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Nixon Forms 'Ferguson Commission' To Examine Divisions Throughout The Region

Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

More than two months after Michael Brown’s death exposed deep fissures within the St. Louis region, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced the formation of a commission aimed at healing the divide. 

During a speech at  St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley, Nixon discussed an executive order establishing a “Ferguson Commission.” In prepared remarks released before he spoke, Nixon said he hoped the members of the commission, who haven’t been named publicly,  would “come together in good faith, endure the fierce crucible of public opinion, and lead the hard work of change.”

“To move forward, we must transcend anger and fear. We must move past pain and disappointment,” Nixon said in his remarks. “We must open our hearts and minds to what others have seen, what others have lived, and respect their truth. That is the challenge that lies before us. And I believe the good people of this region are eager to meet this challenge.”

Nixon said the commission would have three primary tasks:

  • Conduct a “thorough, wide-ranging and unflinching study” of the social and economic conditions that received national attention after Brown’s death at the hands of Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson.
  • Secure the “expertise needed to address the concerns identified by the commission —  from poverty and education, to governance and law enforcement."        
  • Offer “specific recommendations for making this region a stronger, fairer place for everyone to live.”

“In the end, history will be our judge.  But we are also being judged in the here and now. And the stakes are high,” Nixon said. “This is a defining moment that will determine whether this place will be known as a region marred by racial division and unrest, or a region that pulled together to rise above and heal.”
Nixon said he'll name roughly 15 people to the commission sometime next month. He said the commission's work will take around six to 12 months -- and he'll expect "substantive, important reforms and progress." 

Nixon stressed the commission is not an investigation “into Michael Brown’s death, or the facts of what happened in the street that day.” He said that’s a job for government prosecutors.

Gov. Jay Nixon shakes hands with a St. Louis County police officer after announcing a new Ferguson Commission. 10.21
Credit Bill Greenblatt | UPI
Gov. Jay Nixon shakes hands with a St. Louis County police officer after announcing a new Ferguson Commission.

“Whatever the outcome of their investigations, we must move forward together,” Nixon said. “More acts of violence and destruction like those we have experienced at times during the past 73 days will not be tolerated, and will only hurt the communities that have suffered the most at the very time they need restoration and healing.”

Earlier this month, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay called for the governor to form a Ferguson Commission. In an essay posted on Oct. 10, in advance of the weekend of protests, Slay wrote: "The time has come for people who are pushing for change to meet with the government agencies that can lead change to find common ground, to find solutions to problems and to identify a way forward for our region ...

"There needs to be an inclusive, permanent entity empowered by government, the business community, and the wider community to direct change in how we live together, how we prepare our children for jobs and how those jobs are created," continued Slay. "You can call it the Ferguson Commission or anything you like. But, it needs the authority of the governor and the sanction of the president."

Monday afternoon, Nixon was spotted at the St. Louis City Hall, which prompted speculation that he was discussing the idea with Slay.

"Always be skeptical"

Reaction to the formation of the commission was mixed, especially on social media. 

Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Alderman Antonio French chats with Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson before Nixon's speech.

Plenty of Twitter users echoed the sentiments of John Gaskin III a national board member with the NAACP who is based in St. Louis. Gaskin Tweeted:"I want to know who wrote governor Nixon's speech for today! It was very insensitive to the situation. Added insult to injury."

"When will governor Nixon stop prescribing solutions for the community, and actually take time to listen to what their needs are?" Gaskin Tweeted.

Nixon has faced harsh criticism for his actions during the height of the Ferguson unrest. Some African-American political leaders chastised him for not coming to Ferguson sooner. Others didn’t like how he placed the Missouri Highway Patrol in charge of securing the protests.

Earlier in September, Nixon announced the creation of an Office of Community Engagement that would examine systemic problems within low-income and minority communities. He tapped former Senate Minority Leader Maida Coleman, D-St. Louis, to lead that agency.

St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, D-21st Ward, was on hand for Nixon's announcement. He said the effectiveness of the commission will depend on who the governor appoints.

"We have to include voices that aren’t traditionally included on such panels and commissions – especially young people," French said. "I think what you have to do to make it successful is assemble a group of people who, by their very nature and diversity, are going to ensure awkward, tense, confrontational conversation sometimes. Because that’s what’s going to have to happen."

Asked if people who have been protesting since Brown's death would appreciate Nixon's commission, French said: "I think people should always be skeptical."

"That’s what we should do. And they want to see action," French said. "And we all want to see action. So there’s a risk that any such panel or commission could be just words. But we want to make sure that anything is going to be productive has to involve action."

When inquired whether the commission amounted to more talk than definitive action, Nixon said: "This is a lot of action. And there will  continue to be talking."

"This is a defining moment in which we had some choppy water between here and where we’re going to need to go," Nixon said. "And there will be choppy water on these issues for a lot of years to come. What I’d say to those folks who have a great deal of energy out there is the sustenance of your voice and the continuation of your energy has kept a lot of folks focused on the need to make substantive, real improvements and change."

Wesley Bell -- a Ferguson attorney who also works at St. Louis Community College -- echoed the governor's sentiments. He said he often talks with young people about the need for discussion in order to get definitive action.

"One thing that we talk about is we appreciate the enthusiasm of a lot of the young people who are out there. We appreciate the fact that they’re being civically engaged," Bell said. "However, plans have to be executed. Plans have to be made. And sometimes there is a place for talk."

Nixon said people who interested in being on the commission can fill out an application at this web site.

"Let’s see how much Ferguson actually gets to be involved in it" 

Meanwhile, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said immediately after Nixon's announcement that he personally received no advanced warning that Nixon was going to appoint a commission that bears his city's name. (Both Knowles and Gov. Jay Nixon's office said on Tuesday afternoon that Ferguson City Manager John Shaw received a briefing on the announcement before the governor's address.)  

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III is one of the few north St. Louis County elected officials who is active in Republican politics. Before Michael Brown's shooting death, he pitched the idea of making county offices in a merged St. Louis and St. Louis Count
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson Mayor James Kowles III

Knowles -- who arrived at the governor's announcement late -- said the move caught him off guard.

"I’ve already told a few people here that if you’re going to name it after Ferguson, maybe you should let a few people know about it," Knowles said. "But I’ve said from August 9 or August 10 on there are regional issues and there are national issues at play here. There are definitely conversations that are way overdue. And I hope we’re going to have those conversations about social issues, economic issues and racial issues."

"But it’s been termed the Ferguson Commission. Let’s see how much Ferguson actually gets to be involved in it – the city or the government or the people," he added.

Knowles said he would want somebody from Ferguson to be on the panel. That could, he said, include himself.

"I would love to be a part of all the issues that have been raised and there are still other issues that need to be addressed that haven’t even been talked about yet," Knowles said. "They need to have a dialogue outside of this crisis. We need to have a consistent dialogue and a continuous dialogue – not just in Ferguson but across the region and across the country."