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Holder Visits with Students, Community Leaders and Michael Brown’s Family in Ferguson

12 hours ago • By Kevin McDermott kmcdermott@post-dispatch.com 314-340-826842

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder meets with U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan (left), FBI Special Agent William P. Woods, and Acting Assistant Attorney General Molly Moran on Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2014, at FBI headquarters in downtown St. Louis. Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com

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FERGUSON • U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder met privately Wednesday with the parents of Michael Brown, part of a one-day swing through the region by the nation’s top law enforcement official in the wake of 12 nights of riots and strife.

The stated purpose of Holder’s visit was to get a first-person update from Department of Justice officials here on the status of the pending federal investigation into Brown’s Aug. 9 shooting death by a Ferguson police officer. After meeting with his own St. Louis-based underlings, Holder met with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and key members of the state’s congressional delegation, including both its U.S. senators.

But the trip also had a clear tone-setting component, designed to show the White House is taking the Ferguson conflict seriously, in the hope of easing tension in the community.

In addition to his private meeting with Brown’s parents, Holder met with students at an area community college, chatted with patrons of a Ferguson diner and literally embraced Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, whose attempts to defuse the nightly showdowns have made him a national figure.

“My hope is that the trip I’m making out here … will have a calming influence on the area,” Holder told reporters. He said his appearance should be a signal to residents that “a thorough federal investigation is being done.”

Holder stressed that the pending federal investigation had a fundamentally different angle than the local criminal investigation. “We’re looking for violations of federal civil rights statutes,” Holder said.

Holder landed in the region about 11 a.m. His motorcade headed first to St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley in Ferguson. The attorney general met with about a dozen students and hugged one of them after the meeting.

One of the students, Molyric Welch, 27, a mass communications student, said Holder had told them that “change is coming.”

“He told us we are the future and we need to stay focused on getting our education,” Welch said. The attorney general also “wanted to know how it felt to be a resident of this area.”

Student Dominique McCoy, 22, said, “We talked about how things can be changed, and how it has to start with us, the younger generation.”

Shortly before 1 p.m., Holder attended a closed-door meeting at the school. The Community Relations Service organized the meeting with about 50 Ferguson residents, according to the attorney general’s office.

“The eyes of the nation and the world are watching Ferguson right now,” Holder told them, according to a transcript provided later by his office. “This is something that has a history to it, and the history simmers beneath the surface in more communities than just Ferguson.”

The attorney general shared his own experiences of being singled out because he was black, including one incident in which he was stopped by police while going to watch a movie.

“At the time that he stopped me, I was a federal prosecutor. I wasn’t a kid,” he said, according to the transcript. “I worked at the United States Department of Justice. So I’ve confronted this myself.”

The attorney general later went to Drake’s Place, a restaurant just a few blocks from the site of nightly violence in Ferguson. He greeted customers — including the mayor of nearby Cool Valley, who happened to be there for lunch — and asked how they were doing.

“We’re doing pretty good, though it’s affecting a lot of municipalities,” Mayor Viola Murphy said of the protests and clashes in and around Ferguson. “We don’t want the world to know us for what is going on here.”

At the restaurant, Holder also encountered Johnson, who was put in charge of security in the Ferguson area by Nixon last week. Holder and Johnson embraced under the glare of television lights as patrons looked on.

Holder lauded Johnson for his leadership: “If you sustain that and get the community involved, we can turn this around.”

Johnson said the situation was getting better. Holder told him to “keep up the good work and get a little rest.”

After Holder’s appearance, Johnson said that the visit “will show the people of Ferguson and the country that their voices are heard.”

Holder then went to the FBI headquarters in St. Louis to meet with U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan and others. The attorney general briefly addressed reporters, saying that he wanted to be able to “look in the faces” of the agents who will conduct the federal investigation.

Late in the day, Holder went to the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in downtown St. Louis to meet with Michael Brown’s parents.

Clay said in a statement: “I made a promise to Michael Brown’s mother that we would focus every possible federal resource to bring justice to her family, and I intend to keep that promise.”

Afterward, in the same building, he met with elected officials, including Nixon, U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, and Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City.

Follow Kevin McDermott on Twitter @kevinmcdermott

Are We Ever Going to Live Together?

It isn’t just tempers heating up around the police involved shooting in Ferguson, the thermostat is heading north, too. We are now facing days on end of near 100 degree weather. These could be the hottest days this Summer.

The headline today is that Attorney General Eric Holder is in Ferguso to confer with local officials about the federal investigation into the shooting death of Michael Brown.

I like to listen to as varied a spectrum of news outlets as possible when digesting the news and today, I tuned in Rush. I think it is critical to listen to as many voices as possible when trying to understand the polarization affecting this country right now.

It was a good day to do so. Rush kept questioning why CNN interviewed director Spike Lee last night. Well, if you haven’t seen the movie, “Do the Right Thing,” rent it. The key line in that movie, after a hot summer day filled with racial tension ends in violence, is “Are we ever going to live together?” What a fitting line for this situation.

I guess I am naive but I truly believe it’s what most people want. And that there is more good than bad. And more people interested in peace than violence.  I know I am naive because I blogged a few years ago that, having elected our first African American President, we had proven that we had moved beyond race. Finally, we could be that rising tide that lifts all boats. In other words, we could focus on that entrepreneurial spirit that defines this country. Having said that, we need to acknowledge religious plurality and tolerance were also values this country was founded on.

I went up to Ferguson the other day and what I saw was a middle class community with working class areas, pockets of lower income areas, kids in racially mixed groups who looked like kids in any other middle class community on a hot Summer day and a coffee shop filled with Moms at mid-day.

But, I am seeing something else every night on television and social media. They’re looters with covered faces who don’t want to be identified but have somehow attached themselves to a protest that started out over a police department’s reluctance to identify the officer accused of shooting Michael Brown. What? You can’t have it both ways. Remember the issue was transparency, right? Show your faces, looters and molotov cocktail throwers unless that isn’t why you’re there.

Today, the faces calling for the County Prosecutor to be removed from the case are those of African-Americans like the County Executive, a State Senator and a United States Congressman. They question whether McCulloch can be objective given that his own father, a police officer, was killed by an African-American suspect while responding to a call when McCulloch was just 12 years old. McCulloch said he isn’t stepping down but if Nixon doesn’t decide soon whether to appoint a Special Prosecutor, it could hurt the case.

McCulloch has also said repeatedly that guilt or innocence isn’t decided by him. A grand jury will decide if there is enough evidence to bring charges and a jury will decide from there.

The quote I was most relieved to hear came from FBI Director James Comey who said, while announcing there are 40 field agents looking for witnesses in Ferguson, “We don’t give a rip about the politics.” That’s good. It means someone is focussed solely on the facts in this case.

 

Kirkwood Shares Lessons Learned For Healing With Ferguson

By LINDA LOCKHART

Michael Brown’s parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., are still waiting to bury their son, who was shot and killed on Aug. 10, by a Ferguson police officer. For them, healing probably seems like something that’s still a long way off.

But for the people of Ferguson, where peaceful protests turned violent in the week since Brown’s death, steps toward healing should begin as soon as possible.
Kirkwood City Hall.
Credit Paul Sableman
That’s the consensus of community leaders from Kirkwood, which went through a trauma of its own in 2008. That’s when Kirkwood resident Charles “Cookie” Thornton entered a City Council meeting, where he shot and killed five people, including two police officers, before he was fatally shot by police.

Then-Mayor Mike Swoboda was wounded; he never fully recovered and died several months later.

Paul Ward is an alderman in Kirkwood. He knows all too well what it means to have to keep calm, and carry on, as the British expression goes. That’s the message he wants to pass on to the people of Ferguson.
Paul Ward
Credit /photo provided
In 2008, before Ward was elected to the council, he was among the citizens in a community that suddenly had to face its own racial divide, when Thornton, an African-American, took out his long-simmering frustrations with a hail of gunfire, just as a city council meeting was about to begin.

Thornton had been involved in a long-running struggle with the city and believed that his race was a factor.

But unlike Ferguson, where peaceful protests erupted into destruction and looting after Brown’s death, Kirkwood remained peaceful.

The day after the shooting, people gathered in front of Kirkwood City Hall for a candle-light vigil. The event was organized by church leaders, black and white, and included the chief of police and political leaders among the speakers.

Listen
3:15
Listen to Linda Lockhart’s story about what people learned from Kirkwood.
“Faith is strong in Kirkwood,” Ward said last week in a telephone interview with St. Louis Public Radio. “That’s what that vigil was all about — people of faith coming together.”

“I was at St. John’s Hospital (right after the shooting) and ran into Scott Stearman, my pastor. He asked what should we do. I said we should start with our faith.”

Ward and Stearman, senior pastor of Kirkwood Baptist Church, found each other at what was then known as St. John’s Mercy Medical Center, where they had gone to check on the condition of Mayor Swoboda, who was gravely wounded, and Public Works Director Ken Yost, who died.

In those early moments, the planning began.

Stearman, in an interview, talked about the vigil:
Pastor Scott Stearman
Credit /photo provided
“We all gathered as a community, to recognized the tragedy of what happened. People recognized that this was an immense tragedy.

Stearman is a member of the long-established Kirkwood Ministerial Alliance, which includes black and white clergy members. In 2008, the group included the Rev. Darren Smotherson, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Meacham Park, and the Rev. David Bennett, pastor of Kirkwood United Methodist Church, who were also were involved in planning the Kirkwood vigil and other events that followed.

After the initial vigil, the ministers came together with community leaders to set up listening sessions, where residents from the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Meacham Park could express their concerns about what they saw as a long history of mistreatment and disrespect from the city of Kirkwood. Those leaders included Harriet Patton, then-president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, and Ron Hodges, who became a leader of a group now known as Community for Understanding and Hope.

Initial sessions drew hundreds of people. Some came just to listen, others were eager to share their stories.

“There were so many people with hard feelings,” said Jane Von Kaenel, a member of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association. Before long, the group collected about 80 formal complaints that were filed with the U.S. Justice Department, she said.

In January 2010, the Kirkwood City Council adopted an agreement with the Meacham Park neighborhood that addressed specific procedures for social and civil rights concerns to be raised and addressed.

“I don’t want to come across as having all the answers,” for the people of Ferguson, Stearman said.

“But what we found in our dialogue groups was real education for people who are Caucasian — who don’t consider themselves racists but have never really done the intellectual work to understand what it means to be a minority in America.

“I would encourage folks all over Ferguson to have multiracial opportunities for discussion, and awareness and understanding that most middle-class white folks don’t think they need,” he said.

At the same time, Kirkwood leaders understand that other factors are in play in Ferguson. Among them is that Kirkwood is a predominantly white community, where blacks and whites, in many cases, live separately.

Ferguson’s population is about two-thirds African American. And for the most part, black people and white people there agree that they get along fairly well.

Also, in Ferguson’s case, the anger and angst center around the perception that a young black man died because of his race. The mistrust of police is a driving force.
Ron Hodges
Credit /photo provided
In Ferguson, said Hodges, “it’s not so much a ‘black people vs white thing,’ as much as it a ‘police vs black thing.’ ”

Mostly, the folks from Kirkwood agree, people need to be heard. Officials need to listen, and the hurting people need to be allowed to vent, he said.

And whenever the folks in Ferguson are ready, people of Kirkwood are ready to help, both Stearman and Hodges said.

“I tried to call the mayor of Ferguson the other day,” Hodges said. “But I couldn’t get through because their phone system had been hacked.”

TAGS: Ferguson

Transparency is Best

There are two scenarios unfolding in Ferguson this morning. And one of them seems to make the case for greater transparency between a community and its police department.

Scenario #1 has dominated the headlines for a week. That Michael Brown was the victim of excessive force by a police department that singles out blacks for different treatment than whites.

Scenario #2 is that the officer did shoot to kill because he felt his life was at risk.

If Michael Brown, who according to two autopsies, was shot six times from the front, was lunging at an officer and not fleeing him as earlier witnesses stated, and if his arms were up in the air because he was trying to overpower the officer in a so-called “bum-rush”, why wasn’t that information released last weekend or early last week? If it is true that an officer was facing two teens who were trying to get his gun (and had possibly fired it), why not say that? Why not release the information that the victim was suspected of a strong arm robbery? Why not get out front and say, “Our information indicates a different scenario. We are asking for patience and for the public to reserve judgement.”

By withholding these key allegations, and withholding the police officer’s name, the perception was allowed to fester that the department was protecting the officer from the community. If the third autopsy confirms the initial findings that Brown was shot while charging at the officer, it raises the question of whether additional assumptions were unfolding in Ferguson last week.

There’s been a lot of talk about the assumptions many young African Americans face in routine interactions with police officers. I’m concerned about another assumption that might be playing out in this case. Initially, the protestors were demanding information. Was there concern that the people of Ferguson wouldn’t react objectively to the facts? And if so, why? Because some of them are African-American? Because of agitators stirring things up? Things did get stirred up, especially by looters from outside the neighborhood, and even by forces outside this state. But, that happened after neighborhood residents asked for information and didn’t get it.

We need to revisit the decision to withhold information. It allowed a vacuum to open up that has been filled all week long with a negative cycle of images, tweets, lawlessness and  fear on both sides.

I am not a fan of Rev. Al Sharpton’s tactics but I thought it was fair when he said last week, “We’re asking for peace and you’re telling us to be quiet.” The video that was shot with a cell phone of the shooting and has had more than 200,000 page views isn’t crystal clear. I am not questioning why the police released the video from the store holdup. I’m questioning why all of it wasn’t released much earlier. Including the officer’s name.

 

“Check your Assumptions”

There is a saying going around college campuses these days that pops up in conversations regularly. “Check your Privilege.” It is a reminder that a person’s perspective is often honed by life experience, a level of stability not marred by hunger, danger or economic peril. It’s a way to stop someone who may be staking out one position or another by asking them to consider their life experience versus someone else’s. But it is also a little condescending because it discounts the idea that people are capable of stepping outside of their own box to consider the perspectives of others.

If the story that started in Ferguson, Missouri one week ago today has taught us anything it may not be that we need to “Check our Privileges.”  Maybe it is time to  “Check our Assumptions.”

What have we learned?

We’ve learned that Missouri is called the Show Me State for good reason. When the world reacted to images of military level tanks and combat gear, the Governor didn’t talk about what he was going to do. He did it. We assumed it would help and it appeared to for a day or so. Unfortunately, there is looting and rioting again.

But how come, earlier in the week, we failed to realize the police officers in Ferguson were just as capable of overreacting the way so many young gang members have when settling disputes with drive by shootings and gunfire? And did anyone of us hear the police say the only reason they started carrying this level of artillery is that it is what they were facing on the street. Well, they may not have run up against too many tanks but they have encountered too many assault weapons.

Both the police and the protestors were acting out of fear. Maybe each side genuinely believed they needed to be armed to the extent they have been for protection. It was either the former head of the New York City Police Dept. or the current Chief of Police in Cincinnati who said on CNN the other night that the Ferguson police looked like kids playing with big, new toys they didn’t know how to use. The very same could be said of so many young people in this country right now who are armed with assault weapons that they use to settle disputes over girls, perceived slights and neighborhood rivalries.

Who is going to step in to get those assault weapons off the streets? Show Me Missouri.