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As St. Louis simmers over Stockley verdict civil rights leaders say region must address inequality

Panelists at Harris-Stowe University discuss racial inequality on Sept. 21, 2017.
Panelists at Harris-Stowe University discuss persistent racial inequality in St. Louis.

As the St. Louis region manages the ongoing unrest sparked by a judge’s decision to acquit a white former police officer in the death of a black man, civil rights activists say it’s past time for the city to address the policies that have long kept black people behind.

St. Louis must put an end to systemic racism if conditions are to improve for African-Americans, community leaders said Thursday during a panel discussion at Harris-Stowe University.

“Education is freedom; it allows you choices,” state Sen. Jamilah Nasheed said. “It allows you to go to the next level.”

Nasheed said industrial and manufacturing jobs that typically required only a basic education and offered good wages are no longer available to the workers in St. Louis. As the region’s employers increasingly focus on technology, African-Americans must demand higher quality education to better compete for those jobs, she said.

A capacity crowd packs the Harris-Stowe University auditorium to capacity to hear a discussion about racial inequality on Sept 21, 2017.
Credit Chelsea Hoye | St. Louis Public Radio.
A capacity crowd packs the Harris-Stowe University auditorium to capacity to hear a discussion about racial inequality.

About 250 students, professors, and university employees gathered to hear the remarks.

But former St. Louis Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. said that African-American officials need to do more to serve their constituencies. He said they “don’t take positions on issues that are important today.”

Bosley, the city’s first black mayor, said that black leaders have failed St. Louis. Until they present a unified agenda, he said, important issues that affect the African-American community, like education and criminal justice reform, will go unresolved.

Bosley and others are watching the protests sparked by St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson's decision last week. Wilson found former officer Jason Stockley, who is white, not guilty of murder in the 2011 death of Anthony Lamar Smith, who is black.

Prosecutors alleged Stockley executed Smith after a car chase and then planted a gun in his car. Stockley maintained that Smith reached for the gun and that he shot Smith in self defense.

Since the judge's decision, protesters have marched daily throughout the city, taking their message of justice denied from downtown St. Louis to the Central West End, Delmar Loop, Clayton and the Galleria mall.

Bosley faulted Mayor Lyda Krewson's stewardship of the last week.

“I think Mayor Krewson is like a deer caught in headlights,” Bosley said. “She just doesn’t know what to do. ...She looks like she’s done. And this is just getting started.”

Police have been focused on protecting people and property, but they must also protect the First Amendment rights of protestors, said Reddit Hudson, co-founder of the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers for Justice Reform and Accountability.

“There’s a constitutional right, First Amendment right for us to peacefully assemble and protest when our constitutional rights are violated,” said Hudson, a former police officer. “But the constitution itself was written in the context of white supremacy.”

How does St. Louis get beyond the uproar?

Moving forward after the Stockley verdict was the discussion at another meeting later on Thursday.

The St. Louis County NAACP convened a community town hall meeting at T-Rex, a co-working space in downtown St. Louis. The event took place just blocks from where protesters were gathered in Keiner Plaza.

The conversation ranged from whether the verdict was a surprise, how to reverse the militarization of police, to what should happen next.

Panelist Kenny Murdock, a political consultant and voting rights advocate suggested one key solution would be having police live in the neighborhoods they patrol and offering incentives to do so.

“When they come into our community and the mindset is othering, like, ‘I don’t know who these people are; they must be dangerous.’ That’s when we get into problems,” Murdock said.

Lt. Col. Troy Doyle of St. Louis County Police also sat on the panel. He suggested better police training and rewarding officers who are more involved in community engagement.

“As it is right now, if you’re not out getting the aggressive criminal, you’re the guy instead doing neighborhood watch, you’re not going to get status in the police department,” Doyle said.

Democratic state representatives Bruce Franks and Steven Roberts, Jr., also took part in the panel discussion. While Franks said getting out the vote is important, he emphasized that legislative change won’t come until the problems faced by the African-American community are brought to Jefferson City.

“At the end of the day, in order to get them to truly understand that they have and they will stop killing us, we have to make them feel it,” Franks said.

Franks said his fellow lawmakers can expect to see a bill that would grant subpoena power to the St. Louis Civilian Oversight Board and another on community policing.

Follow Chelsea and Maria on Twitter: @ChelseaSeaport  and @radioaltman

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.