Wednesday, January 30, 2019

There will be no "Better Together" without Respect

By Sylvester Brown, Jr.

I love St. Louis!

As a much younger journalist born and raised in “Da Lou,” I never imagined myself saying those words. For decades, I’ve complained about our region’s stubborn, segregationist mindset; the uber-wealthy oligarchs who run roughshod over citizens with tax-dependent developments in already stable neighborhoods. I’ve taken these rich, disconnected ruffians to task for dismantling and displacing entire black communities while callously disregarding loyal long-time residents.  I’ve criticized black and white leaders for their lack of vision and inaction regarding reciprocity and equality. The disproportionate economic, social and racial inequities drive me batty.
All this and more comes to my mind as local media outlets are all abuzz about a plan to merge St. Louis City with St. Louis County. A group called “Better Together” recently announced a detailed reunification process. It's a bold plan designed to wed the city with the county in order to make us a bigger, better and more unified metropolis.
Maybe I'm just a paranoid skeptic, but this proposed matrimony gives me the heebie-jeebies. It makes wonder about the complexities and ramifications of  so-called "change."  
Again, I've come to truly love this city. It's an extraordinary place where I, an impoverished youth and high school dropout, still managed to carve out a role as a respected magazine publisher, a columnist for the city’s major newspaper and a verbal activist for "at-risk" children and revitalized long-ignored neighborhoods. I’m not alone in this category of uniqueness. St. Louis is small enough and unexplored enough that almost any wild-eyed dreamer can make his or her mark. It's a place where that old, oft-cited creed: “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” is a proud staple of our tenacity and grit.  
The city of St. Louis, with all its dysfunctional pieces, has that distinct trailblazer spirit. Our protests have set the template for civil disobedience demonstrations around the world. We are the unofficial home of the St. Paul Sandwich and a burgeoning, racially-diverse, progressive political base. It’s yummy, unconventional venues like Mokabe's, Red Guitar Bread, Uncle Bill’s, Goody-Goody and Sunday breakfast at CW Lounge. This is the place where an avantgarde individual like spoken word artist Bruce Franks can employ his swag at the State Capitol. That spirit of urban "toughness" is exemplified by Tishaura Jones, the grassroots gentrifiers of Old North and the eclectic treasures found in the Grove and the Chippewa strip. It’s John Goodman and Goodfellow, Cedric and St. Louis Ave., Dick Gregory and Grand Blvd, Tennessee Williams and Walnut Park. It’s Josephine Baker, Maya Angelou, Redd Fox, Tina Turner, Chingy, SZA, Akon and so many others who were born here and went out to showcase their brilliance against incredible odds.

The city of St. Louis, with all its dysfunctional pieces, has that distinct trailblazer spirit. 

No doubt, there are many benefits to this merging thing. St. Louis' population has been on a steady decline since the 1950s. Back in the early 1900s, we were the fourth largest population in the country. We’re now in 62nd place. Merging the city and county would give us a combined population of 1.3 million residents, ranking the region as the 10th largest city in the country.
Fine, great. But “bigger” doesn’t necessarily mean “better.” If both the city and county are stigmatized by racial polarization, segregation and social and economic disparities, most likely, we’re gonna get more fat-cat control and more privatization without community input. There’s a chance we’ll have more police malfeasance, bigger tax perks and hand-outs to rich developers. "Bigger" might mean larger numbers of underfunded public schools, quietly codified housing discrimination, more minority political under-representation and over all bigger regional disdain for voters, poor people and people of color.
My spider senses immediately started tingling when I learned that Better Together has been bankrolled by billionaire philanthropist and political donor Rex Sinquefield. Love him or loathe him, he isn’t exactly the poster child for public input or grassroots involvement in many of the issues he's paid for or promoted.
Glenn Burleigh, spokesman for STL Not for Sale, the anti-airport privatization group, posted something on Facebook that underscores Sinquefield’s influence on the people responsible for Better Together’s merger plan:
“A rich person chose five people to make decisions in an unaccountable vacuum and we all have to live through the process of pushing the outcome of a sterling example of the idiotic ‘design thinking’ that plagues America's elites, these days.”
 Granted, there are a bunch of folks much smarter than me who back this fusion sensation. At a recent political forum, all three candidates for the president of the board of aldermen's seat said they support a city/county marriage in some form or another.
    But here’s what gets me, the city I love is being portrayed as the unwanted, balloon-headed stepchild in conversations outside the city. Instead of being viewed as the cultural hub of the state, the crown jewel of boot-strap innovation, we’re largely stereotyped by county and rural outsiders as a crime-filled land of the walking dead, overflowing with lazy welfare recipients and violent drugged-out, dark-skinned predators.
“A rich person chose five people to make decisions in an unaccountable vacuum and we all have to live through the process of pushing the outcome of a sterling example of the idiotic ‘design thinking’ that plagues America's elites, these days.”

The Better Together crew are calling for a statewide vote to decide whether to consolidate the city and County. Some state legislators, county mayors and the St. Louis County Municipal League, which represents county towns, are against the merger. Many cite the city's disproportionate numbers of murders, impoverished and homelessness people. Those are serious concerns but the negativeness of the city doesn't define our city. And, as newsman Charles Jaco penned in a recent St. Louis American commentary, “racism has more than a little to do with the opposition by many of the county’s towns to a merger.”
We’re now asking the “white flight” people who vacated the city for the perceived benefits of the ‘burbs,’ to now become decision-makers and stewards of the city. 
Before we talk nuptials, let’s talk progress. As backwards as the city is in many respects, it’s far ahead of the county in terms of addressing racial reciprocity and economic equity. Treasurer and 2017 mayoral candidate Tishaura Jones, several “progressive” white aldermen, some newly elected black aldermen and at least two of the president of the board of aldermen candidates have effectively challenged our stale, good-ole-boy, pay-to-play political system. They have bold, inclusive narrative and have established new ways to engage and activate voters, especially young voters. 
The city/county merger threatens to, if not erase, drastically change the city’s promising trajectory. Still, a lot of people welcome that change. I get it. 

"Racism has more than a little to do with the opposition by many of the county’s towns to a merger." - Charles Jaco

This is not to say there’s been no racial progress in county politics. According to Better Together, Wesley Bell’s victory in the county prosecutor’s race “demonstrates that majority white populations can and do elect African-American officials." 
Maybe, but least we forget that once Bell, who campaigned on the issue of police accountability, was elected, county prosecutors voted to join the St. Louis Police Officers Association (SLPOA). The very organization Jaco aptly described as a “labor union in the same way the Ku Klux Klan is a “fraternal organization.” 
I've become very protective of this city. I may criticize her but I don't like it when its done by outsiders. With this merger, city and county leaders act like St. Louis is damaged goods, like the county is the prize bridegroom and the city is the deformed, damaged and desperate bride. The county may have the population and potential to improve our status nationally, but don’t get this stuff twisted. We are the prize. Nobody travels hundreds or thousands of miles to visit the St. Louis County Zoo, Muny, Opera or the County Cardinals. They don't come here for county barbecue or county blues.  If the county doesn't respect the city at the beginning of this courtship, we're destined for an abusive relationship after we're wed. 

With this merger, city leaders act like St. Louis is damaged goods, like the county is the prize bridegroom and St. Louis is the deformed, damaged and desperate bride.

I’m not poo-pooing the whole idea of a merger. I just think both the city and county need time to prepare for the marriage.  The city, especially, needs time to refine itself, establish itself as a progressive, diverse, crown jewel before we compromise our progress.  
Consider this a plea from someone who sees the untapped potential of a disrespected populace; someone wary of highfalutin, well-financed but short-sighted schemes to change things; someone who’s grown tired of black folk being irrelevant in this region.
Forgive my skepticism. I can’t help myself. After all, I’m just an ordinary guy who loves his extraordinary city.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Elect Jamilah Nasheed: Let’s Do What We Gotta Do!

Jan. 16, 2019
By Sylvester Brown, Jr.

State Senator Jamilah Nasheed and me

Five years ago, State Senator Jamilah Nasheed casually parked her car in front of her home in the 4000 block of Olive Blvd. Seemingly out of nowhere, a wannabe carjacker pointed a gun at her head, demanding the keys to her car. Nasheed refused and according to the police report, the suspect threatened to blow her brains out.  
“Do what you’re going to do," the politician stubbornly responded. Miraculously, the stunned suspect returned to his car and drove away.
That story from 2014 came back to me last week as candidate Nasheed and I met for lunch at River Lillie, a cozy little southern-style restaurant in the Old North neighborhood. Over salmon croquettes and fried catfish, Nasheed laid out her case for election in the upcoming president of the board of alderman’s race. With deep dimples that emphasized a smile uncoordinated with her intense glare, she told me:
“Syl, we simply have to change the leadership in this city.”

“Do what you’re going to do," the politician stubbornly responded. 

As we talked, I was reminded of the then 41-year-old, stubborn, tough-as-steel politician who stood her ground with a gun pointed at her face.  Probably not the smartest move in such a dangerous situation but Nasheed is no stranger to danger or death.
A few months before she was born, her father, a Vietnam War veteran, was killed in a drive-by shooting while playing dice outside the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. Two years later, her mom committed suicide. Nasheed was raised by her grandmother, Evelyn Williams, in the Darst-Webbe housing projects. She and her three brothers lived off $500 of government assistance every month. Before she became a Muslim and bookstore-owner, Nasheed was a teenage thug. She was a gangbanger, drug dealer and was even sent to juvenile detention for stabbing a young lady.
I’ve had my issues with Nasheed. In a commentary last month, I questioned her credentials to lead the board of Aldermen. Still, I was leaning in her direction. It was my “shero,” Treasurer, Tishaura Jone’s recent endorsement, that sealed the deal for me. I found myself agreeing with her assessment of Nasheed:
“We need someone who is going to be bold and effective,” Jones wrote. “She isn’t in this for herself. No matter what part of the city you come from, no matter your background, no matter how you grew up, she is here for all of us.”
I haven’t forgotten Nasheed’s role during the 2017 mayoral election travesty where three black candidates divided the vote which led to Mayor Lyda Krewson’s slim victory. Nasheed, who was the fourth candidate, dropped out of the race and suggested the others do the same. They should all endorse Tishaura Jones, she said because she had the juice to beat Krewson. Jones loss the election by a mere 888 votes. If only one of the black candidates dropped out, she’d possibly be mayor today.

“We need someone who is going to be bold and effective...” - Tishaura Jones on Jamilah Nasheed 

I’ve always admired Nasheed’s moxie and her commitment to her constituents, black, white, common, influential, rich or poor. Of the three candidates running in the race, I believe Nasheed will be the tough leader we need in these tough times.  
You see, I was born, raised and still live in the city of St. Louis. I’ve been writing about this place, its politics and people for more than 30 years. This has given me insight into what to expect. Right now, like the young folk say, the city is feelin’ itself. Once again, its arrogantly, bodaciously and recklessly making moves to rectify mistakes of the past.
More than 140 years ago, city leaders, tired of providing the lion's share of tax revenues to the county, established a new state constitution. “Home Rule” was designed to give the city control of its own destiny without interference from county governments. Because of its soaring population at the time, the city created boundaries that divided it from the county. As a result, it locked itself out any opportunities to expand its territorial reach. Home Rule also fueled the creation of duplicate systems: sanitation, public schools and fire and police departments throughout the region.
In the early, 1950s, once again confident that its population was going to exceed the one million-mark, city leaders sought to remove its black population from the downtown area for redevelopment. They failed to realize that new highways and new developments in the suburbs would lead to a dramatic loss of its white population.  
For at least the past 30 years, they’ve used tax dollars and incentives to unapologetically shore up or rebuild areas of the city that has the potential to bring upper-to-middle-class whites back to the city. The Central West End, the Central Corridor, parts of south St. Louis and the downtown area surrounding the new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) are all being primed for the arrival of the county’s “exodusters,” new age “gentrifiers” and high-wage-earning millennials.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with growth or expansion. Personally, I like the new breed of young whites who have migrated to the city. Some of them want to see a more progressive, more diverse, safer and more vibrant metropolis. Many are looking for ways to be a part of holistic change, but their enthusiasm is muted by division and the lack of a unified vision. The reality is that St. Louis has a long, ugly history of doing development in arrogant, unequitable, dismissive and racist ways. Just like in the old days of purposeful segregation today’s stale, stoic leaders are still insisting on investing in white neighborhoods while leaving black communities to rot and ruin. The city needs tough, visionary, young and diverse leaders to upset the apple cart of rich, mostly white oligarchs’ intent on territorial domination through cherry-picked, tax-dependent developments.
As far as Nasheed is concerned, her major opponent, current Aldermanic Board President, Lewis Reed, has been compromised by the power barons. She also asserts that he has not “leveraged his power for the benefit of all constituents.”
The “power” Nasheed referenced is his seat on the powerful Board of Estimate and Apportionment (A&E), the city’s chief fiscal body, along with the mayor and comptroller.
For example, Nasheed says Reed is playing “footsy” with the powers-that-be intent on privatizing the city’s biggest asset, St. Louis Lambert International Airport. She questions why they are doing so without public input.
Lately, local media has been fixated on what I deem “silly news,” regarding what individuals were fired by recently elected black politicians or the hours State Rep Bruce Franks (District 78), worked with youth as part of his part time job with a city agency. All this nonsense while a bigger, dare I say, more unethical scam is being perpetrated by fat cats and politicians involved with privatizing the airport.

Nasheed says Reed is playing “footsy” with the powers-that-be intent on privatizing the city’s biggest asset, St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

 The St. Louis American and a few other news outlets have provided in-depth analysis of the situation but here’s a brief summary: Shortly before leaving office, former Mayor Francis G. Slay initiated the process to seek federal approval to study the prospect of putting Lambert under private management. A year later, he and a slew of his former staffers were hired as consultants for the Madrid-based company that’s one of three top contenders in the bidding process. Slay has teamed with “Grow Missouri” a nonprofit funded by Missouri billionaire Rex Sinquefield to submit the application to the Federal Aviation Administration. According to news reports, Grow Missouri is paying the consultant fees at the tune of about $800,000 a month. If the city goes through with its privatization efforts, taxpayers will reimburse Grow Missouri.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Melody Walker’s piece explores the possible conflict-of-interest concerns and violations of Missouri statutes involved in this boondoggle. Alderwoman Cara Spencer (D-20th Ward) and Alderman Scott Ogilvie (D-24th Ward) have sponsored a bill requiring a public vote on any airport privatization plans.  Mayor Lyda Krewson does not support the idea and, along with Reed, voted to allow the privatization study to go forward. Comptroller Darlene Green, who also sits on the E&A board voted “no.” Meanwhile, Spencer and Ogilvie’s bill is being held up, without a vote, in the Board of Aldermen’s Transportation and Commerce Committee.

This is the sort of political thuggery that calls for new, aggressive leadership. Nasheed is in favor of giving citizens the right to vote on the issue. She’s also publicly called for the removal of Grow Missouri from the Airport Privatization Advisory Team, even though she’s received campaign money from Sinquefield.

This sort of political thuggery calls for new, aggressive leadership.

I like and respect Lewis and the other contender in the aldermanic president’s race, Megan Ellyia Green. However, of the three, I feel Nasheed has the passion, community connections, street cred and experience to shake things up at City Hall. During our lunch, we discussed development in black communities that would be on par with years of tax-paid developments in already stable, white communities. Nasheed immediately went to “empowerment,” saying we should find, support and empower up-and-coming black developers and nonprofits already doing the hard work of stabilizing, reenergizing and revitalizing long-ignored and underfunded neighborhoods.

Candidate and State Senator Jamilah Nasheed 
The St. Louis region needs serious political reform. The outdated, narrow-minded, good-ole-boy system here needs a challenge in the form of the female surge that swept Congress during the midterm elections. The name “Jamillah Nasheed” has that same culturally-refreshing ring as other firebrand newcomers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Gina Ortiz-Jones and Jahana Hayes.
If the endorsement of an old dude who’s been chronicling St. Louis’ adventures and misadventures forever has any weight, I’m throwing it behind Nasheed. We need fresh blood, we need more bold, female elected officials, we need someone to challenge the greedy, unchallenged status quo in this city. We need someone who can face a symbolic gun to her head without blinking, someone who will gird her shoulders for the fight and say: “Do what you’re gotta do! I’m gonna protect what I hold dear.”