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Missouri History Forum Stresses Younger Voices On Next Steps After Protests

Emanuele Berry|St. Louis Public Radio

When Kevin Powell was 15 he found himself cuffed and bloodied in the back of a police car.

He’d been pulled off a bus for fighting with another kid. Though the police calmly removed the other, fair-skinned, fighter from the bus; Kevin was thrown in the cop car and assaulted by officers after mouthing off.

Last night Powell shared this story with the St. Louis community as part of a town hall meeting. More than 150 people packed the Missouri History Museum's main hall to discuss the impact of Ferguson and the next steps forward for the community.

Powell is a New York-based activist, author and president and co-founder of BKNationOrg.  In his opening remarks, Powell told the audience that Michael Brown’s death and the protest in Ferguson are starting points for a dialogue communities can no longer ignore. 

“I believe in rainbows, but I’m also clear rainbows only come after there is a storm. And the storm that we need to have is a conversation that we’ve been avoiding over and over again in our country,” Powell said. “And I’ve come to the conclusion no one is going to do it, but us, we the people. We have no choice. So Ferguson, Missouri, America, where do we go from here?”

Whatever steps the community takes toward healing and growth, Powell says they will not be quick and easy solutions.

“If you really are concerned about justice, you have to be willing to do the work. This is not a sprint; this is marathon,” he said.

Before he opened the floor up to the audience, Powell emphasized the importance of committing to justice and community mobilization to create change.

Let the youth speak

For the majority of the event, Powell acted as moderator. Many St. Louis area residents lined up for a turn at the microphone. However, throughout the night, Powell and organizers stressed the importance of letting the youth speak, even asking that speakers under 30 have the opportunity to talk first.

Jay Mitchell, a 22 year old from Pagedale, helped organize a peace vigil for Michael Brown on Aug. 14 under the Gateway Arch. When Mitchell had a chance to speak to the audience, he said he was grateful for the opportunity.

“I’ve sat in meetings after meeting with Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson, Judge Mathis, Kiki Palmer and the list goes on,” he said. “And I got sick of it.  They were not talking to us. They were not talking at us. They were talking about us. And enough was enough.”

Mitchell told town hall participants that youth leaders are not being heard because nobody wants to listen.

“I’ve heard from Al Sharpton and Tammie Holland and so forth and so on and (they) say ‘Hey, where are the youth leaders?’ and I’m saying, ‘Hey, I’m here. I'm just not being heard,’ " Mitchell said.

Monday’s discussion was different, said St. Louis resident Johnetta Elzie.

Elzie said she went to a town hall meeting a week and half ago where she said she felt like she was being lectured. 

… it is not just us being talked to by older people who have already been through the struggle and are done.

“I didn’t think it was very productive, so we just came to see what this one would be like. "

As a young adult, she said she felt included at this event.

“There is actually a conversation and it’s not just us being talked to by older people who have already been through the struggle and are done.”

A first of many meetings

Activist Powell said he hopes people make a commitment to continue meetings like Monday’s.

“There needs to be a sustained regular gathering of people like this, not with a guest speaker or guest moderator in from New York,“ he said. “But it’s got to be led and organized by local people, and the people here have to make a commitment to that.” 

Beyond sustaining community meetings, Powell said it’s important for the community to commit to justice.

“Michael Brown is the son of all of us,” he said. “That’s the brother of all of us. That’s the grandson of all of us. And for me you know, we are talking about race today, but as an activist I don’t care if it’s racism, sexism , classism, homophobia. Every from of oppression and injustice should be unacceptable to all of us.” 

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The conversation was live streamed and also took place on twitter.