We first met Lenard Blair on a cold November night in Ferguson, Mo., as he worked with artist Damon Davis on a public installation of Davis’ “Hands Up” project. Blair was pasting giant prints of raised hands on sheets of plywood covering shops on Ferguson’s main drag, W. Florissant — symbols of defiance against an abusive criminal justice system. It was freezing, and everyone was on edge. The grand jury decision on police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown a year ago this weekend, was less than 72 hours away, and the media wasn’t helping. TV lights blinded Blair as he tried to work, soundmen dangled microphones overhead, and he was getting fed up.
“Y’all are vultures. You’re just here for your own self-promotion off the backs of people here!” he told me. “If you want to know what’s really going on in St. Louis, go down the street and take a look at the municipal courts!”
Blair’s words forced us to tell a different story about Michael Brown, and led to an hour-long film called “Ferguson: A Report from Occupied Territory”, which looks at how structural violence against black residents was part and parcel of Michael Brown’s death, and everything that followed.
In a series of phone interviews, we followed up with Blair and the other St. Louisans who made this documentary possible to find out what, if anything, had changed in Ferguson in the year since Michael Brown’s death.
Lenard Blair is a native St. Louisan and an artist/activist with the creative collective, Civil Ape. He has contributed his art and graphic design to the local movement.
We asked Blair how it felt to live for so long under the national spotlight: “I think a lot of people would agree that the national attention has been surreal…And, honestly, a lot of people, myself included, thought, ‘Finally! The world is going to see what’s happening here. And, something significant is going to happen to help reform this situation.’”
But a year on, Blair is less optimistic: “A lot of people don’t feel beholden to the system anymore, but it’s still that feeling of David and Goliath. We still haven’t really overcome. We’re coming to terms with the idea that we’re on our own. Despite the weird, constant media attention, still nothing has moved forward.”
Blair nonetheless emphasized the accomplishments of local activists: “Even though nationally I don’t think it’s gotten the proper energy or attention, there’s still been significant community building within the movement. It’s closer and stronger than it’s ever been, because we’ve been tested like never before…Black and brown, poor whites in St. Louis, they’re all on the same accord and ready to move. Everybody has different ideologies and ways of going about it, but we’re on the same page and ready to move. I think that’s beautiful. I think that’s a dope accomplishment.”
When speaking on practices of excessive ticketing and targeting of Black residents to fund municipal budgets, Blair remained focused on justice: “I would like to see some of the people who were the architects behind this extortion go to jail, or to face charges. If we were having a conversation about some Third-World country in which this happened, that would be the first thing on all our politicians lips. These people extorted, destroyed families, sent people to jail who didn’t deserve it, separated kids from their parents. They deserve to be in jail. They deserve to be on trial.”
Reverend Osagyefo Sekou is the Bayard Rustin Fellow, Fellowship of Reconciliation. He is also a mentor to and organizer with black youth in his hometown of St. Louis.
Rev. Sekou began with a reminder that August 9 marks 365 days of resistance in Ferguson.
“Ferguson is the longest rebellion against police brutality in the history of the United States,” he wrote in an email. “In terms of impact and duration, it is second only to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. For the first time since the slave insurrections and the subsequent Civil War, the black proletariat have set the terms of the public debate. Ferguson is the moment of Montgomery (an enduring spark), Selma (epic battle), and Birmingham (global images of vicious state violence) combined.”
Rev. Sekou believes that Ferguson has undeniably left its mark on the growing national Black Lives Matter movement and a generation of young black activists. From the beginning, he said in a phone call, “Ferguson’s protest movement was led by the people in the street.”
Chris Brown, Sr., works in construction, he is a father and St. Louis County resident.
We asked Brown if he had felt the effects of municipal court reform, and he replied: “For the most part, I haven’t been able to experience the difference. I just got my warrants canceled out…I owed $685 to the county, and they wouldn’t settle for less than the full amount, so I ended up going into warrant status. They said that maybe they’d start accepting payments with the new changes in the courts, so I’m hoping.
“As far as anything else, I can’t really tell the difference. I’ve been pulled over a couple of times. I’d say I’ve been pulled over about four times. Two were pleasant. Two weren’t. Same deal, you’ve got to get out of the car. You’ve got to get searched, stuff like that. As you get used to it, that’s just the regular.
“But I did have a couple good experiences. One time, I was caught speeding, he ran my plates and then told me to have a good day. I actually thanked him. For real! Thirty-five years, and that was the best experience I’ve ever had. I guess it depends on the actual person. A lot of police officers did wake up because it was a tense situation. But the regular everyday things, it’s still the same. I guess people are just paying closer attention to it because it’s a nation-wide problem.”
Dell Taylor is a St. Louis County resident, a community leader, and a mother.
In March the Department of Justice released a report that found rampant racial bias in the Ferguson police department, administration, and courts. The investigation has led to the firing of several officials and some measure of reform.
According to Taylor, however, both the scrutiny and the changes have been artificially confined to the City of Ferguson. She says that accountability at a higher level is still necessary: “In my opinion, until you really get to the meat and potatoes of it all, that is the major players like Bob McCulloch (and his prosecuting attorney’s office), Governor Jay Nixon, and the judges that serve in St. Louis County, nothing will change for us because these are the people who are in power, and these are the people who are corrupt,” said Taylor.
“You’ve gotten rid of Chief Jackson in Ferguson and his little crew and then you’ve shut down some of the corrupt people in the smaller municipalities in the area, but you just haven’t touched the major players. If the major players are eliminated, then you can start seeing a domino effect of change in St. Louis. In my opinion, McCulloch has the most powerful position in the judicial system, because a lot of the people who are incarcerated have to come before his office… There’s never gonna be fairness. As long as he’s in office, poor people are going to be the cash cow for St. Louis County. Period.”
Thomas Harvey is an attorney and executive director of The Arch City Defenders, which brought a lawsuit against ten municipal courts in St. Louis County in February.
Senate Bill 5 (SB5) passed in the Missouri state legislature in May by 134-25. The new law promises significant reforms to the municipal court system and reprieve from the kind of predatory policing seen in Ferguson and other small cities in St. Louis County. However, Harvey contends that it is critical to look at how such reforms are implemented.
As an example, he pointed to the newly-formed Missouri Municipal Courts Improvement Committee, which is comprised of municipal court judges and prosecutors: “One of their big initiatives is to implement a county-wide community service program. But it doesn’t get at the main point, because these are things that should never result in arrest or a fine. They need to quit issuing the tickets.”
For Harvey, the community service initiative echoes a 1901 DOJ case that accused the states of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana of continuing slavery through a system of fines, debt, and involuntary servitude (a subject explored by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Douglas A. Blackmon in Slavery by Another Name).
“So, great. Progress is that we do all the same things, but now we have community service instead of fines and jail time?… It’s an important difference, but it’s obviously not enough… If you read SB5, you’ll see that the only time you can be jailed as a result of one of these cases is if you violate your probation. So, if you plead on one of these charges and get community service as a condition of your probation and then you don’t complete it, you go to jail… If you can imagine one of our clients, who is mentally ill, they have a substance abuse problem, and no car… They’re set up to fail.”
Harvey added that SB5 only applies to moving violations and a subset of traffic tickets, but not to other municipal ordinance violations, such as fines for wearing sagging pants.
Finally, Harvey noted, “In terms of legislation, what didn’t pass was any bill that touched on police or race. It’s like the Missouri legislature wants to live in some fictional world where race doesn’t exist and race isn’t a motivation. So, we get a law on municipal courts that strictly addresses the financial motivation to ticket people and doesn’t address the patriarchal, racist motivation of trying to police blackness and poverty.
Brendan Roediger is a law professor at St. Louis University and a member of their Civil Advocacy Clinic. He is also one of the attorneys to join the Arch City Defender in their lawsuits against ten municipal courts.
When asked about the state of municipal court reform, Roediger responded, “in terms of structural changes, there have been limited victories. We have SB5 which eliminated the ‘failure to appear’ charge in municipal court and got rid of the ‘failure to appear’ license suspension. That was a victory, a minor victory, but a victory that will keep some people from spending time in jail, and that’s important.”
Other bright spots include the Ferguson Commission’s findings, which solidly call for the municipal court system to be abolished and replaced with consolidated, full-time, professional courts. Those findings are now with a Missouri Supreme Court committee, which has the power to force major reform. “I think that the potential for the abolition of the whole system is still very real,” says Roediger. “There’s just nothing solid yet. As of now, there are still people standing in line outside these courts every night.”
Ultimately, Roediger stressed, “building a community of resistance and building power is important in and of itself, so people should not judge the success of this movement by how many legislative victories they have a year out, but rather by whether people are still doing the work.”