BERKELEY – Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown Jr.’s mother, didn’t have time to finish her food Saturday at a luncheon observing the fifth anniversary of her son’s shooting death by then-Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson. She had to whisk off to the ceremonial laying of a wreath at his burial site.
McSpadden was, however, at the luncheon long enough to get an earful of what various area leaders proposed in moving forward and in keeping Brown’s death from being in vain. With her were members of her foundation, Rainbow of Mothers.
The luncheon and panel discussion were held at the Renaissance Hotel in Berkeley and presented by the Heartland St. Louis Black Chamber of Commerce. The theme was “Focus: Moving Forward with Direct Intent to Make a Powerful Economic Impact.”
“We be must selfish about this and start worrying about our issues, our children, our future and building our wealth,” said Rep. Lacy Clay, D-Mo. “We are last when it comes to racial disparities in concentrated poverty.”
Earlier that day, Clay, along with Rep. Rohit Khanna, D-Calif., also a panelist, introduced a bill against excessive federal police force. Titled “The Peace Act,” it would attempt to make the use of force the last resort and require officers to employ de-escalation techniques.
Should the bill make it through the House and Senate, it would put pressure on states to enact similar laws by making it a requirement in order for states to continuing receive public safety funds.
“The United States should have the same standards when it comes to the use of force as every other industrialized countries in the world,” Khanna said. “Forty-seven European nations have a standard that says you can’t use force unless it is absolutely necessary and a last resort. We don’t have that standard.”
Moving forward, he said, access to technology is vital in fighting economic disparity.
“[U.S. Rep.] John Lewis [D-Ga.] once told me that technology rights is the new civil rights,” Khanna added.
St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and County Executive Sam Page formed a culminating two-person panel.
“It really does come down to being about economics and leveling the playing field for black Americans and black businesses,” the mayor said.
On that front she pointed to her executive order last year that changed the language of required business inclusion to specify “African-American” instead of “minority.” In doing so, the goal for black-owned business participation is 21 percent, instead of the five percent when grouped with other minorities.
The bill was introduced by 22nd Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd. The mayor also made mention of recent demolition of vacant buildings in Boyd’s Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood, saying nothing good ever happened in vacant buildings.
To that, panel host and moderator Veta Jeffery responded that they were right, “but a great thing to follow that up with is rebuilding in those spaces where those buildings were torn down.” Jeffrey is executive director of the Heartland St. Louis Black Chamber of Commerce and senior VP of community and economic development for Midwest BankCentre.
St. Louis native Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter, who helped to bankroll the recent demolition of some of the many crumbling buildings in the 22nd Ward, spoke at the luncheon before the panel began.
“I am here because of Michael Brown … I am here because of the strength and passion that I see in Lesley, his mother,” said Dorsey, who protested in Ferguson during the unrest.
“I’ve seen this city go through so much trouble, trauma, unnecessary, unfair, unjust; and I am here as a person who wants to give back to a city that has given me so much and a person who wants to build within the city. I’m here to bring jobs and employment to the city, economic empowerment, skills training to the city,” Dorsey said.
He continued, saying he realized that he must use his influence, voice and platform to hold civic leadership to account to make sure that systemic racial injustice within the city was addressed.
“Anytime that you see that I’m going in the wrong direction in St. Louis, please critique and hold me to account so that I can hold to account our local and national government,” he said.
Page said that moving forward for him meant looking through a lens of racial equity and making sure the right decisions were made with government resources.
“We will be trying to change the trajectory and change the course of our community, because we know that we are at the top of the country in lack of diversity and opportunity. Many kids growing up in our neighborhoods in the county don’t have the same opportunities as kids growing up a mile or two down the street, and we need to change that,” Page said.
He also said that he was working with St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell.
Bell, also panelist, said he would continue to drop the jail population of low-level, nonviolent offenders. In the seven months since he has taken office, he said, that jail population has been reduced by 20 percent, the lowest since 2000.
The initial panel was rounded out by Michael Jones, pastor of Friendly Temple Church; Alex Flennoy, executive vice president at Midwest BankCentre; Antwayne Ford, president of Enlightenment Inc., an information, technology and management consulting firm; Chet Love, founder of Cornerstone Group, an investment and consulting firm; and Ron Busby, president of Black Chambers Inc., a nonprofit that supports black chambers of commerce and business owners.
Busby came with figures. He noted that the African-American dollar used to leave black areas within 6 hours. Now, he said, it leaves in four and half hours. Thus, blacks must support black businesses, he said
Love said it was time that African-Americans stopped having the same conversation every 30 years. He referred to blacks’ being prohibited from reading and writing in the 1860s; then fast-forwarded to the Kerner Commission’s report of the 1960s that identified overpolicing, lack of education and lack of economic opportunities, as well as the police beating of black motorist Rodney King in 1991.
Moving forward, he agreed that the goal was embracing and learning technology, and creating ownership for lower-income people to ward off gentrification with small houses, community properties and equity ownership.
“So, that 30 years from now,” Love said, “we don’t have the same group of mothers sitting at the table having the same conversation.”