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Protest erupts at Ferguson City Council's first meeting since being sued

Protesters carrying a banner that reads demand constitutional policing work to interrupt a meeting of the Ferguson City Council on February 23, 2016.
Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio

The decision by the Ferguson City Council to reject a proposed consent decree and take a chance in court is no more popular now than it was two weeks ago.

Protesters chanted "no consent decree, bankruptcy!" "no justice, no peace" and called for the resignation of Ferguson Mayor James Knowles and city prosecutor Stephanie Karr. They unfurled a banner demanding constitutional policing as the council members conducted their business. 

At public comments earlier in the evening, the message was clear.

"Although I know that you all have a hard job, and you are trying to represent every constituent, it seems as though the gambit didn't work as hoped," said John Powell, a member of the Ferguson Collaborative. "Can you please just tell the court that you are sorry and you would be willing to go back to the original consent decree? Please, for the sake of justice and the common good." He concluded his remarks with, "Black lives matter."

Residents were deeply skeptical about the projected cost of the consent decree, especially as the city prosecutes cases against several protesters from 2014.

"You guys are wasting money going to court, charging people for standing on sidewalks, for using sidewalk chalk," said Nikki Brandt, a Ferguson resident. "How much is that per trial? I want to know the number, because you guys are crying bankrupt, and cost, and poor us. We see every cent that comes out of this city and we know what's going on."

Mayor Knowles has argued that it is less expensive for the city to fight the lawsuit in court than comply with the consent decree. But Ferguson resident Marc DeSantis said the mayor isn't taking into account all of the costs.

"When you calculated the significant discount that Ferguson would get, did you also consider the confusion and heartbreak that you will continue to drag residents into?" he said.  

Several speakers raised the possibility that the failure to sign the consent decree could put two proposed tax increases at risk in April. Ferguson needs the money to close a budget deficit.

"I implore you to go on hands and knees to the DOJ and beg them to allow you to sign the consent decree," said Ferguson resident Debra Kennedy. "Because if you don't, I guarantee you that at that April election, if we have to hire buses, cabs, Uber, if we have to go pick people up in our own vehicles, we will go pick up those no votes to make sure that you don't get one damn dime in tax increases."

Blake Ashby, who is affiliated with the website fergusontruth.org, was the lone voice supporting the council's decision.

"One of the things that I've heard over and over again is that you misinterpreted vague clauses to increase the costs," he said. "If that's the case, why wouldn't the DOJ work with you to remove some of the ambiguity? It seems like you're very close, and we could have a consent decree in five or six months."

Council business

The meeting began with city clerk Megan Asikainen delivering the oath of office to Laverne Mitchom, who was named two weeks ago to fill the seat vacated by the death of Brian Fletcher -- a process that was not without controversy. With her swearing-in, the council is majority-black for the first time in the city's history.

The council completed its agenda as the protest went on in front of the stage, passing several municipal reform measures. They include:

The council tabled a measure that would have created a nine-member civilian review board for the city's police department. Jeff Ahrens, a member of a task force working on the matter since November 2014, thanked the lawmakers for delaying consideration.

"At our working session with the council yesterday, we found particular areas that still needed to be refined in order to set into motion a board that will give voice to all who have concerns about policing here," he said.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.