St. Louis alderman of the 21st Ward and longtime community advocate. He recently helped found the new organization “#HealSTL.”
There are conflicting reports out of Ferguson, Missouri, over the fate of embattled police chief Thomas Jackson. Unnamed government officials told CNN that Jackson is expected to step down as part of efforts to reform the police department following an officer’s killing of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in August. But Chief Jackson and the city’s mayor say the reports are false. This comes as a grand jury weighs whether the officer, Darren Wilson, should face charges in the killing of Brown. The investigation has sprung a number of leaks, with unidentified sources divulging information that seems to corroborate Wilson’s account of what happened that day. The Justice Department has condemned the leaks as "irresponsible and highly troubling," adding, "there seems to be an inappropriate effort to influence public opinion about this case." The recent disclosures have heightened tensions between the protesters and police, with protesters saying the leaks are part of a broader strategy to prematurely diffuse public discontent ahead of any decision not to indict Wilson. Meanwhile, the St. Louis County Police Department has reportedly stocked up on tear gas, grenades, pepper balls and plastic handcuffs in anticipation of massive protests when the grand jury reaches its decision in November. We are joined by Antonio French, St. Louis alderman of the 21st Ward, longtime community advocate and founder of the new organization Heal STL.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Ferguson, Missouri, where there are reports that the city’s police chief, Thomas Jackson, will soon resign. Unnamed government officials told CNN that Jackson is expected to step down as part of an effort to reform the Police Department following the death of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot dead in August by a white police officer. Chief Jackson and the city’s mayor have denied CNN’s report.
This comes as a grand jury is weighing whether the officer, Darren Wilson, should face charges in the killing of Brown. The investigation has sprung a number of leaks, with unidentified sources divulging information that seems to corroborate Officer Wilson’s account of what happened that day. According to the leaks, Brown apparently struggled with Wilson in his patrol car, and Wilson’s gun was discharged before a brief foot chase. The New York Times reported that investigators discovered Brown’s blood on Wilson’s gun and on Wilson’s uniform. Ballistics tests confirm two shots were fired inside the car, one of them hitting Brown’s arm. It’s unclear why Wilson then fired the fatal shots at Brown after he emerged from his vehicle. Witness accounts say Brown had his hands up and was trying to surrender when he was shot dead. According to federal officials, there is not enough evidence to indict Wilson on civil rights charges in the Justice Department’s probe of the shooting.
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice condemned the leaks as, quote, "irresponsible and highly troubling," adding, quote, "there seems to be an inappropriate effort to influence public opinion about this case." Attorney General Eric Holder reportedly told Justice Department lawyers last week he was, quote, "exasperated" at the "selective flow of information coming out of Missouri." The recent disclosures have heightened tensions between the protesters and police, with protesters saying the leaks are part of a broader strategy to prematurely diffuse public discontent ahead of any decision not to indict Officer Wilson.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis County Police Department has reportedly stocked up on tear gas, grenades, pepper balls, plastic handcuffs in anticipation of massive protests when the grand jury reaches its decision in November. The Police Department has apparently spent over $172,600 since August on gear for dealing with protesters. This comes on the heels of a new report by Amnesty International calling for an investigation of potential human rights abuses in earlier police crackdowns on protesters in Ferguson after Brown was killed. The human rights group said the Ferguson Police Department should review its standards, practices and training to ensure that they, quote, "conform fully to international standards."
Well, for more, we go directly to St. Louis, Missouri, where we’re joined by Antonio French. He’s the St. Louis alderman of the 21st Ward and longtime community advocate. He recently helped found the new organization #HealSTL.
Antonio French, welcome back to Democracy Now! Well, let’s start with this latest news. CNN reported, based on anonymous federal sources, that Tom Jackson, the police chief of Ferguson, is stepping down. Jackson and the mayor have both denied that he is. What do you make of all this?
ANTONIO FRENCH: Yeah, the talk of the resignation of the Ferguson police chief has been building for a while. In fact, many of us have called for his resignation several weeks ago. In fact, him keeping that position actually becomes an impediment to the community moving forward. And so, I welcome news that there is also talk in Washington of having—to help facilitate that. But as you said, as of last night, the chief said that that was not the case, and he hadn’t been consulted on it.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Antonio French, what do you make of the continued leaks as the grand jury investigation proceeds at a snail’s pace in trying to reach some kind of a decision on whether to indict the officer involved in this case?
ANTONIO FRENCH: Yeah, the leaks worry me. The leaks, I think, really undercut and undermine the entire investigation. It makes people who have already he believed that it was very difficult for Michael Brown or any young black man to get justice or a fair shake here in St. Louis County, it reinforces that belief that the fix is in and that a lot of people in high authority are in on it somehow. I think it was really necessary for us to conduct this investigation in a way that actually restored people’s faith in the process, to make people believe that there is a way for both sides to get a fair shake and that we will see real justice. I think the exact opposite—the worst possible scenario is if such a vital and important case is decided, ultimately, behind closed doors in a secret grand jury process. I think that does not bode well for the future and, really, for the healing that we have to do in our city.
AMY GOODMAN: Former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch has said in interviews the grand jury leaks can be beneficial because, quote, "it’s not a surprise to people" when a decision is announced. I want to turn to Fitch speaking on KMOX NewsRadio.
TIM FITCH: I think what you’re seeing them do is coordinate leaks to the media and to start getting some of the facts out there to kind of let people down slowly. I think they recognize that it’s probably very unlikely there’s going to be charges.
AMY GOODMAN: The Brown family’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, dismissed the leaks and renewed calls for the appointment of a special prosecutor to the case.
BENJAMIN CRUMP: I think everybody’s taken an "anonymous" leaked information to say, "Oh, this supports the officer’s version." Michael Brown’s family has always said they don’t trust any of the local St. Louis authorities. They have been asking for a special prosecutor from day one and asking for federal intervention, because they don’t believe the local officials in St. Louis are going to give equal justice to their child.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Brown family attorney Benjamin Crump speaking on CBS. Antonio French, your response to both?
ANTONIO FRENCH: Well, I agree, that those of us who had called for special prosecutor many, many weeks ago did so for two reasons. One is that this specific county prosecutor’s relationship with the African-American community really makes it impossible for the African-American community to ever believe they’re actually going to get justice. And if the grand jury ultimately decided not to indict, coming from this county prosecutor, it actually makes it much worse.
The second thing is that, again, this has to be done in recognizing that there are two crises going on right now—one short-term, one long-term. And in the short term, we have this specific case to deal with. But in the long term, we have a greater community that has a lot of people, especially young African Americans, who feel like the justice system is actually against them. And so, we have to do this in a way that actually heals those wounds and actually convinces people that this system does work. And I think we’ve dropped that ball. We’ve missed that opportunity. And in fact, in some ways, things have become worse.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Antonio French, those of us who have followed these kinds of police killings over the years know that the selective leak tactic is a pretty common one. During the Amadou Diallo case here in New York, for instance, there were constant leaks before there was a grand jury decision on that case. The effort, obviously, from the police point of view was to try to prevent any outbreaks or violence if an indictment is not reached. My best bet is that you’re going to get a decision on a Sunday night into Monday, in the coldest day of November, on this decision. Your sense of how the community leaders are preparing for any protest that may arise as a result, as the Police Department itself is preparing?
ANTONIO FRENCH: Yeah, I mean, there are preparations being made on both sides. So, obviously, as you reported earlier, the police are preparing. They are buying equipment. They are undergoing training. But on the civilian side, you have organizations that are organizing and trying to get people together. We’re bringing in some folks who are actually counselors and healers to help deal with some of the anger that will undoubtedly result if that does come back, as you suggest.
But there will be some who will take to the streets. We saw that some weeks ago. There are some that there’s no talking to. And there is so much anger and frustration built up over so many years that we do expect for there to be some violence. Now, the message is that that does not get us to our long-term goal. That violence is not going to get justice for Michael Brown and his family. And violence isn’t going to help make St. Louis a better community. And so, we are in a bit of a crisis here in St. Louis, and a lot of us are very worried about the future.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Antonio, what do you think needs to be done, when you talk about the healing of the community? When the Justice Department is investigating the Police Department, what is the groundwork that needs to be laid now? What are you prevented from doing? What is moving forward on the ground? The elections are coming up. When we were speaking to a group of young people, one of the issues they were raising is, you know, this is an overwhelmingly African-American community that doesn’t vote, and so the school board, the city council, these are overwhelmingly white, from a throwback from the old days.
ANTONIO FRENCH: Yeah, what you’re looking at is, systemic reform is needed. And so, in Ferguson, specific, you have a 67 percent African-American population and an almost all-white government, all-white police force. That has led to a situation that we see today that is just unbearable, and it is just bound to spill over. But in the larger community, North St. Louis County, you have a lot of these municipalities that mirror that, where you have large African-American populations with almost no political power. And so, in March, a lot of those local elections are coming up. What Heal STL is doing is actually registering voters and trying to get that 67 percent majority to actually become a voting majority. So, these things, though, take time, and they won’t come within the next few weeks. But hopefully something has changed in both communities, the African-American community and the white community, so that we both recognize that there is a problem and we have to fix it. We have to roll up our sleeves and begin that hard work. Unfortunately, we can’t really do that until we get through this crisis.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Antonio French, I want to ask about the new Amnesty International report. That organization is calling for an investigation of potential human rights abuses in the police crackdown on protesters in Ferguson. Amnesty says police committed violations in the weeks that followed the killing of Michael Brown, and its researcher, Justin Mazzola, said the militarized crackdown raises major concerns.
JUSTIN MAZZOLA: They came out in a presence that only served to intimidate. They used tactics such as the use of tear gas, rubber bullets, oftentimes when it probably was not justified, considering what was happening on the ground at that point in time. Then you had local officials imposing policies restricting people’s rights to actually go out and protest, whether it was the imposition of a curfew, the imposition of a five-second rule, people had to continue to keep walking, designated assembly areas where there’s like a free speech zone within Ferguson, but anywhere else you have to keep walking. And these all go to show that basically there needs to be a national review both of use-of-force policies as well as policies in policing protests.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Amnesty researcher Justin Mazzola. And in a separate report out earlier this week, the advocacy group PEN American Center is calling on the Justice Department to investigate a police crackdown on journalists covering the Ferguson protests. PEN says it compiled more than 50 cases of press freedom violations that have culminated in the arrest of 21 journalists. Antonio French, your response to both of these reports?
ANTONIO FRENCH: I welcome both the reports, having been out there from day one, having experienced the tear gas and the heavy-handed, military-style response from police. There were times I couldn’t recognize this as America. And in fact, you know, we should not have such a breakdown in government where there is no empathy towards the population, there is no responsible response, and instead you have a military-style crackdown to suppress people exercising their constitutional rights. That shouldn’t happen in America or anywhere else. And so, I welcome especially the Amnesty report, because it really puts it in perspective. Very often we think about these kind of violations occurring in other places, but as we saw last month and the month prior, it can happen at home, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Antonio French, thanks so much for being with us, St. Louis aldermen of the 21st Ward, longtime community advocate, recently helped found the new organization #HealSTL, out on the streets from day one after the killing of Mike Brown.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the arming of a warrior cop, warrior cops around the country, including Ferguson. Where is the money coming from? Where is it going to? We’ll speak with Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer. Stay with us.