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Chappelle-Nadal Sparks Controversy Over Her Tweets On Ferguson Fallout

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal
Missouri Senate

As the Missouri General Assembly goes back into session, state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, wants to make one point clear:

When it comes to Ferguson, she cannot and will not be ignored.

Her 14th District includes the city of Ferguson, which has been in the international spotlight since the Aug. 9 police shooting that killed 18-year-old Michael Brown.  Protests, some accompanied by looting and arson, were held for months in the community and around the region.  

As legislators head back to Jefferson City, Chappelle-Nadal is concerned that some are proposing legislation or other actions directed at Ferguson without talking to her.

“Anyone who is from outside my district thinking they can just come in and be the savior to Ferguson and not have a conversation with me,’’ she said, is out of line.

“People who are outside the 14th District and they have a resolution and they never call, that’s very disrespectful,” Chappelle-Nadal added.

And she's taken to Twitter to let people know, in no uncertain terms, just what she thinks of that. Recently, for example, Fox News jumped on her Tweet lambasting those who deny the existence of “white privilege.’’

Her Tweet read:

That Tweet followed a series of Tweets criticizing certain legislative proposals -- all starting with "Let me be clear:"

Chappelle-Nadal is no stranger to controversy. She attracted attention early on for her active participation in the Ferguson protests and her outspoken criticism — including expletive-laden Tweets and disparaging signs — of  Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.

The senator said her recent controversial comments on Twitter were aimed simply at continuing a discussion about race that she believes the region and the nation needs to have.

“This is not a new conversation,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “If there’s anybody out there who thinks there’s no white privilege, I don’t know what world they’re in.”

She added, “I’m sick and tired about the status quo ignoring the issue, speaking the talk as if there’s no such thing as racism. But there is.”

Too little focus on Michael Brown

Chappelle-Nadal’s comments reflect, in part, her frustration about the direction some proposed legislation is taking.

Too much attention, she says, is directed at issues — such as court reform or the county’s large number of municipalities — that have little to do with what touched off the unrest in Ferguson.

The number of municipalities, she said, “is not the reason Michael Brown was killed. Municipal court reform has nothing to do with Michael Brown being killed. I just want people to know that’s clear.”

State Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, seeks to restrict the percentage of a community’s income that can come from court fines and costs. State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, is proposing to eliminate some smaller St. Louis County municipalities.

Missouri state Rep. Jamilah Nasheed (D, St. Louis).
Credit (Tim Bommel/Mo. House of Representatives)
Jamilah Nasheed

Chappelle-Nadal supports Schmitt’s bill but opposes Nasheed’s measure.

That said, Chappelle-Nadal emphasized that she has no beef with Nasheed or Schmitt because they did discuss their Ferguson-related bills with her.

Chappelle-Nadal said she’s referring to other legislators, whom she declined to identify. She will make their names public, she said, when she airs her concerns on the floor of the state Senate.

Chappelle-Nadal's objections could have an impact on which ones get floor time, and which ones die.  In the Senate, legislative courtesy often means that senators won't deal with a bill if it affects a particular district and that district's senator opposes it.

Chappelle-Nadal also has a reputation for filibustering bills she doesn't like.

Nasheed said she understands Chappelle-Nadal’s complaints although she disagrees with some of them. Nasheed observed that she’s come under fire herself from some mayors who say that Nasheed has no right to propose a bill affecting some county municipalities when she resides in the city of St. Louis.

Nasheed’s reply is that the unrest generated by Ferguson is “bigger than just the geographical boundaries.”

For that reason, Nasheed takes issue with any implication that legislators outside of Ferguson should avoid proposing any bills affecting its residents. “I would just be happy if they’re trying to help,” she said.

But the senator added that she does agree with legislative courtesy. “I do believe it’s important to interact with the elected official in the district in which you are looking to impact,” Nasheed said.

However, she added — with a chuckle — that Chappelle-Nadal doesn’t always practice what she preaches.

Nasheed recalled her longstanding effort — now achieved — to change the state constitution to give St. Louis control of its police department. “Guess who was leading the charge to kill it in the Senate? My good friend, Sen. Chappelle-Nadal.”

Nasheed added that Chappelle-Nadal, who resides in the county, never discussed with Nasheed why she was siding with city police officers who opposed local control.

Calls for focus on police, grand juries

In any case, Chappelle-Nadal and Nasheed do agree on what they see as the real Ferguson-related issues that need to be addressed.  The two are cosponsoring bills to require special prosecutors to investigate fatal police shootings and would change the state’s grand-jury process.

Chappelle-Nadal said that some grand juries, such as the one charged with investigating Michael Brown’s death, “are misusing the position that they are in.”

She is critical of the county grand jury's decision not to indict now-former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

Chappelle-Nadal also remains upset over how area police dealt with the protesters. She was among those tear gassed during some demonstrations. She also cites a case in which a pregnant woman was kicked by police and left unconscious.

That treatment is part of Chappelle-Nadal’s call for discussing “white privilege’’ and ways to address it.

Acknowledging that such talk is “provocative,’’ Chappelle-Nadal said, “White privilege is misused so that African Americans and other minorities are not able to succeed in the workplace.”

“I’m sick and tired of being mistreated as a state senator and as a human being,’’ she added.

Nasheed, by the way, said that some see Chappelle-Nadal’s public comments – especially on Twitter – as igniting controversy instead of fostering reconciliation.  But Nasheed added, “She has a right to speak her mind. She says what she means, and she means what she says.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.