, backwards and predatory ways. Through their actions and media coverage, the region was exposed as one that has failed its citizens.  

St. Louis County Prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch delivering the grand jury verdict

It’s sad, really. Young people gave St. Louis the grand opportunity to grow beyond its segregated, backwards and predatory ways. Through their actions and media coverage, the region was exposed as one that has failed its citizens. The world learned that our 90 or so municipalities (some generating 70 percent of its revenues) where profiting off poor people of color. It was mostly brave young people who shoved the issues of police shooting unarmed black men and out-of-control “militarized police forces” upon our national consciousness. Young people, willing to sacrifice their “freedoms” for ours, helped us confront and correct our demons. In return, we villainized, brutalized, targeted and detained them.

The conservative mainstream media and the stoic, “powers-that-be”stubbornly dedicated to defending one cop, played mind-numbing games, changed the rules of civic engagement and spent millions to arm an already over-armed police force. In the annals of history, St. Louis 2014 will be seen as a continuation of 1960's-era police brutality. 

In the annals of history, St. Louis 2014 will be seen as a continuation of 1960's-era police brutality. 

Conservative and Corporate media tried in vain to keep the focus on the few incidents of violence and "looting" while minimizing the power of peaceful protests here and around the world. Demonstrators didn't confront tear gas, batons, flash bomb grenades, tanks. jail time and cops with military-grade weaponry to be demeaned by the press. They didn't ask Governor Jay Nixon to create an “Office of Community Engagement” staffed by employees with six-figure salaries. Manning yet another "commission" to study the “underlying social and economic conditions” of Ferguson and the region was not on their request list. 

No, our young people, guided and supported by seasoned elders of the movement asked for one thing: JUSTICE! 

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon

We failed to reply to that simple, moral appeal. With the world watching, the status quo sided with “injustice.” In light of this betrayal, the region should embrace the challenge of utilizing the refreshing energy of its young people. Their genius was evident in their slogans ("Hands Up!"), protest tactics, T-shirts, poems, lyrics and songs about the killing of Mike Brown. We don't need to appoint the already politically and economically-connected to "fix" Ferguson. How about empowering and employing the youth who boldly and creatively confronted injustices in St. Louis? 

How about empowering and employing the youth who boldly and creatively confronted injustices in St. Louis? 

In late August, NPR journalist Michel Martin, Beyond Housing's  aCEO, Chris Krehmeyer and I were guests on Don Marsh’s St. Louis on the Air program. In that conversation, I said St. Louis’ real challenge is not only stamping out segregated neighborhoods in the region but tackling “segregated thinking” as well. 

The privileged and powerful are victims of this malady. In city and county police departments and municipal offices this sick, seeded notion that black lives and neighborhoods don’t really matter is woefully pervasive. But it doesn't stop there. No matter if its development in Ferguson, Clayton, the Central West End, Grand Center or downtown St. Louis, “segregated thinking” makes it OK to disproportionately exclude blacks and minorities from the social and economic benefits of inclusion and participation. The segregated mindset will spend more money on incarcerating black and poor people than it will in investing in their neighborhoods or their potential.

I have little faith in the federal investigation or follow-up that will rectify the damage done. Later this month, the Sweet Potato Project will announce a venture that can utilize the bold, diverse passions of conscientious soldiers (young, old, black, white and “other”) who have incited much-needed change in our region. If no where else, they are welcome to help us build strong, safe neighborhoods where their talents, skills and dreams can flourish.  

I pray for real, substantial and sustainable solutions that will embolden our young. My hope is that history doesn't record our region as a backwards rendition of the “new south.” Let us insure that the final version of the “Ferguson Tragedy” not be scripted by the privileged and powerful but by the empowered young emissaries of real JUSTICE.