ST. LOUIS • The empty chair at the front of the packed town hall meeting Thursday night got a lot of attention.
Organizers said it was put there for St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, who canceled three of her own town hall meetings following the not-guilty verdict on Sept. 15 in the case of former police Officer Jason Stockley. Stockley, who is white, was charged with murdering black drug suspect Anthony Lamar Smith after a high-speed pursuit in 2011.
Krewson said last week that such meetings would not have been “productive” following several nights of protests, including unrest in the Central West End that included vandalism to her house.
“We’re beyond disappointed” that the mayor chose to cancel opportunities for people’s voices to be heard, said activist Kayla Reed. That’s why organizations such as St. Louis Action Council, ArchCity Defenders and Organization for Black Struggle came together to hold the People’s Town Hall at Christ Church Cathedral downtown, she said.
Organizers flashed on a projection screen a list of 12 demands they said city leaders must meet if they are serious about making fundamental changes that demonstrate that black lives indeed matter.
They include the resignation of Krewson; the firing of interim Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole, who reports to the mayor; and the removal from the court of St. Louis Circuit Judge Timothy Wilson, who presided over the bench trial of Stockley. Wilson is retiring in December.
The group also said it would actively campaign against Proposition P, an initiative on the Nov. 7 ballot, that would increase the wages of city police officers. It is a proposal Krewson supports.
“But there is really only one demand,” Reed said. “Stop killing us.”
Most of the town hall meeting consisted of a question and answer session with four city leaders: Treasurer Tishaura Jones, who lost to Krewson for mayor this year; Alderman Megan Green, who represents Tower Grove South; state Rep. Bruce Franks Jr.; and Fifth Ward Precinct Committeeman Rasheen Aldridge. Franks and Aldridge were both protesters in Ferguson following the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown. Most of the questions centered on police reform.
“Everyone is talking a lot about Lyda but we need to hold all elected officials accountable,” Aldridge said.
Asked about body cameras, which the city’s top fiscal board agreed to provide officers through a pilot program following the Stockley verdict, Jones referred to them as “wasted money.” Funds would be better spent on hiring social workers for the Police Department, she said.
Jones also weighed in on the St. Louis region vying to become a headquarters for Amazon, which would bring up to 50,000 jobs with it.
“If it were up to me, Amazon wouldn’t get one red cent of our tax dollars,” Jones said. To be a good “corporate citizen,” the company should move into the AT&T building downtown, which is largely empty, and pay all the taxes in full, she said.
“This is Amazon’s moment to shine,” she said. Franks said that if Amazon selected St. Louis, he would make the company provide jobs from the city’s “economically distressed communities.”
Franks was asked if he thought the protests, many of which he has led, have been effective.
“The objective of protests is to disrupt and to affect the economy,” Franks said. The protests have put a nearly $11 million dent in the economy, including the cancellation of a U2 concert, he said, not citing his source.
“That sounds effective to me,” Franks said.
Franks said that what he and other protesters learned from Ferguson is that “we have to stay tightknit” and continue to fight for change.
“We have to keep taking to the streets and making them feel it,” Franks said.
After a nearly two-hour town hall, a few hundred people who attended marched from the church at 13th and Locust streets a few blocks to Washington Avenue and Tucker Boulevard. The intersection was the site of a mass arrest on Sept. 17, where police used a technique called kettling, creating a box made up of officers that prevented anyone from leaving although they had been asked to disperse.
Some of the protesters surrounded a police SUV on Washington Avenue, chanting: “Who do you protect? Who do you serve?” In turn, the officer announced over the vehicle speaker that the gathering was an unlawful assembly. Police, including some St. Louis County units, blocked several blocks of streets near the intersection to allow the protesters to march in the street. Around 9:15 p.m., at 14th and Olive streets, the protesters stopped for the evening.