Posted at the St. Louis American website: Thursday, February 12, 2015 8:18 am
On Monday, February 9, the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee was getting the last round of input on the Civilian Oversight Board bill #208. I could not help but think about Governor George Wallace’s infamous words in 1963, as I have throughout the struggle for local control: “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
I saw Gov. Wallace deliver that inaugural speech as a young teen, and it had a visual and psychological impact. Here was a white man of authority, openly denying the rights of black people to the world. He did so with unapologetic arrogance and seemingly without censorship from other white people in authority. I watched the white people around him co-signing his threats and nodding in support.
To a kid up North watching on a black and white TV, the situation was clearly about blacks and whites. It seemed like there was no hope for black people in Alabama. The formidable Civil Rights Movement busted up the most open and egregious forms of white supremacy, but the struggle continues to eliminate all vestiges of hate, discrimination and racial inequities across the society.
We’ve experienced that same kind of resistance here in the St. Louis region as we have fought for police reforms and for human dignity. The resistance has not just come from the usual suspects – law enforcement – but also from other quarters of society, including the legislative and executive branches.
St. Louis has an attitude problem regarding race and class. It is a long-standing problem that permeates our political and social relationships. You see it playing out not just with the police, but in the way eminent domain is used to knock families to their knees. The homes and lives of poor and working people and people of color are often of no consequence when these kinds of decisions are made. You see it in the ways that health care is administered. You see it in our public school system. The list goes on.
The civilian oversight bill did pass out of committee and is on its way to the full Board of Alderpeople on Friday. Words on paper, however eloquent or meaningful, are impotent if changes in laws or policies don’t correspond to changes in attitudes and behavior. These cannot be legislated.
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department is not going quietly into civilian oversight. Some elected and appointed officials are not ready for change either. Ditto for the civic and business sectors.
The Civilian Oversight Board is but one tool we will have to ensure police accountability and transparency. The next phase is to get a board that reflects the demographics of the city. We must pay attention not just to residency requirements, but to character and community involvement. The board must reflect the rich diversity of the city, including race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
As Bernice Johnson Reagon sings in “Ella’s Song,” “Those of us who believe in freedom cannot rest.” This is a pivotal time for the region to move into the 21st century and break from our antebellum values. We who believe in freedom – and who were part of the upsurge for change in the wake of the Michael Brown Jr.’s police killing – must stay engaged in the fight for true democracy and human rights. There will be many fronts that will need informed, committed residents to move a people’s agenda forward.