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Anger Over Brown's Death Boils Over Into St. Louis County Council Meeting

Protests and chants came into the St. Louis County Council chambers Tuesday night.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

It’s been well over a month since a Ferguson police officer shot and killed Michael Brown. And for the most part, the St. Louis County Council was shielded from the unbridled anger over the 18-year-old’s death.

That reprieve ended on Tuesday.

The council’s chambers were packed with supporters of Brown and his family, with the vast majority of the crowd giving the county’s top executive and legislative officeholders a blazing array of criticism.

They reiterated demands made last week to the Ferguson City Council and on streets across America: Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson should be arrested and St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch should recuse himself from the state investigation.

“I came here to urge y'all to be on the right side of history,” said Kareem Jackson, a rapper who’s more commonly known as Tef Poe. “Because you can sit there and act like it isn’t a relevant issue. But you people are the reason why the entire world came to Ferguson, Missouri. You want to be on the right side of history when our children read about this issue.”

“You don’t want Missouri to look like Birmingham, Alabama, in 1968,” he added. “You’re going down in a big ball of flames. It’s happening. The world is documenting this.”

Nearly 40 people spoke out during Tuesday’s public forum, primarily to voice continued outrage over Brown’s death and its aftermath. For the most part, this was the first time since Brown was killed that the council heard from a lot of people on the matter. The past five or six meetings have been sparsely attended, even though the St. Louis County Police Department and McCulloch have been major players in the controversy.

But that wasn’t the case on Tuesday. Members of the audience interrupted the meetings numerous times with chants and demonstrations. Many took umbrage over how members of the St. Louis County Police Department conducted themselves after Brown’s death. Others focused their ire on McCulloch, who has become a target among individuals protesting Brown’s death. (McCulloch has said he won’t step aside from the case.)

Don Fitz, a supporter of the Green Party, urged the council to pass a resolution supporting the arrest of Darren Wilson.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Don Fitz, a supporter of the Green Party, urged the council to pass a resolution supporting the arrest of Darren Wilson.

“You know, this is like leaving the fox to watch the chickens,” said Katherine Jackson, referring to McCulloch continuing to prosecute the case.

The council has fairly limited power over the prosecutor’s office and the police department, besides approving each entity’s budget every year. McCulloch is elected and his office is separate from the St. Louis County executive. Meanwhile,  a five-person board is responsible for overseeing the police department.

Still, some speakers – including Don Fitz – asked the council to support resolutions calling on McCulloch to step aside or for Wilson to be arrested. That didn’t occur.

“I think that everybody is going to walk away from this county council meeting doing absolutely nothing,”  said Fitz, a supporter of the Green Party.

Stenger under fire

One of the newer wrinkles to Tuesday was how many in the crowd openly threatened to withhold support from Councilman Steve Stenger, the Democratic nominee for St. Louis County executive.

Stenger, D-Affton, trounced incumbent St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley a few days before Brown was shot and killed. McCulloch played a major role in Stenger’s campaign, even making appearances in television and radio advertisements.

Steve Stenger
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio | file photo
Steve Stenger

Some in the crowd said that McCulloch’s support for Stenger was a major liability. Stenger faces Republican Rick Stream, a state legislator from Kirkwood, in November.

“We will do everything in our power to show up on election day to vote,” said Eric Davis, a cousin of Michael Brown. “Because we see you sitting up here with this smug look on your face like we do not matter. And we do matter. And we'll have our say in November when we go to vote.”

Some even promised to write in Michael Brown’s name instead of voting for Stenger. If many do, that could deprive Stenger of votes from one of the most Democratic areas of St. Louis County. (In fact, Dooley’s re-election in 2010 was linked, in part, to his ability to win big in north St. Louis County.)

“For many times, we have been used as pawns in this little systematic games,” said Henry Logan. “I’m letting you know we have a plan in action – hashtag write in Mike Brown. And I want to promote that tonight, because Mike Brown is going to be our next leader.”

county council sept 16
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
After the public comment period, many filed out with hands up.

Zaki Baruti and Anthony Shahid – two long-time activists who have been mainstays in the Ferguson protests – demanded that Stenger denounce McCulloch by noon on Wednesday.

“The black community demands that of you,” Baruti said. “And if that’s not the case, then we will make sure that you are not elected as county executive.”

On Wednesday, Stenger said in an interview with KMOX radio that he did not “renounce” Bob McCulloch by 12 noon, as protestors had demanded nor does he intend to sever ties with McCulloch.

Whether Stenger suffers from African-American defections will depend on how well he can do in other parts of the county. He defeated Dooley soundly in south and central St. Louis County, which contain major reservoirs of Democratic voters. His surrogates are also castigating Stream for votes he made during veto session, including his support for a multi-faceted firearms bill.

Stenger didn’t speak to reporters after Tuesday’s meetings. He did read portions of prepared remarks before the public forum section started, but he didn’t finish them after the hostile crowd interrupted him.

“This is your government, and I and the members of the County Council have the responsibility to listen to your concerns. And we will,” Stenger said before he was cut off. “We know you are here to pursue justice.”

Dooley proposes waiving court fee

Meanwhile, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley asked the council to eliminate a $25 court cost fee  assessed for violations in the county’s municipal court. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley wants to waive a $25 court fee. It's in response to the growing backlash over municipal courts in St. Louis County.

This comes as both local and state legislative leaders are discussing big changes to how municipal courts operate. The municipal courts have come under fire for throwing predominantly low-income African-American residents into financial and legal turmoil.

Dooley said in a written statement that waiving the $25 fee would should showcase that the county “can do to make St. Louis County a better place to live, work and play.”

“The recent events in Ferguson have raised our community’s awareness of the hardships that can result from being assessed large fines and costs for even minor infractions of the law,” Dooley said in a letter to council members.

The change could affect hundreds of thousands of people in the county’s unincorporated areas, which includes large portions of south county and parts of northcounty. The council could act on the proposal in the next few weeks. 

In the meantime, the Ferguson City Council is set to meet next week to vote on a number of changes to how its police and municipal court system runs. Last week’s meeting drew a crowd so large that they had to use a church to accommodate everybody.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.