By David Hunn, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (TNS)
FERGUSON, Mo. — The Ferguson Commission had planned a methodical first meeting here on Monday: Introductions. Ground rules. Goals.
But midway through hour four, some of the residents watching had heard enough.
After three hours of deliberate, sensitive discussions, several residents interrupted the meeting, shouting down commissioners, sobbing and arguing that the commission didn’t represent the community, wasn’t there to help them and discourteously made them wait to speak.
“We’re hurting!” said Dell Taylor. “You’re killing our babies. You’re disrespecting us as people. We’re tired.”
“I understand,” said commission co-chairman Starsky Wilson. “I’m hurting too, sweetheart.”
But his empathy did little to quell the anger.
The outburst lasted at least a half hour and threw a wrench in the works of the meeting’s careful progression. Several got up and spoke, yelling from their seats, walking to the front or stepping into an aisle. They accused the commission of representing politicians who didn’t care about Ferguson, of having degrees and titles but no experience on the streets, and, more than anything, of too much talk and not enough action.
By 4 p.m., two Missouri Highway Patrol officers stepped through the back door to watch. Several other officers waited at a side door.
Eventually, Wilson and co-chairman Rich McClure regained control, and by 4:15, the facilitators were passing out keypads for multiple choice question-and-answers to help the commission set priorities — even as residents continued to line up in the center aisle, hoping to speak.
It was a bumpy start to Gov. Jay Nixon’s Ferguson Commission, a body many hope will turn tragedy into reform.
Nixon announced the commission in October and its members in November. He asked them to address the “social and economic conditions” highlighted by months of protests surrounding the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black, by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, who is white.
Nixon said the group would have three goals: to study the underlying causes of the unrest, to tap into expertise needed to address those concerns, and to make specific recommendations for “making the St. Louis region a stronger, fairer place for everyone to live.”
The commission opened its first meeting just after noon Monday inside a half-full gymnasium at the new community center here. Fourteen of the 16 commissioners attended. The other two, protest leader Rasheen Aldridge and local Teach For America director Brittany Packnett, were at the White House, Wilson told the crowd of 75 or so.
The eyes of the region are upon us, Wilson said. He asked the room to hold to a few ground rules: maintain an open mind. Ask questions and encourage others to share insights. Respect all views and opinions as valid.
“We also ask that you hold us accountable” for the work ahead, Wilson told the audience. “Because it will take all of us.”
McClure asked the community to hold a “truthful conversation” about systemic racism, persistent poverty and community policing. “We can’t expect others to change if we remain the same,” he said.
The meeting then plodded through an hour or two of nuts-and-bolts:
A representative from the Missouri attorney general’s office discussed the commission’s duties of transparency under the state’s Sunshine Law, which requires meetings to be posted in advance and to be held publicly, and records to be publicly releasable.
Commissioners introduced themselves and their hopes — some giving rousing speeches, others choking up.
“For many years there have been things we just don’t say in public,” said Dan Isom, former St. Louis Police chief and current state public safety director. “We only speak of these things in private, with people we know and are comfortable. … There’s an opportunity to say what you feel right now.”
“Cops can be a cynical bunch,” said city police Sgt. Kevin Ahlbrand. “I look forward to frank discussion.”
“I’m here because it’s personal,” said the Rev. Traci Blackmon. “I’m here because I have two black sons. I have a black daughter. I listen well.”
The group spent perhaps an hour prioritizing goals, putting stickers on walls, and talking about their feelings. There were, at times, long moments of silence.
Then, a little after 3:30 p.m., a man in the front interrupted. “This is a bunch of bull!” he yelled. “It always has been.”
“Where were you,” asked another, when South Florissant Avenue was burning?
“We’re honored that you all have credentials,” said one woman. “But you do not reflect the community.”
The commission dumped the rest of its agenda. It asked residents and protesters to line up in the center aisle. It gave everyone a chance to talk.
The last speaker took the microphone at 6:20 p.m., well more than an hour after the scheduled end.
Soon after, co-chairman Wilson addressed the crowd with a wry smile.
“You will see us mess up again,” he said. “You’ll see us try to make it right again. But you’ll see our best efforts every time.”
And then he prayed for faith, he said, to make something out of chaos.
AFP Photo/Scott Olson