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To keep peace in Ferguson, DOJ bars media from town hall meetings

City leaders in Ferguson planned a series of meetings to build trust and transparency. But the DOJ stepped in and barred non-residents and media from attending.
Attendees raise theirs arms during a public comments portion of a meeting of the Ferguson City Council, in Ferguson, Mo. on Sept. 9, 2014.
Attendees raise theirs arms during a public comments portion of a meeting of the Ferguson City Council, in Ferguson, Mo. on Sept. 9, 2014.

City leaders in Ferguson, Missouri, have billed a series of upcoming town hall meetings beginning Monday night as a way to continue dialogue with members of the beleaguered community and an opportunity to clear up misconceptions still swirling a month after Ferguson police shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

In a statement that went out late last week, Mayor James Knowles said that he wanted use the meetings as a way to assure people that the city was operating with full transparency.

Knowles said that he wanted residents of Ferguson to “know exactly where we stand on things with full transparency.”

But at some point between then and now, the Community Relations Service, a little-known agency within the Department of Justice that is working behind the scenes to cool racial tensions in the city, stepped in and closed off the meetings to the media and non-residents.

“The idea about no media came from the Department of Justice – not the city,” Devin James, a spokesman for the city told msnbc on Monday. “I could be wrong, but it is my understanding that they believe that the presence of media hinders and disrupts the conversation so that it is no longer productive and does not fulfill the purpose for which it was intended.”

James went on to write in an email that “I do not know what the DOJ representatives will do or say to you if you show up.”

“The city is not taking a position on whether members of media should attend or should be allowed to attend,” he said.

Members of the DOJ’s Community Relations Service will be facilitating the town hall meetings and have been in Ferguson from the outset of the riots and protests in the wake of Brown’s killing at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9. Sworn to secrecy in order to maintain trust among various stakeholders, the mediators, or “peacemakers,” quietly parachute into communities in the midst of turmoil associated with racial, religious or sexual discrimination.

When asked about the media being summarily shut out of the Ferguson meetings at the behest of the CRS, Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman with the DOJ, referred to the agency's legislative mandate.

That mandate, first issued in 1964 during a time of great racial unrest in America, states that the CRS, “in providing conciliation assistance shall be conducted in confidence and without publicity, and the Service shall hold confidential any information acquired in the regular performance of its duties upon the understanding that it would be so held.”

Any officer of the service, the mandate continues, who makes public “in any manner” information gathered during their mediation services are subject to misdemeanor charges and could face fines up to $1,000 and no more than a year in jail.

In 2012, the CRS was sent into Sanford, Florida after former neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old who was unarmed at the time of the shooting. Martin’s killing set off national protests and renewed dialogue about racial profiling and the sometimes lethal encounters black men have with law enforcement. The agency stayed through last summer when Zimmerman was on trial for Martin's killing. Zimmerman was ultimately acquitted of second-degree murder charges in the teen's death. 

As the drama played out in the courtroom, the CRS worked with residents, clergy, activists and city official to help diffuse tensions there.

Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett, who grew up in Missouri and whose father lives not far from Ferguson, said he welcomed the DOJ and the CRS and urged Mayor Knowles to heed their advice on the healing process.

“It takes time. You can’t force someone to trust you,” Triplett told msnbc. “Sometime you have to shut your mouth and open your ears and just listen instead of trying to take the ultimate leadership role and make things go away. Because you can’t make things go away, you can’t change people’s feelings.”

Ferguson has been no Sanford, Florida.

The long distrust and animosity between the police and many members of the black community in Ferguson has turned fiery, even violent during the fallout from Brown’s killing. While Sanford suffered little more than the marching of thousands of protesters demanding justice for Trayvon Martin, Ferguson was riven by sporadic fire and tear gas fired by police on largely peaceful crowds.

Supporters of Brown’s believe officer Wilson shot Brown in cold blood. Several witnesses say Wilson shot at Brown several times as Brown tried to run away from a confrontation the two had in the middle of a street in a poorer section of town. They say that as Brown turned with his hands up in surrender, Wilson fired several more shots, killing the unarmed young man.

The police say Wilson shot and killed Brown during a struggle for the officer’s gun.

Controversy has dogged nearly every step of the way in this case, which residents see as salt in the wound ripped wide by Brown's killing and the subsequent lack of transparency from law enforcement during the investigation. 

Protesters have called for the firing of the Ferguson chief of police, Thomas Jackson. They’ve called on Mayor Knowles to resign. And they’ve pushed for St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch to step down and be replaced by a special prosecutor because they don’t trust him to fairly prosecute Officer Wilson. McCulloch’s father was a police officer killed on duty by a black man. In recent years, his prosecution has not led to convictions for a number of police officers who shot and killed unarmed black residents.

At the same time, Brown's family and supporters continue to say they want transparency and they want answers.

During arecent City Council meeting, protesters shouted down the mayor and the council as they attempted to conduct routine city business as well as announce a slew of new ordinances they hoped would remedy complaints that the city had been profiting off of poor blacks with exorbitant fees associated with excessive and unfair arrests.

City leaders hoped the meeting would serve as a bridge to healing a broken community. Instead, it served as a referendum on just how broken the city truly is.

Last week, Ferguson officials announced plans for a series of five town hall meetings, with the first, planned for Monday night, to address misperceptions about the city. A second meeting, on Sept. 30, would focus on communication issues between residents and city leaders; a third, on Oct. 7, would address diversity and racial tension; a fourth, on Oct. 21, would discuss a “Roadmap for Growth,” and the fifth and final in the series, scheduled for Nov. 4, would lay out various opportunities for youth and civic engagement.

The meetings are scheduled to be held in each of the city’s three wards on the same night: at Ferguson City Hall, at the Wellspring Church, and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Due to some concerns over resident confusion of the meeting locations, limited resources and safety concerns, Monday's planned meeting at City Hall was cancelled, according to James, the city's spokesman.

On Tuesday night, the City Council plans to convene for its regularly scheduled meeting held on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month.

“There have been so many conversations and issues that have come up that we need to address but most importantly we wanted to begin our dialogue with the community by clearing up the misinformation that is circulating so they know exactly where we stand on things with full transparency,” Mayor Knowles said in announcing the meetings.

But as word spread about the meetings’ restrictions, some people took to social media to weigh in.