On the Trail: A stirring speech about Ferguson you probably haven't heard — but should
Most people had left the room when it was Starsky Wilson’s turn to speak in the final moments of the Ferguson Commission’s last public meeting.
I, thankfully, stayed and listened.
The commission, as many who read these words know, is a 16-person panel examining the economic, racial, educational and law enforcement divides within St. Louis. Most of Monday’s proceedings focused on how to monitor efforts to implement the commission’s final report, a great deal of which will require buy-in from a conservative state legislature.
In the waning moments of the commission meeting, a large percentage of the audience and media had gone home. Commissioners were providing their final reflections on a process that was sometimes uncomfortable. This reporter had already unplugged his tape recorder and was preparing to depart from the Nathaniel Rivers State Office Building, situated on the historical racial and economic dividing line of St. Louis.
I don’t know whether it was instinct or happenstance, but I put the cord back in to record when Wilson began to speak.
What followed was one of the most striking addresses since Michael Brown was shot and killed last August. As a political reporter, I don’t make that claim lightly. Most of my job involves listening to speeches, some of which are really good and others forgettable. I will always remember Wilson’s speech.
Why? Because it poignantly conveyed what it was like to have the weight of a troubled region on your shoulders. And it provided a clarion call to public policymakers across the state: Asking for votes isn’t enough anymore. Producing results and tackling hard issues and truths about St. Louis is mandatory:
Click here to listen to Wilson’s speech in its entirety. Audio excerpts for each section are also below.
"I've only shared in one other place and I'll share it now — the most subversive thing."
Wilson: "And I’ve been engaged over the course of the year. I have dealt with the family strife that comes with this kind of stuff. I have a new, 3-month-old baby at home that I didn’t have when we began this work. Dealt with the time away. Have been remarkably supported by a congregation of people at St. John’s, who gathered together and organized to protest and have never allowed me — even though I never invited them — never allowed me to come into a commission setting or commission room without at least one of them being here. Including tonight.
"So I thank God for their prayers. I thank God for their support of my family, particularly my wife, Dr. Latoya Smith-Wilson. And for my boys, who have sacrificed over the course of this year.
"But for all that we’ve been through, engaged out in protest in the streets with Brittany Packnett, Traci Blackmon and Rasheen Aldridge. I’ve been arrested with folks over the course of this year. And I’ve had people ask, ‘Why would you do that? Don’t you know you’re co-chairing a commission?’ The most subversive action that I have experienced throughout the course of this year was when Rich McClure asked me in one of our weekly meetings at 7:30 in the morning. He was recognizing the strain I was dealing with church, with the foundation and with home — and still trying to carry this."
"He asked me the question, 'How might I serve you?'"
Wilson: "I say that because what he engaged in is the kind of behavior that built the early church that I serve in now. The first century church was made up of people who were willing to walk away from a bit of their own privilege in order to walk side-by-side, walk arm-in-arm, walk step-in-step with people who were remarkably marginalized by society.
"And while my marginalization is more historic than present because I live with my own privilege, the fact that in this society, in this community and in this region he would say that to me is a subversive act. And it’s the kind of acts that we will all need to engage in in order to truly move forward together.
"It is a reconciling act that has less to do with me and more to do with him. It has to do with his capacity to see himself as part of the solution in a real way. To be guided, to be moved, to be transformed by nothing — nothing — less than his faith. And to make a sacrifice."
"And that's the kind of stuff that it takes. It takes that on a personal level. It takes that on a communal level. It takes that on a political level. It's going to take that kind of courage from folks."
Wilson: "I wouldn’t be Starsky Wilson if I didn’t remind folks that [five] out of the five top offices in the state are going to be up in less than a year. There are people zig-zagging across this state right now, campaigning for votes. What they’re saying to you is I’m better than the next guy. I’m better the next woman. Until they ask ‘how can I serve you,” they’ve not engaged in the kind of subversion that’s required to heal our community and get us to true reconciliation and take us down the path toward equity.
"And I suggest when they ask ‘how might I serve you,” you tell them that ‘I spent December 7 ‘til 9 o’clock— I’m not going to hold you that long — in a conference room with some folks. Because I believe that the 2,200 people that committed part of their life to the Forward through Ferguson report deserved to be listened to.’ And how might you serve me? Serve them. Tell me which of these policy recommendations you’re going to move forward if I trust you with my vote."
"Tell me where you stand and where you stood as our community dealt with our burning hearts, our burning desires and our burning buildings. You ask them."
Wilson: "At the end of the day, when the elections are done — I’m talking statewide, I’m talking local as well. When the elections are done on that day, are they going to eat burgers or are they going to eat steak?
"Last October, Traci and I gathered all day. When the established, the esteemed of the legal community was gathered together for the investiture of a federal judge, we were trying to get them on the phone because we were there at the St. Ann Police Department trying to get 13 young people out of jail.
"And at the end of the day, when those young people got out of jail, because we finally found at least one judge who wasn’t there glad-handing and shaking everybody else’s hand. One judge who would make a call to work to get them out. Thankfully, this judge went to a church somewhere where he would listen to his pastor. When they finally came out, one of the members of the Millennial Activists United, we took them down and tried to get them a decent meal. We took them to a steakhouse there in North County. And one of the young guys was like ‘Look man, we got it. Order whatever you want to.’ He ordered a burger. He said ‘Nah, you’ve been in jail all night and all day, you just want a burger?'"
"He said, 'Steak is for victory.' He said 'We'll eat steak later, but tonight we eat burgers.'"
Wilson: "If the win for you is getting elected, we don’t need you. If you eat steak because you got what you wanted in the community that’s still fighting for a generation, you’re not the one.
"We eat burgers now. It’s a long time before we get to eat steaks.
"So tonight we’re pleased to be a part of this process. But this is just ground beef. We get to the real work. We get to the real victories when we can continue to count that these policy recommendations have been implemented. The people that have been elected, the people that are our true leaders in this community who have their hands on the levers of power are champions for this kind of positive change."
"It's not done. It's not done. It's not done."
Wilson: "Frankie Freeman is still waiting on us to get it done. James Buford is still waiting on us to get it done. Bill Danforth is still waiting on us to get it done. Tonight we eat burgers.
"I invite you to stand with me. It’s been our practice. And I guess after 19 times, the 19th time you can call it a tradition – to close our meeting with a time of silent reflection and centering about our place in this work. And where God would have us to be."
Will they listen?
When Wilson was finished speaking and the commission began to disperse, I asked him if he believed that the five people running for governor would listen to the message ingrained in his speech.
It’s not a throwaway query, since Democratic candidates like Attorney General Chris Koster and GOP contenders such as Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder and former House Speaker Catherine Hanaway have at times taken “law and order” postures throughout their political careers. (Though it should be noted that both Koster and Kinder have spent a great deal of sweat equity cultivating support within the urban core.)
And it’s the type of question that’s been asked since the commission came to be last year, especially after the report contained a number of policy proposals that will likely face a cool reception from the Missouri General Assembly.
Wilson’s response? “I place my confidence in the 2,200 people who were part of this process.
“What we’ve seen over the course of the last 16 or 17 months in our community is nothing more than a remarkable anomaly of inclusive democracy. And I say that from August 10 uprising through the commission process,” Wilson said. “We’ve got to sustain that kind of engagement to make this the region we want it to be as aligned with the American values that we say we proclaim.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.