Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has called for the formation of a panel to study the social and economic conditions that have fueled ongoing unrest in the wake of this summer’s killing of Michael Brown Jr. by a police officer in Ferguson.
Nixon announced plans for a so-called Ferguson Commission on Tuesday during remarks at the Florissant Valley Community College, not far from where Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9.
Nixon said the commission would conduct a “thorough, wide-ranging and unflinching study” on the conditions underscored by the fallout to Brown’s death, would tap experts to address concerns identified by the commission and offer specific recommendations for making the region “a stronger, fairer place for everyone to live."
The governor said he plans on announcing selected committee members next month.
“This work is not for the faint of heart,” Nixon told an audience of elected officials, educators, business and community leaders. “Make no mistake, there will be anger and conflict, fear and distrust. The enemies of change will not easily yield to reasoned voices calling for a stronger, more united region. But to move forward, we must transcend anger and fear. We must move past pain and disappointment.”
“We must open our hearts and minds to what others have seen, what others have lived, and respect their truth,” he said.
The governor’s remarks are somewhat of a departure from his rather aloof prior stance on Ferguson, for which he has been widely criticized for being absent and impotent in the fallout from Brown’s killing.
The governor has been blasted by supporters of Brown for refusing to replace St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, whom they say is incapable of fairly prosecuting a police officer, with a special prosecutor. He’s also been criticized for not visiting Ferguson in the first tumultuous days of protests, instead keeping his normal schedule which included attending a country music concert and the state fair.
Mervyn Mercano, a spokesman for a collaborative of activists under the banner Ferguson October, called Nixon’s formation of the commission “more empty promises.”
“Governor Jay Nixon has failed for the past two months to stand with communities calling attention to a badly broken criminal justice system,” Mercano said in a statement, noting Nixon’s refusal to appoint a special prosecutor and not halting the use of tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets to disperse peaceful crowds.
Mercano called the announcement of the commission, which he described as “politically toothless,” yet another failure.
“He has ensured the commission's irrelevancy by excluding a review of police practices or broader issues in the criminal justice system out of its scope,” Mercano said.
Local activist and rapper Tef Poe, who has emerged as one of the young leaders of the months-long protests, said the governor had a huge opportunity to lead but instead "dropped the ball."
"After the unrest of late '60s, elected officials started all types of commissions. Fifty years later we're still being killed by the police," said Tef Poe.
At one point during Tuesday’s speech, Nixon harkened back to the racial divide in the small Missouri town where he grew up, about how the railroad tracks were the dividing line for blacks and whites.
“Separate and unequal. It was the way things were,” he said. “Thankfully, we have come some distance since those days. But the journey is not over in 2014. The protests set in motion by the events of August 9 in Ferguson echo others within our lifetime.”
He lamented how the loved ones of both black boys and police officers kiss them goodbye each day and never know if they’ll make it home alive.
“Too much violence. Too little hope,” he said of their predicament. “Too much fear. Too little trust.”
Nixon said this moment, more than 73 days after Wilson’s and Brown’s lives collided so violently, is a time to move forward, to “transcend anger and fear.”
“We must move past pain and disappointment. We must open our hearts and minds to what others have seen, what others have lived, and respect their truth,” Nixon said. “That is the challenge that lies before us. And I believe the good people of this region are eager to meet this challenge.”
Many will likely question the efficacy of the commission to effectively address the needs of a community steeped in structural and institutional barriers, particularly for poor and black residents.
The Ferguson City Council recently proposed a slew of changes to the way the city collects and uses arrest related income under criticism and evidence that blacks are disproportionately arrested and fined. The income generated by those stops became a major economic driver and was the second largest source of revenue for the city.
But there are also other concerns that the commission will not have the power to address, namely what has become the rallying cry for many protesting in Brown’s name: an immediate indictment and arrest of Officer Darren Wilson.
The governor said the commission would not be another investigation into Brown’s killing and that the work of figuring out what happened the day of the shooting will be left to a grand jury, the county prosecutor’s office and federal investigators, all of which are currently pouring over the case.
Nixon said “this is not an investigation into Michael Brown’s death, or the facts of what happened in the street that day.”
Nixon's support of McCulloch, the prosecutor, and Jeff Roorda, a state representative who works for the St. Louis Police Officers Association and supports officer Darren Wilson, has sparked a bit of a mutiny among fellow Democrats and voters in Ferguson. Nixon, McCulloch and Roorda are all Democrats.
"We're going to remember all of the Democrats who refused to stand with us," said Taurean Russell, a leader with the group Hands Up United. "We've been abandoned by liberals and Progressives, and we won't forget that when elections roll around."
Meanwhile, Nixon’s commission rings similar to efforts launched by Florida Gov. Rick Scott following the killing of unarmed black teenagerTrayvon Martin in 2012 by a neighborhood watch volunteer in the city of Sanford.
In that case, protesters focused largely on the state’s Stand Your Ground Law which gave wide discretion in the use of deadly force by civilians in public places.
Several months after the killing, as local protests continued to spread nationally, Scott formed the Stand Your Ground Task Force, paneled by a handpicked group who set out across the state to take testimony and register residents’ concerns.
The task force was lambasted from the outset: It was filled with friends of the Republican governor. It held no legislative power. It was simply an effort to appease the angry, some said.
The task force delivered its final report about six months after it held its first meeting. Not surprising to many, the governor’s committee formed to investigate the state’s controversial gun law found that the law was fine as is, aside from a few minor tweaks.
Nixon’s remarks on Tuesday were at times pointed and specific to the racial concerns of a largely segregated society and all the issues rooted in such economic and racial segregation.
Across the decades, he said, there’s been a “cry from the heart, heard and felt around the nation and around the world.”
“A cry for justice. A cry for change in the schoolhouse and the courthouse. A cry for change in the social and economic conditions that impede prosperity, equality, and safety for all of us,” he said. “When there has been a clear vision of a better future, and a well-marked path for progress, protests have yielded lasting change. When there is only rage and despair, anguish and chaos follow.”