Clifton Kinnie stood at the lectern before members of the Ferguson Commission on Saturday with a lot on his mind.
The senior at Lutheran North High School has been worried about the safety of his siblings since the police shooting death of Michael Brown. Clifton said he wants police to protect his brothers and sisters. He said it is time for systems to change that treat African-Americans differently.
“It is no secret St. Louis has become a tale of two cities,” Clifton said into the microphone. “Separate and unequal…. I believe I live in one of the most racially divided cities in America.”
About 150 people between the ages of 14 and 24 attended the Ferguson Commission’s meeting at St. Louis Community College’s Florissant Valley campus. The youth summit marked a “critical beginning” for the commission in the listening process involving young people, said the Rev. Starsky Wilson, co-chairman. The next meeting, set for Jan. 20, focuses on education.
“We’re here to create a better and more just future for you,” commissioner Brittany Packnett told the audience. “We need this generation. We need you to lead us in the fight.“
For 25 minutes the commission listened as a dozen high schoolers, college students and 20-somethings spoke. They each had two minutes to make their point.
“It’s not easy walking down the street and being stereotyped,” said Kievonn Monger, a student at Jennings High School.
Kievonn described an evening last month when he left the school’s computer lab, only to be stopped by a police officer who wrongly suspected he was carrying a gun.
“It’s not easy being a young black male living in Jennings, living near Ferguson,” Kievonn said. “It didn’t bring police officers closer to us; it pushed them farther away.”
Teenagers and adults in their 20s have been driving much of the civil unrest that began when Brown, a black teenager, was killed by a white Ferguson police officer. The Ferguson Commission was created by Gov. Jay Nixon to address “social and economic conditions” highlighted by protests. The budget for the 13-month endeavor is about $1.3 million.
The 16 commission members moved around the room as participants discussed problems and solutions in breakout sessions. The topics were family, community and education.
Many of the stories struck common chords of racial bias and stereotyping that persist in education and law enforcement.
“They come to the African-American communities and they don’t know the students,” Clifton said of white teachers in north St. Louis County public schools. “They don’t know what our experience is like outside of school.”
The same was said of police.
In another small group, a high school student said she wished Ferguson police had attended the summit to hear the discussion. There was talk about building bridges with law enforcement and improving communication.
“Your voice, believe it or not, is being heard,” said Jayde Brown, a senior at Pattonville High School, as she jotted down notes for the commission on a white sheet of paper on the wall.
Another common refrain was the frustration students feel when they can’t talk about Ferguson-related issues at school. While most area school districts don’t have policies prohibiting discussion, and superintendents say they encourage it, some teachers and principals won’t allow it, teenagers said.
Among those students was DeAnna Harper, a senior at McCluer North High School, who said some of her teachers have stymied the conversation out of concern they’d lead to tense hallway situations. As a result, some of her classmates don’t have a chance to talk about race and policing with others who may not share their views, she said.
At the end of the summit, Packnett thanked everyone for coming. She said she’s stuck close to millennials during the protest for a reason.
“I know you guys don’t come with an agenda,” she said. “All you guys come with is truth.”