Monday, September 23, 2019

When Good People do Bad Things: Why Political Leader's Crime Solutions are Recipes for Disaster

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.

“Every generation makes mistakes. Sometimes these errors are relatively harmless or easily fixed. But every so often, a misstep is so damaging that future generations are left shaking their heads in disbelief. ‘What were they thinking?’ we ask each other.”

Gov. Mike Parson (center), Mayor Lyda Krewson (right)
In his book, “Locking Up Our Own,” author James Forman, Jr. examines the role African Americans played in instituting the “War on Drugs” in the 1970s.
Black lawmakers, Forman writes, including “California Congresswoman Maxine Waters and former United States Attorney General Eric Holder—pushed for tough-on-crime penalties not only for drug crimes, but also for gun possession.”
The sentiments of Waters and Holder were shared by black politicians on almost every political level. Black citizens also demanded more police action, tougher drug laws and stricter sentencing. They were legitimately angry, frustrated and felt terrorized by the crime and violence associated with the growing crack epidemic.

These weren’t bad or malicious people. As Forman wrote, what black leaders “didn't—couldn't—know, was what tragic collateral consequences would come to a head in later years.”  He further added, It is now widely recognized that the drug war has caused tremendous damage—especially in the low-income African American communities that have been its primary target.”

Forman’s book validates my growing fear in the wake of a surge in violence in our city. I’ve read about or heard from local black political leaders and ordinary citizens who are fed up with gun violence, especially the tragic loss of young lives. I maintain that these are good people with no desire to punish non-violent blacks. Yet, I fear that in this hyperventilating climate of fear and anger, we are poised to repeat the mistakes of the past.

I fear that in this hyperventilating climate of fear and anger, we are poised to repeat the mistakes of the past.

After a recent crime summit with political and law enforcement officials, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced that he’s dedicating state funds, sending highway patrolmen and other state workers to St. Louis to address our crime surge.
I don’t think black leaders who reached out to the governor asking that he send in the national guard or supply more money and resources have nefarious intentions. I just think they’re participating in an approach that’s short-sighted, publicity-oriented and, most of all, dangerous.

To date, the turn-to solution for crime and violence has been increased police forces and mass incarceration. In the conclusion of my book, “When We Listen…” I write about this and other mostly ignored models aimed at reducing crime.
For example, I highlight the work of Patrick Sharkey, professor and chair of sociology at New York University and author of “Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence. In 2018, Sharkey wrote an excellent Los Angeles Times article that stressed how community investment, not increased police forces or extreme punishment, is key to reducing violence.
Uneasy Peace by Patrick Sharkey
Sharkey details how “police forces have grown larger and more militant, how prosecutors have become more aggressive, and criminal justice policies have become increasingly harsher.” He explores the punishment model which “expanded and intensified in the 1990s and has become increasingly militarized after the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.
My concern is that politically expedient, quick fix remedies like what we’re pushing in St. Louis will simply guarantee that more young people, more poor people of color will be incarcerated for most of their lives. Prisons, especially private prisons, will continue making billions from cheap, slave-like labor and communities of color will remain stagnant bastions of replicated poverty, crime and hopelessness.

My concern is that politically expedient, quick fix remedies like what we’re pushing in St. Louis will simply guarantee that more young people, more poor people of color will be incarcerated for most of their lives. 

To truly reform our criminal justice system, I agree with Sharkey who suggests we move away from the “punishment” mind-set and turn to a new model based on “sufficient evidence” aimed at countering violence. The professor suggests we look to the “community investment model.” He provides data that illustrates how community organizations can play key roles in bringing crime rates down. In fact, his research found that “in a typical city with 100,000 residents, every ten additional organizations formed to address violence and build stronger communities led to a 9% drop in the murder rate.”
St. Louis is like Chicago, Detroit, Memphis or any other city with disproportionately high crime, murder or poverty rates. I have spent decades writing, researching and explaining the socio/economic factors that lead to or fuel crime in poor, black neighborhoods. After all these years, I’ve come to one simple conclusion: We must empower people, especially young people, to make and sustain the change we all desire.

The problem with this approach is that it’s not a quick fix. It can’t be boiled down to a promising headline that makes people feel it’s safe to move into the city or attend sporting or entertainment events downtown. Not only will it take real monetary investment, like the kind city leaders dole out to already rich developers, it will take time, strategy and “buy-in” from politicians, police, businesses and the community at large.
I don’t think it’s necessary to discuss the bad, disrespectful or deadly behavior of police. Nor will I delve into the consequences of bringing more militarized officers into low-income areas where they don’t relate or-based on some of their social media comments-literally loathe the people living in poor neighborhoods. Not now, anyway. Here, I want to proceed under the theory that there are good cops who want to do good in the communities they are supposed to serve.
But, here, too, we must invest in models that will help police better interact with poor people and poor neighborhoods. The long-range approach should focus on investing in nonprofits working to provide affordable homes and small businesses in troubled neighborhoods. If people, especially young people, own homes and businesses in their own neighborhoods, they will have a vested interest in protecting what’s theirs. If they are vested, they can become the eyes, ears and hearts of the community. Their businesses can provide economic opportunities and hope for young folk who may believe that illegal drug activity is their only money-making option. Empowered homeowners can then set up neighborhood watch groups that work in tangent with police to control crime. Heck, with a little vision and resources, people from poor neighborhoods can be hired for private security companies in majority black North St. Louis like they have in the Central West End and other predominantly white neighborhoods.

I want to proceed under the theory that there are good cops who want to do good in the communities they are supposed to serve.

Although I totally understand and share the frustrations of black people who want to do something, anything, to reduce crime in our city, I stress caution. We must always remember that there is a history of a criminal justice system backed by politicians who are anxious to use our pain and passion to legitimize mass incarceration.
My wish is that we don’t repeat patterns of the past to semi-address today’s problems.  I’m not suggesting that Gov. Parson’s attempt to deal with our crime problem is a bad thing. To me, it’s just short-sighted and a possible repeat of what has never worked to combat crime or address the factors that contribute to crime.
I’m stressing the idea that “good people” have the capacity to learn from their mistakes. As we move forward in this effort to combat crime, my hope is that we do so not in a narrow-minded, dangerous way but a multifaceted, proactive way that addresses the issue not only today but in decades to come.

Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the founder of the Sweet Potato Project, an entrepreneurial program for urban youth and the author of the newly released book “When We Listen: Recognizing the Potential of Urban Youth.”

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Playing the “What if” Game: How an Annual Festival Can Serve as a Template for Community Renewal

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Photo courtesy of the Saint Louis African American Artifacts Festival and Bazaar

Yesterday, I attended the 6th Annual Saint Louis African American Artifacts Festival and Bazaar in Old North Yesterday. At first, I wasn’t going. I’m on deadline for a writing assignment. But a friend stopped by and suggested we go. Why not, the festival starting on St. Louis Ave. and 14th Street is literally two blocks from home. So, I went and I’m glad I did.

 The most inspiring aspect of the festival for me was the young, entrepreneurial vendors and the parents who worked with them at some of the spaces. A young mother with the words “Momma Fresh” emblazoned on her T-shirt stood quietly behind her ten-year-old son, “Mr. Fresh.” The boy gave a brief elevator pitch telling how he wanted to start a car business but settled on selling car fresheners for now.
“So, what do you want to buy from me,” Mr. Fresh asked us.
I bought a bottle of “Yellow Rose” freshener.

And so it went. There was a father and sister helping a young artist sell his cool collection of t-shirts, posters and coloring books. Another father tried to get me to buy one of his family’s wooden, hand-painted boards with colorful, inspiring and welcoming words designed to compliment any home, business or classroom. Then, there was one of my former Sweet Potato Project students, Mirramoni Buford, doing caricature art.


 The whole experience kicked off the “what if” game for me. What if all these young, budding entrepreneurs not only had this annual festival to promote their talents and wares but a year-round hub? What if all the eclectic musicians, spoken word artists, vendors with aromatic, ethnic foods, hand-made candles, clothing and more had a designated place in the city that welcomed the lush, robust beautiful crowds I witnessed Saturday?
     What if Martin Luther King Drive from Wellston to, let’s say, Clara Avenue, was chosen as the designated spot for a huge monetary investment in a cultural district? Why there? I’ll give you at least four good reasons.
Gov. Mike Parson visits Melvin White, founder of the Beloved Streets initiative 

#1: It could start at MLK and Skinker/Kienlen Blvd. It’s not that far from the U. City Loop on Skinker and Delmar, an already touristy area. A tram, Uber, bus or short car ride could take folk from U. City to the new Black Arts District in minutes. Surely, we can copy Joe Edwards’ vision of the U. City Loop which started with blocks and blocks of creative, specialty shops with a cool, cultural vibe.
#2: MLK to Clara would put us in the Friendly Temple Church imprint. Under the leadership of Pastor Michael Jones, the church has revitalized the area with senior resident facilities, new sanctuaries, a school, an early childhood development center, affordable family housing and a full-service bank. Friendly Temple’s base and beyond could be greatly complimented by a host of new small businesses, social establishments, community gardens, affordable homes, restaurants and cultural establishments and schools.


Development on MLK Blvd. led by Friendly Temple Church

#3: A black cultural/business zone could breathe new life into the Beloved Streets of America initiative aimed at revitalizing MLK Blvd. throughout the city. Perhaps politicians can think equitably and help bring agricultural and empowerment zone money and other government dollars to beautify and monetize another designated area in a long-ignored part of the city. After all, tax dollars have been used to bolster the NGA and Paul McKee plans, the Grove, the Cortex District, the Central West End and other tonier areas of the city. Surely there are some politicians, visionaries and corporate donors who can help steer dollars to a massive regeneration plan in the heart of North St. Louis. Lastly, choosing this area would guarantee local, regional and national media exposure every January on MLK’s birthday.

#4: For at least the past five years, Robert Powell of Portfolio Art Gallery, has been trying to institutionalize black art in the region. He wants to use the same tax base that supports the Art Museum, the History Museum, Grand Center, the Botanical Garden and the Symphony Orchestra. The verbiage for such a district is already on the books. From my talks with Robert, all that is needed to become a reality is for local and state politicians to get the measure on a ballot for voter support. Think about it; a cultural destination, supported by tax dollars that be an attraction for locals and out-of-towners on a regular basis.  
 What if we dreamed a bit more deliberately and proactively? What if we boldly stated that we were going to empower regular people in the designated area? What if, say, $20 million were identified and set aside to help young entrepreneurs like those I met at the festival, start small enterprises on the MLK strip? What might happen if each one qualified for a $10,000 stipend to start their business? Now, this doesn’t include the money necessary to tear down or rehab structures along the strip. It’s money set aside to help small business owners build in the newly designated “cultural empowerment zone.”
Let’s go further. Page Blvd. is less than a mile south of MLK. The organization, Better Family Life (BFL) has already initiated the demolition of dilapidated buildings and have started building affordable homes just east of Skinker on Page Blvd. What if we added to this effort with an incentive plan to help new entrepreneurs and other millennials buy homes in the identified areas between MLK and Page Blvd. I have read of nonprofit efforts around the country where nice, sturdy homes can be built for under $40,000. What if banks, corporations, benevolent donors and the City chipped in to provide, say, a $10,000 stipend for anyone interested in living in the designated area. With this type of investment, home ownership can be just as affordable as renting an apartment.

Those who know me, know I believe that the growing and selling of fresh food and food-based products can serve as a new economic engine in the region. Why not? Everybody eats. With thousands and thousands of vacant lots owned by the city, surely a few hundred can be given to urban farmers. Yes, I said “given.” The City doles out vacant land to major developers all the time. It can give lots to North St. Louis. With a stipend, they build a fence around their lot and set it up to grow food year round.
There are several nonprofits-Gateway Greening, Good Life Growing, the Sweet Potato Project and more-dedicated to showing young people how to grow and market certain food and food products. Imagine a huge farmer’s market, like the ones in Soulard, Tower Grove or Maplewood. The corner of MLK and Kienlen, would serve as an excellent weekend spot for food, clothing, mini concerts and merchandise vendors.  A food manufacturing plant, with its on brand in the MLK/Page imprint would not only create neighborhood jobs, it would serve as a long-term partner to residents who grow food.   
Imagine young people living and working in an area designated for rebirth. Now, they have a vested interest in protecting their own neighborhoods and businesses. What if we give hip-hop and sports figures a place to expand their “buy-the-block” rhetoric? What if rappers used their influence and money to make owing homes and businesses in “the hood” as hot as their music?
I read about a private security company in Detroit. It was started by a former military man and an ex-cop, I believe. The private security firm hires folk from the neighborhoods they patrol. They also work hand-in-hand with the Detroit police Department. Perhaps this is a model St. Louis can use to deal with its huge crime epidemic. It’s a healthy and proactive way to get police engaged with community residents. It’s also another way to invest and empower extraordinary, ordinary people to do-for-self in areas where they live and work.
Behind the “what if” scenario is the “what is” reality. What we have is a lack of vision, black division and political impotency. Stale, stoic race-based thinking, a collective refusal to invest in anything “black” in the city are all part of the “what is.”
I sat in the shade for awhile with Malik Ahmed, founder of BFL. I told him I had a hard time grappling with the notion that we have everything we need to change the trajectory of North St. Louis. We have organizations like his, we have templates of revitalization in the city, just not many in the black parts of St. Louis. We have young entrepreneurs, musicians and activists. We have nonprofits doing good work…we’re just not doing it in a collective, unified way. We have stated mandates for progressive change echoed after the death of Mike Brown. We have renowned institutions like Washington University and Harris Stowe and the momentum from those seeking a better, more equitable St. Louis. What we don’t have is a strategic plan with a designated place to start.   

It’s obvious I’ve thought a lot about this stuff. This weekend’s festival just reinforced what I already believe can happen. Maybe, the dream begins there. Instead of waiting for politicians and city leaders to wake up, maybe there’s a way to corral the energies and talents of the young entrepreneurs and their parents. Perhaps they can lead the charge from “what if” to “what is.”


Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the founder of the Sweet Potato Project, an entrepreneurial program for urban youth and the author of the newly released book “When We Listen: Recognizing the Potential of Urban Youth.”

Friday, August 16, 2019

And More Babies Will Die...

By Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Vigil for 7-year-old Xavier Usanga who was killed by a stray bullet in the Hyde Park neighborhood.-Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

When you kill a neighborhood, you kill familial networks, valuable, intimate connections and history. You kill the historical chain of migrating freed slaves forced into segregated Northern enclaves where they had no choice but to depend on themselves. You kill the tradition of a teacher knowing a student’s mama because that teacher went to school with the mother. You kill the history of poor moms and dads who, as children, sat in the same classrooms, played Double Dutch, stick ball or basketball on net-less hoops.  When you kill a neighborhood, you’ve taken away the ability of an adult to correct the bad behavior of any neighbor child. And that child knowing a whupping is waiting at home when their parents found out that a neighbor had to correct them.
Political and civic leaders here have been killing poor, black neighborhoods for the past 70 years. And they are aggressively planning to kill more. More family and neighborhood connections will deteriorate, more people will be banished to unknown vistas. There will be more poverty, more crime, more death and more babies will die. 

Political and civic leaders here have been killing poor, black neighborhoods for the past 70 years. And they are aggressively planning to kill more.

St. Louis is currently the “murder capital” of the United States. To date, eleven children have been gunned down in our city since June. The latest, 7-year-old Xavior Usanga, of the Hyde Park neighborhood, was shot and killed while playing in the backyard with his siblings.
Let me be clear, any violent death, especially the death of a child, is a tragedy that shouldn’t be taken lightly. For me though, it’s equally painful to hear the same old angry responses and the same old “blame game” from the usual sources.

Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Since Usanga’s death, I’ve heard the mayor, the police chief and other public officials blame the black community for these murders. In programmed unison, they insist poor blacks are somehow complicit in these deaths. “Surely,” they insist, “someone knows who the murderers are.” This tired script insists that black people in crime-infested areas just refuse to call or report crimes or help police solve them.
I cry “bullshit!” This accusation of collective, community cover-up is only assigned to poor people experiencing the highest rates of crime. White people or entire white communities are not complicit in the violent crimes of angry, racist mass shooters, methamphetamine or heroin dealers, child molesters or white men who kill multiple family members. How often have we seen neighbors of white killers on the news saying something like “he seemed like such a nice guy?” Their responses aren’t widely scrutinized. There is no mass shaming from police, politicians are the horrified public.
The police department that claims poor blacks refuse to cooperate with them is the same one that terrorizes them. This is department that was exposed nationally for posting hateful, racist and violent content on social media. It’s the one that donned military gear and gassed, used mace and brutalized those who demonstrated against their selective violence. It’s the one that has faced multiple lawsuits based on allegations that they treat citizens unfairly based on skin color. After a child dies, we hear from the same media pundits, mayor, police chief and police officials who have tirelessly worked to smear, bully and block the efforts of the first black Circuit Attorney, Kim Gardner. Why?  Because she had the audacity to call for police accountability.  

The police department that claims poor blacks refuse to cooperate with them is the same one that terrorizes them.

Let’s say there’s some truth to the claim that poor black people won’t cooperate with police. Why should they? Why would any rational person trust anyone who has the power to harass them, beat them and even shoot them with little regard or redress? Who can put their faith in someone who doesn’t know them, their neighborhoods; who walk the beat in tony, majority white areas but offer nothing but drive-by contempt for poor, black people?  
Killing communities also results in killing resources to those communities. It allows the media, politicians and police to ostracize them and pretend that the people they’ve denied resources and opportunities aren’t really people. They’re statistics, sub-humans, the “less than” who don’t love their kids enough to work with police.
I must admit to an equal amount of frustration with black politicians, so called “black leaders” and black adults in general. Every time a child is gunned down, we point fingers, we demonize our youth, we stage vigils and call for much-needed change.
But we place the onus of “change” in everybody’s hands but our own. To be honest, we have willingly participated in the killing of our own neighborhoods. In the wake of civil rights legislation, we ran for the ‘burbs and accelerated white fight in the new areas we chose. We’ve abandoned our neighborhoods and closed our businesses to seek fortune and security from white corporations and enterprises. We allowed millions of dollars to be diverted from city schools to those in the county under the foolish premise that our kids would do better, learn better if they could only mingle with white students.
Don’t get me wrong, America needed change, it needed to cleanse itself of economic and social discrimination. The trade-off for mingling with white people, however, shouldn’t have been the wholesale abandonment of black communities.
In my book, When We Listen…” I emphasize the truth that our young did not create the violent, chaotic neighborhoods in which they were born. They bravely navigate the hopelessness, disinvestment and mess inherited from adults. They live and breathe the results of inhumane social experiments known as slavery, Jim Crow racism, exclusion and oppression and the psychic trauma from a “war on drugs” that shepherded generations through the kindergarten-to-prison-back-to-neighborhood phenomenon.    

The trade-off for mingling with white people, however, shouldn’t have been the wholesale abandonment of black communities.

We, black folk, have turned our kids over to broken educational, economic and criminal justice systems that were not designed for their social, physical or mental uplift. Yet, we act surprised that our kids, who’ve we’ve failed to provide opportunities, seek their own backwards, destructive and violent means of survival.
I maintain that the only way we can “save our babies” is to reclaim and revitalize our own communities. This is not a new mandate. It dates back further than the times of Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
This message, which has been repeated for centuries, is ignored because the work is too hard. It’s not a quick fix. It’s not one of those convenient, political soundbites that calls for the national guard, more militarized police, tougher laws or the non-sensible remedy of locking up yet another generation of young people.  
Apparently, it’s too hard for black leaders to go about the long, strategic business of generating opportunities in dead neighborhoods. It seems difficult for black politicians to demand that a sliver of the same government resources they’ve doled out to corporations, rich developers and already stable areas be afforded to the black residents and neighborhoods they supposedly represent.

Apparently, it’s too hard for black leaders to go about the long, strategic business of generating opportunities in dead neighborhoods. 

For the past 70 years, politicians and city leaders have displaced black people from downtown, Grand Center, the Grove, the Skinker DeBaliviere area near Washington University and other areas of new prominence and stability. Like unwanted gypsies, blacks have been pushed outside city limits to areas like Ferguson, where police were ordered to target them, fine them and treat them as cash-cows for municipal revenue.
With the announcement of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) headquarters in north St. Louis, the clandestine procedure of killing more neighborhoods has begun. I’ve seen the NGA expansion map. It goes from Jefferson Ave, on the southern tip to Natural Bridge on the Northern edge. Within its imprint is the old Pruitt Igo site, Carr Square, Vashon Highschool, the Old North neighborhood, right up to the edges of Fairgrounds and Hyde Park where Xavior Usanga was gunned down.
Good-paying jobs, city rebirth, new businesses and neighborhood development are all good things. But St. Louis doesn’t know how to invest in diversity. City leaders, blacks included, have no taste for equity. I haven’t seen any plans from black politicians to create stable black neighborhoods with affordable housing and diverse businesses that may complement the NGA plan. They seem impotently compliant with plans to use eminent domain and mass displacement to carve a nice niche for NGA’s expansion.  
Until city leaders wake up and move beyond their limited worldviews; Until black folk step up, strategize and execute solid plans for specific troubled neighborhoods, vicious, deadly cycles will proliferate. More people will be pushed from familiar neighborhoods. Links of shared history, family and community bonds will be broken.
Unfortunately, there will be more displacement, more poverty, hopelessness, crime, violence and sadly, more babies will die.    


Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the founder of the Sweet Potato Project, an entrepreneurial program for urban youth and the author of the newly released book “When We Listen: Recognizing the Potential of Urban Youth.”

Friday, August 9, 2019


“Maybe this was Mike Brown’s destiny. Maybe this happened for a reason.”

The young lady was of East Indian decent. She was making a video about my nonprofit, the Sweet Potato Project, and had accompanied me to the protest site.

I must admit, I wasn’t feeling her words. It was just too soon.

We were there just days after the police shooting of 19-year-old Michael Brown. I was still seething from the images of a young, dead body inhumanly lying on the ground for four hours.  Photos of the boy’s parents restrained behind yellow tape and outstretched arms of blue still insulted my senses. The immediate police aggression ensued by military-style assaults: the media inaccuracies, the apparent coverup, the stereotyping and demonizing of the protesters had all dulled my abilities to reason.

Five years later, with much introspection, I find my friend’s words have merit. Mike Brown’s death did mean something. And his legacy, I believe, is apparent in the thousands of people, especially young people, who were motivated to do something, anything about injustice. 

In my book, When We Listen…” I interviewed Tiffany Shawn. She’s a young educator who became activated by Mike Brown’s death. Shawn wasn’t immediately impacted by the shooting. In fact, in the wake of such high-profile vigilante or police killings in cases such as Trayvon Martin, 17 (2012), Cary Ball, 25 (April 2013) and Eric Garner, 43 (July 2014), she initially considered Brown’s death just as part of an ongoing, depressing pattern.

 What caught her attention was the location of the shooting and protests. “Ground zero” as the area became known, was about five miles from the school district where she graduated.

Based the locale, Shawn got involved-actively. She not only protested, she participated in protest strategies and actions. Unlike the media’s sensationalized reporting of vandalism or looting during the protests, Shawn noted a strong sense of self-discipline, resiliency and creativity among the young demonstrators.  She told me about the different and creative protest strategies she witnessed, and how frustrations, art, hip-hop and other cultural expressions collided to make a powerful collective statement.
 “Was I impressed? Absolutely!” Shawn said. “These were young people who hadn’t done anything like this before. They just stepped up in a major way.”

Tiffany Shawn / Photo from When We Listen

I share Shawn’s observations. The protests gave a disadvantaged young populace an organic platform that validated their right to creatively challenge injustice. The grassroots uprising not only served as a national and international template for bold, imaginative resistance; it led to the rise of a new generation of prominent young activists. Shaun King, DeRay Mckesso, Johnetta "Netta" Elzie, Brittany Packnett, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi are among the names of Black Lives Matter members or young demonstrators who became prominent after the police shooting.

I also interviewed 26-years-old John Collins-Muhammad who went into the arena of public service after Michael Brown’s death. In 2017, Collins-Muhammad was elected alderman of the 21st Ward in North St. Louis. In my opinion, Collins-Muhammad, is one of the most progressive aldermen on the 28-member board.  
John Collins-Muhammad / Photo from When We Listen 

Another young standout is the tattooed Missouri politician Bruce Franks. Before 2014,  Franks, 35, toiled as a cook, server, bartender, insurance agent, tax preparer and an up-and-coming rapper with the stage name of "Ooops." Franks told me he had no interest in politics before Brown’s death. He was stomped and beaten by police batons, handcuffed, teargassed and arrested. Yet, his raw street-rapping skills and gurilla activism was his launching-pad to politics.

The young outsider pulled off a political upset, winning the Missouri House of Representatives (78th District) seat in 2016. Before his recent announcement of retirement, Franks served as an effective politician who just so happened to find common ground with a populace, police or state legislators who didn’t share his “liberal” views, skin color or urban background.

Photo: When We Listen by Richard Reilly

Franks is not an anomaly. His story serves as a reminder that there are millions more like him. The young people who routinely face gun violence—be it on ghetto streets or at the hands of biased police—were looking for ways to express their collective outrage. Thousands of young people took to America’s streets demanding gun control legislation after 17 people were killed and seventeen more wounded after a crazed gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The insane incident prompted youth to publicly and aggressively call for stricter gun control laws.

This was the validated generation that responded to candidate Bernie Sanders’ 2016 grassroots campaign to volunteer, engage and vote with their passions in mind.

And vote, they did. This activated and engaged young voter-base has indeed changed the trajectory of our nation. According to an analysis conducted by the Harvard Institute of Politics (IOP), voters between the ages of 18 and 29 “were absolutely crucial” to the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives during the 2018 midterm elections which sent a record number of women—Native American, Korean, Muslim, African-American and Latino—to congress. It’s also an indicator that young voters will play key roles in the 2020 elections.

After losing his seat to Ferguson Councilman Wesley Bell last year, former County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch blamed the protests for his defeat. In the city, former state representative Kim Gardner was elected the city’s first black circuit attorney. Both Bell and Gardner, who campaigned as “reformers” committed to changing local criminal justice systems, were backed by activists and a cadre of young voters. Both, though under heavy scrutiny and unnecessary media criticism, have lived up to their vows.   

On this day, many will again mourn his loss and share in his parent’s pain.  Some will remember the injustice in trying to seek justice. There will be those speaking of “progress” since his death. Others will lament the lack real change.

What cannot be argued, however, is that Mike Brown’s death set something powerful in motion and served as a catalyst that ignited a nation.

So, yeah, maybe, just maybe this is Mike Brown’s destiny.

***************** **************

Some material for this commentary was extracted from When We Listen: Recognizing Potential of Urban Youth by Sylvester Brown, Jr.