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Ferguson Activists Get Their Say In The Oval Office; Obama Announces Plans For Reform

Ashley Yates and Tory Russell on the Global Grind
YouTube screen capture

Ashley Yates’ meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office Monday began with a Twitter feed about a dead body in the street. That was Aug. 9, and her curiosity led her to where others were gathered near Michael Brown’s body. “And that led from there to trying to seek some answers and the next day being tear-gassed for the very first time,” she said in a phone interview Monday night.

Yates, who says she’s been “tear-gassed” seven or eight times since, is a co-founder of Millennial Activists United.  Of the many groups protesting the shooting death of Michael Brown, MAU is one of the most recognized.

She joined a handful of other young activists, including several from St. Louis, in a meeting with Obama where she says he paid close attention as they recounted their life experiences. “He mainly wanted to listen. … He didn’t really have too much to say in direct response” to the personal stories from the group, “but he did take them into account and he did make it clear that he heard us,” Yates said.

On the grand scheme of things Yates says she and others are “fighting for black liberation at large. We are fighting for black equality and to make sure that we are treated as the American citizens that they say we are.” But she also says that it is important to stay grounded in such a big effort and to remember individually who they are also fighting for on a smaller scale. 

For Yates, one of those people is her 7-year-old cousin, Aryion. 

“He’s a tall kid for 7. He’s a slender, tall kid with a haircut and complexion close to the president’s and he’s an amazing young athlete. He loves to run everywhere,” she said. In thinking about her young cousin, Yates says she is reminded of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed last month in Cleveland after allegedly pointing a toy gun at police and Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown: “All of these young boys who didn’t get the chance to make it home,” she said.

Yates says she told the president of Aryion’s love of running. “I want to be able to make sure that just because he is a black person living in this country that his running is not seen as an indication that he did something wrong, and it is also not seen as an indication that he needs to be stopped and harassed, and it is not seen as an indication that he is a threat and therefore needs to be gunned down.

“Every day I wake up thinking of him and several other people that are close to me in my life and how I want to be able to make sure that they make it home.”

The very invitation to meet with the president is what Yates, who grew up in Florissant and lives in St. Louis, finds most inspiring about her visit: “Just the fact that people such as myself are here and we were welcomed into the White House because of the work that is happening on the streets; because of the value of people power” is important. “We saw a true agitation of the system, which elicited a response from the White House to actually reach out to people who had been on the front lines, to say ‘You know what, we have heard your cry, you have affected the status quo,’” she said.

Three Meetings and Several Proposals

The White House is backing a $263 million spending plan to increase the use of body cameras by police, expand training for law enforcement agencies, add more resources for police department reforms, and multiply the number of cities where the Department of Justice works with local police.

The three-year spending plan includes $75 million in matching funds to pay for as many as 50,000 body cameras. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., says she has found widespread agreement that “body cameras protect police and civilians alike, which is why I’m working to prioritize federal resources to expand their use.” The use of body cameras was raised in a hearing conducted by McCaskill on the militarization of local police departments earlier this year.

The president is also appointing a task force to begin a national conversation on finding ways to build trust between local law enforcement and the communities they serve. Attorney General Eric Holder will work with the task force to conduct meetings in several regions of the country. The president says those meetings will focus on listening to the concerns of community members and local police. 

Finally, the president wants to issue new rules on several federal programs that either pay for or provide surplus military equipment to local police departments. A White House review of the programs found a lack of consistency in how the programs are “structured, implemented and audited.” The president instructed his staff to report back to him with specific recommendations within 120 days. Some of the examples of improvements the White House is looking for include;

  • Develop a consistent list of controlled property allowable for acquisition by local police departments and ensure that all of the equipment on the list has a legitimate civilian law enforcement purpose.
  • Require local civilian (non-police) review of and authorization for local law enforcement agencies to request or acquire equipment.
  • Develop a database that includes information about controlled equipment purchased or acquired through federal programs.

U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-University City, supports the president’s review of the Pentagon’s 1033 program. Both he and Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in August to ask for a close examination of the program.
In a printed statement, Clay said, “I applaud President Obama for his administration’s prompt and extensive review of the Pentagon’s 1033 military surplus transfer program and other programs that convey surplus equipment to local law enforcement agencies.”

Cleaver said the president is going in the right direction with his call for new rules on the distribution of such equipment. He said smaller departments that don’t have the resources to properly train their officers to use such equipment should not have access to such equipment.

Clay, when asked whether the president should visit the St. Louis area, said he believed the region first needed to make progress on several issues before such a visit would be appropriate.

For Clay that includes starting an“honest conversation about bridging the racial gap, attacking the racial disparities of the region and looking at the economic conditions that make Ferguson possible.”