FERGUSON, Mo. — When Gov. Jay Nixon announced the creation of the Ferguson Commission last month, he did so to the consternation of many who saw the panel as little more than a token to assuage the angry masses activated in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown Jr.
Nixon called on the commission to conduct an “unflinching study” on the conditions that were underscored by Brown’s shooting by a white police officer, calling the work “not for the faint of heart.”
On Tuesday, Nixon swore in the 16-member commission, the first step in the tough work of sifting through all the detritus left in the fallout from Brown’s killing and generations of racial animus uncovered in the three months thereafter.
Among the panel — nine African Americans and six whites — are a police detective, a couple of protesters, pastors and lawyers. The 16 members were chosen from hundreds that submitted their names for consideration.
One of the newly appointed members, Brittany Packnett, executive director of Teach for America in St. Louis, had spent much of the past 100 days protesting and organizing for justice for Brown. She said she was at first reticent to accept a position on the commission. “Of course there was fear, and it was a heart-and-soul decision for me,” Packnett told msnbc on Wednesday.
She said she worried that by joining the commission she’d somehow be helping to co-opt the movement. “I definitely had that worry, especially just growing very close to the protestor and activist community over the last 104 days.”
Packnett said a couple things convinced her she was doing the right thing. She said she knew and trusted many of the other members. And that the group was given an assurance that the panel would be independent and non-partisan. “We are setting our own process; we are fully accountable to the people and we are independent of any political party or political process,” she said. “And so we’re really trying to make sure that we engage in a transparent process that allows us to get that candid input from the community that we need to be successful.”
The board is expected to return a report to Gov. Nixon next fall and make recommendations accordingly.
The appointment of the commission’s members comes ahead of a grand jury’s decision on whether or not to indict the Ferguson police officer who killed Brown, Darren Wilson, in the teen’s death. On Monday, Nixon signed an executive order to declare a state of emergency and mobilize the National Guard ahead of the grand jury’s announcement, which is expected any day. State and local officials have made preparations in case of unrest sparked by what many believe will be a decision not to indict Wilson.
Nixon’s decision to preemptively call-up the National Guard before any sign of violent protests has roiled the nerves of critics and protesters. The NAACP called the move presumptive and dangerous.
When asked if she thought the commission could affect real change in lieu of protesters’ demands for an indictment of officer Wilson, Packnett said she was confident it could with a bit of help from officials. “I think we can accomplish an important step in the right direction,” Packnett said, saying that the commission’s report on policy recommendations is due Sept. 15.
“But in order for that to really have teeth, the legislature has to take action, the governor has to take action. And so like I said, this is not an end all, be all, this is an independent process to actually hear from the people, make sure that their will is out there, and make sure that we are promoting the dignity of all life, and especially children of color.”
Packnett, in her capacity as an education executive, said her primary aim is to engage with people from all sides of the table and get to the heart of the social and economic issues that disproportionately impact people of color in places like Ferguson. She also said that the protest movement built around justice for Michael Brown continues to grow and mature and that a sign of that maturation is hopefully more and more participation of protesters and protest leaders in government and institutions that directly impact the day to day lives of residents.
“I think it needs to be happening from all directions. Systemic change requires people working from every single angle. So we need folks in the street, we need folks working in the system,” she said. “We’re not actually going to see real change if we don’t come at this from every angle. And that would be a real travesty. That would be, I think, a huge injustice to Mike and his memory.”