- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 26, 2014

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 23

Lessons from Ferguson:

St. Louis is celebrating the 250th anniversary of its founding with birthday cake.

Make that fiberglass birthday cakes - 251 of them - decorated by local artists and installed all across the St. Louis region at landmarks, businesses and cultural sites.

Just one of these 251 cakes is in Ferguson.

After two weeks of protests in the African-American community following the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, the fact of this single cake tells us a little bit more about our region’s history than perhaps we’d like to ponder.

Take a look at the map of the cakes at stl250.org and compare it to the maps of the city’s development history in Colin Gordon’s 2008 book “Mapping Decline.” The pattern is nearly identical. The maps and charts in Mr. Gordon’s book show overlay after overlay of public policy investments in the central corridor of St. Louis. The same properties often received multiple tax abatements over several decades, even as vast swaths of the north side of the city were ignored.

This is the story of St. Louis.

The anger that simmered and then exploded in Ferguson has its roots in something more than a white cop from a force that doesn’t look like its community killing - however it happened - an unarmed black kid. The root cause goes back further than a decision earlier this year by an all-white school board to fire a black superintendent who had welcomed black transfer students from the unaccredited school district where Michael Brown graduated from high school. It stretches beyond the demographic changes over the past 25 years that had Ferguson turning from a majority white to a majority black inner-ring suburb of St. Louis.

Night after night in the past two weeks, as protesters marched southeast down West Florissant Avenue toward a line of mostly white police officers dressed for war, they were tracing the history of St. Louis going back more than 150 of its 250 years. Had they kept marching roughly in a straight line, they would have eventually hit the infamous Pruitt-Igoe site, an abandoned, forested reminder of the city’s neglect of African-Americans as equal partners in the city’s growth.

In the 1950s, Pruitt-Igoe was going to be a great public housing program to help pull blacks out of poverty. But it was badly conceived - stacking poor people vertically turned out to be a terrible idea wherever it was tried. It became a milestone in a history of investing in primarily white institutions, and cordoning off black communities.

Pruitt-Igoe was razed in 1972. Nothing has happened to it since then.

Following a straight line of history from Pruitt-Igoe, marchers would eventually end up at the Mississippi River at the foot of Arsenal Street. It is called that for a reason, because there stood the Union Arsenal that in 1861 was targeted for takeover by Missouri’s Gov. Claiborne Fox Jackson. He was a slaveholder and Southern sympathizer who wanted the weapons in the arsenal to help implement his plan for Missouri to join the Confederacy.

Four weeks after Fort Sumter, S.C., was bombarded and the Civil War began, Union soldiers, with the help of German immigrant volunteers, routed Jackson’s Confederate troops at a site near what is now St. Louis University’s main campus. Federal troops were bought in to restore the peace.

To some extent or another, St. Louis has been fighting some version of the Civil War ever since.

Consider this: That same year Jackson attacked the Arsenal, he ordered state control of the city’s police department, a decision rife with racial undertones. The city didn’t regain control of its own police department for more than 150 years, until 2013, following a statewide vote.

As we write this, the protests in Ferguson have slowed down, the National Guard has been withdrawn, a fragile peace is returning, and the cable talking heads who invaded our city have turned to debating the intricate and mostly rumored details of a prosecution that may or may not ever take place.

Our community’s challenge is to keep the focus where it should be, on recognizing that the protests in Ferguson can be a turning point for a city with a regrettable history of marginalizing its black citizens.

The sad but undeniable truth is that St. Louis has long devalued African-American lives. For some, it’s difficult to admit. For others, it’s hard to see. We don’t do empathy very well.

It’s easier to focus on distracting details of a shooting, or political battles between a governor and a prosecutor, and safe in our suburban enclaves, turn the page on Ferguson and pretend it was all a hazy hallucination.

This was not and is not a dream.

St. Louis earned this moment by spending too much of its history refusing to invest in communities dominated by African-American citizens and refusing them admittance to neighborhoods dominated by whites. Those decisions became the oxygen that fed the flame of protest: concentrated poverty, not enough jobs, separate and unequal schools, poor health care.

In the first editorial this page wrote on the Michael Brown case, we noted that the likelihood of a conviction in the case is extremely low. That remains true. It is the simple reality of most police shootings. But there can be an important conviction: The conviction of a city to change.

There is a serendipity in the historic line that connects Ferguson to Pruitt-Igoe to the Arsenal.

The current tenant of the federal property at the foot of Arsenal Street is the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which is looking for a new home for its 3,000 jobs, with more promised down the road. The city’s choice to compete among others in the St. Louis region is the former Pruitt-Igoe site, located in the center of Paul McKee’s NorthSide Regeneration development. NorthSide is the first and only large-scale proposal in the city’s recent history to bring massive public and private investment to a community that has been ignored.

Imagine the hope that would follow the addition of 3,000 jobs at the intersection of Jefferson and Cass avenues, about 10 miles away from where Michael Brown was killed. Those employees will need gas and food, a QuikTrip perhaps, or maybe a Reds BBQ. Some of those employees will want to live close to work. They’ll need houses. Maybe they’ll look to Ferguson.

With a little federal investment, with some introspection that allows us to both recognize and learn from our region’s still strong racial divide, with an unwavering focus on educational equality that values young African-American students no differently than white ones, the final chapter of the Ferguson story can be a hopeful one.

It will be written long after a tragic shooting, long after the protests have subsided, long after a legal case has been dissected and political grudges settled. The next chapter starts on Monday, when we mourn a black teenager who died too young.

No matter the details of his death, Michael Brown’s life had value. Many young people hoping to avoid his fate held up protest signs in Ferguson this week with a simple message: “Black lives matter.”

When all of St. Louis can agree on that, the next step in a difficult journey can begin.


St. Joseph News-Press, Aug. 24

Review use of military gear:

As the debate heats up, allow us to join in with those who question the unchecked deployment of surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies across the country.

In Ferguson, Mo., a racially divided community of fewer than 22,000 people, the predominantly white police force deployed not one, but two, armored vehicles in dealing with protesters of a police shooting. Both, along with a flatbed trailer and a generator, were acquired through a Defense Department program started in 1990 and now scheduled to be scrutinized in congressional hearings this fall.

This is important - not only for Ferguson, but also for Buchanan County and St. Joseph.

Buchanan County was the recipient of a surplus “mine-resistant” armored vehicle this spring. In multiple interviews, authorities have defended the acquisition - “free” to the county after the federal government replaced the engine and transmission in the 2010 model vehicle and made it available for adoption by domestic law enforcement agencies.

We had the obvious questions then, and still do:

By whose accounting does this acquisition come without cost when law enforcement agencies in every part of the United States are in line for as many as 13,000 decommissioned armored vehicles, all presumably subject to similar major repairs and upgrades before they are turned over?

It may in fact require the upcoming congressional hearings to fully understand the costs to taxpayers.

Why, even if the Special Response Team of St. Joseph and Buchanan County previously had an older, unreliable vehicle, does law enforcement need this now - particularly when the city already has a more sophisticated armored vehicle?

We don’t doubt the sincerity of the explanation previously offered - “it’s simply about our community’s safety” - but rather the wisdom of those words. A better insight comes from the same spokesman’s admission that officers had to weigh “Is this ridiculous to have?” The officers decided it was not, but many others in our community questioned that assessment, and well before the Ferguson police showdown with protesters.

Which brings us to our final question: Where was the public’s involvement in this decision?

Voters in St. Joseph approved replacement of the police department’s tactical armored vehicle through the five-year capital improvements program. But countywide voters had no similar say in acquiring another armored vehicle for our county forces.

We need to learn from this episode, even as the larger debate on the militarization of law enforcement plays out. Policies governing appropriate deployment of the new vehicle, and records of how it actually is used, should be routinely evaluated with public input.


Columbia Daily Tribune, Aug. 25

The next Ferguson flash point:

Now that the potential prosecution of Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson is at hand, circumstances are custom-made to produce another round of anger on the streets.

Flash point No. 1 is the presence of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, who has a good reputation among peers but whose family has long ties with the police. McCulloch is white. Years ago his father, a police officer, was killed in a confrontation with a black suspect. Protesters from the predominantly black community are not likely to believe anything from McCulloch other than an all-out prosecution of the white officer who shot and killed the unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown.

Even though it is the job of a public prosecutor to avoid bringing charges when the evidence indicates, angry Ferguson protesters won’t see it that way.

The situation is made more tenuous by the presence of the grand jury, which will hear evidence and decide whether to bring charges against Officer Wilson.

Grand juries are notoriously secretive, hearing evidence and arguments brought by prosecutors behind closed doors. Ordinary citizen/jurors suddenly confronted with complicated circumstances can be influenced greatly by persuasive prosecutors arguing in private. Unlike proceedings in court, grand jury testimony and proceedings do not benefit from public scrutiny, prompting suspicion from outsiders.

Those who suspect grand jury bias often think prosecutors lead jurors to bring unwarranted indictments. In this case, the suspicion will run the other way. If Prosecuting Attorney McCulloch and the grand jury do not indict Officer Wilson, the furious horde will once again hit the streets. If an indictment is handed up, many will believe the prosecutor and the jurors were intimidated by the threat of public violence, unfairly targeting the police officer.

The situation is not constituted to bring a calm reaction to what should be a credible pursuit of justice in the shooting incident.

Trouble is, the angry people of Ferguson and beyond want “justice” far beyond the parameters of the current shooting incident. They want redress for decades, even centuries of alleged persecution as members of racial minorities, a grievance no resolution of the Brown shooting will satisfy.

For the moment, though, the Brown shooting is the flash point. The prosecutor and grand jury will try to find a bright line through a murky landscape. Even though Officer Wilson might have avoided shooting Michael Brown, was the officer justified under usual police expectations and proceedings? Did Brown threaten Wilson seriously enough to give the officer cause to use his weapon?

Law officers for good reason are given latitude in such circumstances. Even if Wilson is found “guilty” of acting too rashly, the most he will get is reprimand and possible suspension from service. Officers should be trained and emotionally able to avoid shootings like this, but they deserve some slack for their reactions when confronted with threatening circumstances.

This sort of nuance makes sense in a detached discussion of proper police behavior. It won’t fly with people on the streets throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. Prosecutor McCulloch says the grand jury process might take months, far longer than needed to hear the evidence but time that might allow tempers to cool a bit.


Jefferson City News Tribune, Aug. 23

PSC rejects misdirected, unfair proposal:

Missouri’s Public Service Commission (PSC) voted unanimously, and wisely, to reject Noranda Aluminum’s request for a further reduction in it electric rates.

The request, by any yardstick, was unfair.

Noranda already pays a reduced rate, which the PSC says is the lowest cost for electricity of any Ameren customer. Reduced rates for bulk customers are common, and Noranda qualifies for its existing, lower rate because aluminum processing requires consistent, large amounts of electricity.

Unfairness came into play when Noranda proposed its further rate reduction be offset by rate increases for other Ameren customers.

The proposal, said Ameren official Warren Wood, “was harmful to our other customers and would have set Noranda’s rate well below what it costs to serve them, resulting in a shift of over half-a-billion dollars onto our other customers.” Wood is Ameren Missouri’s vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs.

Noranda’s proposal was based on its claim that a lower electric rate was needed for it to remain in business.

In response, PSC Chairman Robert Kenney said: “We were not persuaded that Noranda’s alleged liquidity crisis was of such severity as to justify granting the relief requested.”

No one wants to see Noranda Aluminum go out of business. The smelter near New Madrid employs about 900 people and is a valuable contributor to the economy in Missouri’s Bootheel.

But economic development issues, PSC commissioners correctly pointed out, are a matter for state lawmakers to consider, not the regulatory agency for public utilities.

Noranda made an unfair proposal to the wrong group. Unanimous rejection by PSC commissioners was both fair and justifiable.

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