By Lauren Victoria Burke
If you read most of what was reported on the visit of 11 members of the Congressional Black Caucus visit to a church and that was it. As it turned out, there was more to it than that.
They met with 10 young activists in Ferguson on the night of January 17. They had a dinner meeting that broke off into smaller meetings that went on past midnight. They also met with several candidates for the Ferguson City Council. Each of the three City Council Wards are fielding an African American candidate. Members of the Black Caucus also brought campaign checks for those candidates.
The election is on April 7 and it will be the first true test of whether all the activism seen in the streets in Ferguson will translate to tangible political power.
Members of the Black Caucus also met with Dorian Johnson, the friend of Michael Brown who was with him on August 9 when then-Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shot Brown to death in the middle of the street.
“They got an earful from those young people about how bad it is. They spoke on how they felt that the civil rights movement had failed them and talked on the abuse they are still taking from the criminal justice system. They got an earful in there,” Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) told TheRoot.com days after the Black Caucus visit to Ferguson.
Some of the activists in Ferguson expressed a great deal of disappointment with civil rights era politics. They figure that if they are still fighting the same battles of over-criminalization and police brutality that were fought five and six decades ago, then something is wrong. They also questioned the power and the importance of voting. It is noteworthy that so many of the elected officials in and around Ferguson, including St. Louis prosecutor Bob McCulloch, are all members of the Democratic Party.
Members of the Black Caucus are planning to sponsor at least 15 young activists from Ferguson for the annual Congressional Black Caucus’ Leadership Institute Political Boot Camp in July. The Institute focuses on putting young people in the pipeline for political leadership. Several graduates of the Congressional Black Caucus Institute’s annual Boot Camp have either gone on to hold elective office or run advocacy campaigns. Last July, 55 young people graduated from the institute.
In his January 27 campaign newsletter Rep. Clay said, “My visiting CBC colleagues and I spent several hours with some of the most vocal young activists in Ferguson to hear first-hand their frustrations, their fears, their demands for change, and their hopes for the future. I admire their courage and passion for justice, and I plan to stand with them as they peacefully exercise their constitutional rights.”
One of the Ferguson activists was said to have been so upset about the treatment received from local law enforcement she broke down in tears during the meeting with the Black Caucus members. When you consider that policing in the St. Louis area is centered around who collects fines and from whom in the local municipalities, it’s no surprise that the local activists have had quite enough.
The police shooting deaths of Michael Brown, Vonderrick Myers and Kajieme Powell exploded into the news – nationally and internationally – as activists turned what has often times been an all-too-routine 15-second mention on the local news into a broad examination of police behavior. And more importantly, why everyone in the community should care.
But what can be done by federal lawmakers when the problem is often local? Last week, Rep. Lacy and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) offered the Grand Jury Reform Act. The legislation mandates that any officer involved in a killing must have an independent prosecutor assigned to the case.
Can that pass a Republican-controlled Congress? It will be difficult. But in an era in hyper-partisanship where Republicans oppose the president even when his policies are similar to theirs – criminal justice reform has been a rare area of agreement between Democrats and Republicans.
“We all know that the grave injustices they are protesting against have been around for decades. These young people have done our nation a great service by awaking the consciences of millions and ripping open an unhealed wound that has been festering for too long,” Clay said last week in a statement.
What happens over the next few months will answer many questions on whether activists’ power will lead to lasting political power.
Lauren Victoria Burke is freelance writer and creator of the blog Crewof42.com, which covers African American members of Congress. She Burke appears regularly on “NewsOneNow with Roland Martin” and on WHUR FM, 900 AM WURD. She worked previously at USA Today and ABC News. She can be reached through her website, laurenvictoriaburke.com, or Twitter @Crewof42 or by e-mail at LBurke007@gmail.com.