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In speech before AFL-CIO, Rep. Franks urges union leaders to side with communities

Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president emerita of the AFL-CIO, joins state Rep. Bruce Franks outside America's Center on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017.
Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president emerita of the AFL-CIO, joins state Rep. Bruce Franks and other protesters Saturday outside America's Center.

Updated at 7:25 p.m. Oct. 21, with details from Galleria mall protest — Missouri state Rep. Bruce Franks urged members of the AFL-CIO on Saturday to stand with protesters in St. Louis who are fighting to end police killings of black people.

A group of about 25 protesters gathered outside America’s Center, where the union is holding its convention. Franks had been invited to speak, but protesters were not allowed in until the national union’s leaders assured the convention center there would be no problems. A few hours later, protesters returned to the Galleria mall in Richmond Heights, where police declared their demonstration an unlawful assembly, but left without incident.

Protesters gathered outside the downtown convention center in about 2 p.m., only to discover that doors were locked.

For nearly an hour, protesters repeated many of the chants they have voiced since Sept. 15, the day that sent them into the streets to demand that police stop using deadly force on black people. That’s when St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson found former St. Louis officer Jason Stockley, who is white, not guilty of murder in the 2011 death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man.

But on Saturday, they improvised new chants of “Whose building? Our building!” and “Let us in!”

When security denied Franks entry through a side door, some AFL-CIO members came outside to join the crowd.

“We as trade unionists understand that your issues are our issues, that our issues are your issues,” said DeWitt Walton, assistant to the international president of the United Steel Workers. “We can’t broker the deal to let y’all in. But we can broker the deal to come to y’all.”

Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president emerita of the AFL-CIO, arrived to say that the protesters would be allowed in to hear Franks address the union.

“On behalf of our ‘all of us or none of us’ conference, we are pleased to tell you that we have come out — not just workers representing workers from the USA, but all over the world — to say that we stand in solidarity with you because we all believe in justice,” she said.

State Rep. Bruce Franks stands with protesters outside a locked America's Center
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
State Rep. Bruce Franks, who said Saturday that an America's Center guard would not let him inside to give a scheduled talk to the AFL-CIO because they did not think someone wearing a red shirt and hat was an elected official, stands with protesters outside locked doors.

Inside, Franks thanked union leaders for standing up “for what is right.”

“That’s how you show somebody that you’re going to stand with them and that you’ve got their back,” he said.

But he quickly turned his attention to the struggle in St. Louis, where activists say they must disrupt an entrenched system that has not served black people.

Franks, a Democrat who represents the 78th District, said local union leaders should stop endorsing longtime Democratic incumbents who are not working for their communities.

“If you’re not right for the people, you’re not right for the seat,” he said. “It’s time that we get more people into these offices who truly represent the community which they come from.”

Franks noted that he and other black representatives answered the call when it was time go to the House floor to speak against a right-to-work law that would bar unions and employers from requiring all works in a bargaining unit to pay dues or fees. He said unions should be just as supportive of the fight for black lives.

“When we come out here Sept. 15,” Franks said, “I don’t see a lot of the people that was calling for me to speak on the floor. Don’t be with me sometimes. Be with me all the way or not at all.”

Even if St. Louis enacts key provisions such as a Civilian Oversight Board, independent investigations of police shootings and works to have a diverse police force that reflects the communities it patrols, Franks said change may not come until established St. Louis stops looking at black people as outsiders.

“If you come in here and do all this police involved training, that’s not going to stop that particular officer from looking at me the way that he’s grown up to feel about me,” Franks said. “The way that he’s been taught to feel about me."

At about 6 p.m., protesters later took their message of "no justice, no profits" to the Galleria mall, the site of two earlier demonstrations. Protest leaders said they wanted to send a message to Richmond Heights police, who arrested 22 people on Sept. 23.

There were some tense moments during the latest mall protest. Officers told demonstrators three times that they were participating in an "unlawfully assembly" on private property and warned them that they could be arrested if they did not leave.

But organizers told the officers that all of the protesters had spent money at the mall and had the right to be there.

"We can't be trespassing on private property where we spent money," Franks said.

About an hour after the protest began, he led the marchers out of the mall, through its front entrance. 

Follow David and Ryan on Twitter: @dpcazares@rpatrickdelaney

David is the health, science and arts & culture editor for St. Louis Public Radio.
Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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