Thursday, December 6, 2018

Who’s the Best Candidate in the President of the Board of Aldermen Race? Inquiring Minds Need to Know

“What do you do when two of your friends run against each other in a major local election?”

That question, posted on Facebook by Treasurer, Tishaura Jones, resonated with me. She was alluding to the upcoming President of the Board Aldermen’s race. I assume Jones was talking about candidates, state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed (D-St. Louis) and Alderwoman Megan Green (D-15th Ward). Since the mayoral campaign last year, it seems she and Lewis Reed, the current board president, aren’t on the best of terms, politically.
I share Ms. Jones conundrum, except I know and like all three candidates. They’re personable, professional and have solid followings.  Therefore. I’m voting based on what I think needs to happen in this city and in local body politic in general.
Let’s start with an analysis of the role, power and responsibilities of the board president: Arguably, the President of the Aldermanic Board holds the second highest position in city government. Along with the comptroller and Mayor he/she sits on the powerful Estimate and Apportionment board which essentially decides where taxpayer’s money go. The president of the board of aldermen leads the legislative body of the city. She/he decides what legislation or “board bills” go to what committees, who sits on those committees and what bills go to the mayor to be signed into law.  
Additionally, the President of the board of aldermen is supposed to serve in a “check & balance” position, making sure the mayor doesn’t just dominate the legislative process. Accordingly, she/he oversees the city’s budget process, set goals and monitors a variety of issues, including land-use, which happens to be of importance to me.
If you’ve read my commentaries, you know I’ve been very critical of the board of aldermen, especially black politicians. For the most part, as a collective, they seem weak and vision-less. I simply can’t understand how, for at least the past 20 years, they’ve approved and allowed taxpayer dollars to go to wealthy developers and majority stable, white neighborhoods. All this while the wards they serve remain mostly fallow, underdeveloped and under-served. Let me be clear, my criticism isn’t just relegated to the board of aldermen. As far as I’m concerned, elected officials on the state and national levels have also come up short in their roles as “black leaders.”
Still, some recently elected young, progressive politicians give me hope. I’m looking for the candidates who boldly demonstrates they can corral, motivate, inspire and move the board in a more positive, inclusive and racially-equitable direction.  


To be honest, all three candidates demonstrate weaknesses in the areas I outline. I also understand that whites outvote blacks in all local and national elections. From Obama on down the line, there is a tendency to downplay outright appeals to black voters out of fear of alienating white voters. However, in this era of dynamic, outspoken political leaders like Cong. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and our very own, Tishaura Jones, it’s time out for timid, racially-wary, appeasing politicians.   
It’s in this arena where current board president, Lewis Reed, gets the most scrutiny from me simply because he’s held the office for the past 11 years.
On his and the city’s websites, Reed boasts of his accomplishments as the 6th Ward aldermen in the Lafayette Square neighborhood. The revitalization and redevelopment work, which he says resulted in $1.7 billion in new development in the 6th Ward and on Washington Ave., is indeed laudable. However, after all those years in office, I expected evidence of how he’s worked with the aldermen he leads. What specific legislation has he championed for North St. Louis? He states no history or vision of what explicit initiatives he would pursue if reelected.
The election is in March. I suppose there’s enough time to make a better case for black leadership. I hope he does.
I’ve known Jamilah Nasheed, who was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives in 2006, ever since she opened an inner-city bookstore at the tinder age of 19. I respect her and do not doubt her passion or commitment towards her African American constituents. Her accomplishments outlined on her website and in a recent St. Louis American article are impressive.
Nasheed says, “I’m proud of my work giving a voice to the voiceless on issues like civil rights, women’s health and a living wage, fighting to improve our schools and stop crime, all the while bringing millions of dollars back home to serve our communities.”
 Great. But she doesn’t give us any examples of how she convinced other state legislators to follow her lead. I left her site wanting more evidence that she can indeed work with a diverse and difficult board of aldermen. What “board bills” will she adopt, pass onto committees and how will she persuade the mayor to sign them into law?
Ironically, it was 15th Ward Alderwoman, Meghan Green, the lone white candidate, who came closest to defining my idea of a aldermanic leader:
"The board lacks a legislative agenda…" Green told the Riverfront Times. “The petty politics, backroom deals, that's what's been dominating the board. We have to have somebody in that position who hasn't been playing the insider game and who hasn't been afraid to stand up to the status quo. That needs to the be the role of the president, to set that standard..."
Green, elected in 2014, is considered one of the most progressive members of the Aldermanic Board. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch highlighted, she’s been a vocal critic of tax incentives, expressed her desire to make City Hall more transparent and she wants to reform how St. Louis approaches public safety and economic development.
Green says she’s already “played a major role in driving the legislative agenda at the Board, by introducing bills governing community benefits agreements, marijuana decriminalization and police reform.”
Good stuff. But “driving legislation” that some colleagues may like is far different from seeking compromise, cajoling or convincing those who may disagree with her as president of the board. I’m a big fan but, as a “progressive” politician, I’ve yet to see how she’s been a “leader” among her black colleagues. She doesn’t mention the number of their bills she’s supported or how she helped them become law.
Are there any? I shouldn’t have to guess.
Let’s be real, the city is still racially and politically-divided. The president of the board must demonstrate that he/she has the juice to effectively wade into those divisive waters and make a “progressive difference.” Green doesn’t make a convincing argument in what I’ve read on her website or articles written so far.


Who will truly serve as the check & balance mechanism against the status quo? I didn’t see where any of the candidates addressed this efficiently.  Yes, Reed was there for the budgets approved under his tenure. But, considering that those city budgets, approved over the past 20 years have led to the enrichment of developers in stable, majority white-populated neighborhoods while leaving majority black North St. Louis wards high and dry isn’t particularly brag-worthy.
He cites that he founded Bike St. Louis and the online community platform Nextdoor. He also says he’s “a proud partner of the LGBTQ community and established the city’s first dog park. All good things but, seriously, how much opposition did Reed really have on these issues?
To be fair, on his website, Reed does cite examples of fighting “with the administration.” He says he had to “push good legislation” aimed at raising the minimum wage. He fought to introduce legislation that required developers to include community benefits agreements. He also says he developed “joint partnerships” that included “academia, nonprofit, clergy, business leaders, city services, the police and more” to work together on crime reduction efforts.  
“The relationships she’s built in Jefferson City will be an advantage over her opponents in the race,” Nasheed told the Post-Dispatch. Her work on the state level to “improve education, reduce incarceration and end human trafficking,” are examples of her ability to collaborate with fellow legislators.
I absolutely love Jamillah, but I’d be remiss not to mention her abrupt turn-around from avid critic of former Mayor Francis Slay to becoming one of his most prominent supporters. Reed, drilled down on this in an interview with the St. Louis American:
“Considering the fact that the soon to be termed out State Senator Nasheed was a hard-core supporter of and contributed money to former Mayor Francis Slay when I ran against him in 2013…I believe voters will easily see through her announcement statement as empty rhetoric and know that her true motives are not what’s good for the community, but only what’s good for her own personal benefit.”
Sour grapes? Perhaps. But it’s hard for me to get over her support of a mayor who did absolutely nothing to improve black neighborhoods throughout his 16 years in office.   
Nasheed says she’s “locked in over $6 million in the state budget for job and career training programs,” which include pre-apprenticeship programs for women and minorities and additional funding for nonprofits that support children and families. She also introduced and got Senate Bill 731 passed which was designed to help “preserve” St. Louis neighborhoods by going after absentee landlords who allow vacant properties to devalue neighbors. All wonderful but not exactly revolutionary ideas.
Nasheed accurately says “St. Louis has lived a tale of two cities, for far too long.” She’s vowed to bridge “the Delmar Divide,” address gun violence, the lack of opportunity for communities that have not seen growth or development and have “been left behind.”
Good words, but how exactly will she uplift those “left behind” communities? I saw no concrete platform, bold agenda or detailed explanation for economic investment in disadvantaged, black neighborhoods. Would saying so turn white voters off?
Mayor Lyda Krewson and some black aldermen have endorsed the idea or introduced legislation aimed at reducing the number of abandoned buildings or putting vacant buildings and land in the hands of low-income residents. So far, Nasheed has missed a golden opportunity to detail how she, as board president, will turn these ambitious wishes and proposed bills into concrete realities.
Green, on her website, takes a more direct, albeit equally-vague approach:
We can have a City that stops giving away money to developers who don’t qualify and gives everyday people a say in the development decisions that impact them.”
Under one of her “Boldly Forward” categories, Green says she will challenge the city system that doled out $700 million in tax revenues, TIFs and tax-abatements to “the wealthiest wards in the City and resulted in the significant displacement of low-income African Americans from these areas.”
I agree with her assessment that “the City should be more responsible” and limit questionable subsidies without community benefit. But, as they say, the devil is in the details. The RFT article also noted that some of Green’s colleagues on the board “see her as a show-off more interested in playing to her progressive base than getting things done.” Can she be effective with those outside her fan base? How will she wane other less trusting aldermen off the tax-supported subsidy nipple and into an environment where investments in less affluent neighborhoods and poorer people are a priority?
Voters need to know.
Since the mid-1990s, African Americans have held at least two of these authoritative seats. Green’s candidacy threatens to upset that ratio. Now, considering how little black neighborhoods and residents have benefited from having “black faces in high places,” a shake-up might be warranted.
Still, with a white mayor and a white candidate who’s yet to show how “progressive” she can really be with African-American legislators, Green’s candidacy comes with a risk.


Green, Nasheed and Reed all support the city-wide use of community benefit agreements that work with residents to determine which projects should receive tax subsidies. Oh, there’s plenty of nit-picking among them. Nasheed says Reed didn’t push hard enough for community benefits in exchange for tax subsidies. Reed and Green both introduced community benefit agreements bills last year. Both had differences regarding who would negotiate what deals: the aldermen, a committee of ward residents or some combination of both. Neither bill got enough votes for passage however.
All the candidates share a desire to direct city funds toward crime reduction. But, it’s in this arena where the two black candidates have given me the willies.
Earlier this year, Nasheed sent a letter to Gov. Mike Parson asking him to declare a state of emergency in the city. Her argument, according to media accounts, was if we spend billions fighting the Taliban, why can’t we spend a fraction of that money combating drug dealers and street gangs in St. Louis.
Reed has latched onto Operation Ceasefire, a 1990s Boston-born initiative that saw a 63 percent reduction in youth homicides two years after it was implemented. The program includes a strategy in which police, prosecutors, community leaders and service providers engage with reputed gang members. If they fail to stem violent behavior suspected perpetrators will be targeted for arrests, prosecution and stiffer penalties.
I have nothing against efforts to reduce crime, but we already suffer from police brutality, unarmed shootings of black people, prosecutorial misconduct, race-based stops and sentencing. Just because the program has been universally praised in the media and appeals to insensitive and unconnected white voters doesn’t mean it will work in St. Louis. I’m skeptical of any effort designed to empower law enforcement to target minorities. Additionally, dozens of cities have adopted Boston’s cease fire program with spotty results. Some, like Chicago, still have disproportionate murder and crime rates.
I’m biased, but I sincerely believe solutions for crime reduction are already in our midst. I believe we will never stem disproportionate rates of crime or murder until we do the hard work of eradicating poverty, investing in poor neighborhoods and empowering residents to control their own social and economic futures. 
Besides, there are dozens of nonprofits like Better Family Life, Beloved Streets of America, the Sweet Potato Project and many more working on affordable housing, urban entrepreneurism and economic development in poor, high-crime areas. Who will lead the charge in investing city funds into local efforts?
Once again, Green’s approach seems more practical but short on specifics:
“For too long, St. Louis has invested in an “arrest and incarcerate” model that strains the relationship between police and the community while failing to address the root causes of crime in our community.  We can’t make the city safer without addressing poverty, the lack of opportunity, mental health, and drug addiction.”
Unlike Reed, Green isn’t just looking outside St. Louis for solutions. She vows to use the Ferguson Commission Report, Washington University’s “For Sake of All Report and recommendations from Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and Campaign Zero “as blueprints as we re-envision public safety to invest in people.”
The cease-fire approach comes with the scary possibilities aligned with increasing police and the courts power, but it also includes working with a network of nonprofits and social agencies. It’s here where Reed needs to provide clarity and specifics that explain how black leaders and organizations can significantly increase their roles in public safety and crime prevention while avoiding the racist “war on drugs” legacy that has historically targeted, prosecuted and persecuted black people while crippling black communities.


It may seem like I’m leaning toward Green in the upcoming race. I’m not, at least not at this point. My wish is that the candidates consider this commentary a request for lucidity, specifics and a solid agenda, not simple soundbites and feel-good rhetoric.
Last year, we blew a historic opportunity to elect Tishaura Jones, a young, refreshing mayoral candidate who spooked the status quo and specifically spoke to an equitable agenda for all St. Louisans. Across the country, recently elected bold, articulate and dynamic minority and female candidates are poised for great change in our nation.
This is not the time for lackluster leadership in our region. St. Louis is still overwhelmingly stale, stuck in the past, void of leadership and overall vision-less. Candidates for the powerful president of the board of aldermen seat can better explain their qualifications and expectations for this role.
My hope, as we move closer to March, is that they will update their websites, speak publicly or simply show voters how they, without a doubt, will lead the board of aldermen and the city into a new era of progressive, inclusive and equitable governance for all.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

No Serenity in the “Things I Cannot Change…”

Originally published at

Remember that popular, old “Serenity Prayer” where God is supposed to help us accept the things we can’t change, change what we can and simply be serene with the wisdom to define the difference?
Well, it’s not working for me now days.
I’m finding less and less peacefulness in a world where kids gunned down in schools is less newsworthy than the latest Kanye West, jiggaboo rant at the White House. It’s harder and harder to accept the fact that Neo-Nazis, white extremists and domestic terrorism is a bigger threat to Americans than the Taliban or Isis? There’s no calm when mass shooters echo the not-so-subtle, racist rhetoric of our (ugh) president. How, God, am I to be serene when I can’t stop newly empowered white folk from condemning and confronting citizens for taking their jobs or speaking their native tongue in public? Where is the tranquility when white people routinely call the cops on black folk for…well…simply being black folk?
The thought of cleansing Congress of a few rabid, Republican lackeys recently or the possibility of voting Donald Trump out of office in two years, should give me some level of comfort, right? Well, it doesn’t. Why? Because deep down I know that Trump is merely the most glaring symptom of an uglier, metastasized cancer in the bones, brain and organs of America. This untreated disease will run its God-awful course even if we somehow cut out the malignant tumor that is Trump.
You see, Trump didn’t just come out of nowhere. We Americans tolerated, abetted and enabled a toxic environment where an ill-informed, inarticulate, racist, buffoonish snake oil salesman has a national platform to spew hatred, division and white nationalism.
I am discomforted by the revelation that, in all honesty, the mainstream media, Trump’s ongoing nemesis, created our Frankenstein-in-Chief.
Hindsight can be a curse or a blessing. But if we look back a mere 20 years or so, we can see the genesis of the propagandist pathway that has invaded the hollowed halls of the once reputable 4th Estate.
Most of the established news media scoffed when the savvy Australian-American media mogul, Rupert Murdoch launched the FOX News Network. It started in 1996 with an estimated 17 million cable subscribers. Almost 10 years later, 2015, the network that specializes in Right-wing dogma skewed to validate the wacky, racist, extremist psycho-babble of its viewers had garnered an audience of almost 95 million.
In the early 2000’s, the heads of mainstream media outlets found themselves in a state of sheer panic. The phenomenon of the Internet, which gave the public the power to choose news that complimented their individual biases and beliefs had affected their bottom lines. This new form of “individualism” exposed through TV, radio and the Internet quickly dismantled old, established forms of public news-sharing in America.
The first victim of this new media onslaught was print media. With an estimated 80 percent of its revenues coming from advertising, it couldn’t compete with the up-to-the-minute, 24-hour programming offered by television, radio and Internet outlets.
I went to work for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch around the time when newspapers were manically reacting to mass media competition. Across the nation newspapers initiated hiring freezes, downsized their operations or offered buy-outs to hundreds of seasoned, old-school journalists.
The long-standing tenets of journalistic objectivity and impartiality were undermined by money-making schemes aimed at attracting mostly younger audiences. In-depth, hard-hitting news stories were shortened for quick, easy cell phone or laptop access. Informative content was supplemented with more entertainment, more lifestyle and more personality-driven stories. Soon, not only newspapers, but left-leaning cable networks worked overtime to give news coverage that appeased the hordes of right-leaning readers and viewers who represented pure, unlimited advertising gold for conservative news organizations.
Political and social coverage and commentaries legitimized the woes of the “angry white American.” One 2011 study by Tufts University revealed that most whites felt that they, not blacks, were the new victims of racial discrimination.
How are those of us who “know the difference” supposed to peacefully reconcile the big, fat lie of a “post racial society?” We know that Donald Trump’s ascendancy directly correlates with the fallout and fanaticism associated with the election of America’s first black President.
The paranoid idea of rising anti-white racism coupled with the ludicrous notion that “liberals” had somehow orchestrated the election of an undercover Muslim became “real news” and not just on FOX. Major mainstream media outlets gave coverage to the wild notion that Obama wasn’t born in the US and had no legitimate birth certificate. This highly publicized claim, amplified by then businessman Donald Trump, ingratiated him among the legions of Tea Party followers, white supremacists and even so-called rational whites who had no sympathies, ties or allegiances to any political or extremist group.
I begrudgingly give Trump credit for accurately accessing the tone and tenor of many white voters. I use the term hesitantly because there should be no credit for benefiting from or accelerating racial animosity or division. Yet, the reality TV show King, waged his bets on just how ugly, uninformed and divisive his base was and continues to be.
Again, the mainstream media also played a role in codifying racial fears. There’s tons of research showing how it always has and continues to disproportionately depict African-Americans as criminals, and whites as victims. Even today, black or Latino gang members receive more public outrage and media scrutiny than the overwhelmingly disproportionate number of assault weapon-carrying white men shooting up schools, churches and synagogues in America.
Why do we feign surprise at people who support the callous act of separating brown, immigrant babies from their parents and locking them in cages? These are the same people who condone and justify the vigilante-style murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the police shootings of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 18-year-old Mike Brown? They exhibited widespread callousness, inhumanity and disregard for brown and black lives long before Trump kicked off his presidential campaign.
This type of reckless reporting has bolstered the fears of whites who have no intimate connections with Latinos or blacks or their life experiences in a country founded on racism and the selfish “me first” philosophy of nativism.
The “Me too” movement and the “March for Our Lives” gun reform protests launched by women and affluent young people has received respectable media coverage. In fact, the “Me Too” movement has resulted in immediate redress with the outing, firing and ostracizing of high-profile celebrities, politicians and corporate leaders.
Not so with “the Black Lives Matter (BLM)” movement. It has been repeatedly positioned in the media as suspect, violent, terroristic or in direct opposition to more palatable slogans like “Blue Lives Matter” or “All Lives Matter.” Unlike the “Me Too” movement, there has been little respectful coverage, redress or collective action taken to hold cops accountable or deter them from unceremoniously shooting unarmed black people.
While on the campaign trail, Trump purposely positioned himself as the “law and order” candidate. Last year he encouraged a crowd of police officers “not to be “too nice” when arresting suspects. It’s why four weeks before the mid-term elections, Trump was out on the stump portraying Democrats as “anti-police.” All this and more are parts of Trump’s dog whistle to whites that all the people they fear, all the “others,” are to be placed in one endangered basket, be they Black, Hispanic, immigrant, poor or oppressed.
My lack of serenity comes from the fact the cat is out of the bag, that racism is again mainstream and that “stupid” is not only standard but profitable and inculcated in our society. There’s no peace in the idea that mass media has become neutered, manipulated and maligned to a point where it serves as a propaganda tool and source for anarchy. Trump’s madness has become mainstream and certainly there are other politicians ready to embrace and exploit his sensationalized, reality TV-based shenanigans.
So, yeah, God, I accept the things I cannot change. And, yes, I will continue trying to change what I can. But, I gotta tell you, having the wisdom to differentiate between these two parallel dynamics gives me absolutely no serenity. 

Sylvester Brown,. Jr.

Sylvester is a writer, former St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist and the director of the Sweet Potato Project, an entrepreneurial program for urban youth.               

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.