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Day 17

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Civil Rights Movement Gets Real St. Louis Mayor Booed Off MLK Platform

St. Louis Mayor Booed Off MLK Platform

by DON FITZ And ZAKI BARUTI

As the mayor approached the MLK Day podium the boos were so loud that the moderator stepped up to ask the crowd to let him speak. Over 500 people began chanting "Slay Must Go!" as dozens waved signs saying "End Racial Division – Recall Francis Slay." No one could tell if there was actually sound coming out of the mayor’s lips.

Most of the audience felt it disgraced the memory of Martin Luther King for the mayor to be in the room. A few days before the annual rally Rev. Douglass Parham, Chair of the Concerned Clergy for the Betterment of St. Louis, requested that the officers of the MLK Day Committee uninvite the mayor due to his series of abuses against the Black community.

For over 10 years the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression (CAPCR) has attempted to stem the tide of racial profiling, beatings and murder of black youth by St. Louis cops. St. Louisans are continuously reminded of the issue, especially following the airing of footage shot from a news helicopter of cops chasing an unarmed black driver, dragging him out of his car and repeatedly hitting and kicking him.

After enormous effort working with the Board of Aldermen, CAPCR prepared legislation for a Civilian Oversight Board that passed with the votes of all Black Aldermen and several white ones. But the mayor vetoed the bill in 2006, basically saying that nothing would be done about police violence against Black residents. This pushed CAPCR members to be on the frontlines of booing the mayor.

Like many politicians across the US, Francis Slay has made it clear that he wants to gut services for the poor, low income and ethnic minorities. In St. Louis this is most vivid in the attack on public education.

Francis Slay prepared a 2003 takeover of the School Board by assembling a slate of four candidates who spent over $400,000 for an election that usually runs less than $5000. The new Board majority immediately began closing schools, laying off support staff, privatizing the cafeteria and grounds keeping and convincing AFT Local 420 that it intended to bust the union. Changed bus routes forced many kids to walk in the dark.

As Slay’s School Board worked to dismantle public education and replace it with charter schools, its meetings became near-riotous shouting matches. The Board squandered $5,000,000 paying the management team of Alvarez and Marsal to sink the schools 26 achievement points below accreditation levels.

A coalition of teachers, parents and students fought back by fielding candidates who won every School Board election between 2004 and 2007. Outraged that his plan to jettison public education was being slowed, Slay worked to have the school system decertified and the elected board replaced by a board appointed politicians in Summer 2007. Teachers, parents and students came together again to boo the mayor.

Reflecting another trend among urban business and political elites, Francis Slay became a champion of eminent domain. During the last five years, low income housing has been clear cut from entire tracts of St. Louis. It has been replaced by much more expensive single family homes and condos. Small businesses have similarly been taken away as their land passes to developers who will enjoy huge tax breaks. Many of the boos the mayor received on MLK Day were from members of the Citizens Coalition to Fight Eminent Domain Abuse.

The other side of the St. Louis housing crisis is the crowding of Black families into dilapidated houses with peeling lead paint and lead dust which poisons children. The Green Party of St. Louis organized efforts to find out where the Slay political machine is spending childhood lead poisoning prevention money.

Throughout 2006, City government dodged questions from the Greens. So the Green Party petitioned for a full audit of City finances. Distrustful of how Slay government handles money, thousands signed. In July 2007, the State Auditor certified that there were significant signatures and that an audit would begin in 2008.

The spark that pushed the Black community into demanding a recall of Slay was the October 2007 demotion of Fire Chief Sherman George. The Black community sees George as a man of great integrity and character who worked himself up to become head of the Fire Department. George would not make promotions because he felt they would be based on unfair tests and would not result in positions going to the best qualified fire fighters.

Slay and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch put a racial edge on the controversy. They accused George of balking because Black fire fighters were underrepresented in the promotion list. When George did not meet Slay’s deadline for making promotions, he was demoted. City Hall passed over a Black firefighter who was most qualified to become fire chief and instead appointed Dennis Jenkerson, a white friend of the mayor, to the top job.

The City’s Department of Personnel had to change its rules to allow the mayor’s friend to be eligible for the position. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch would not cover the story, which was reported by the Black-oriented St. Louis American.

Rallies to support Sherman George simultaneously distributed petitions to recall Francis Slay as mayor. One of the first actions of the Movement to Recall the Mayor of St. Louis was a call for a boycott by asking organizations not to have conventions in the City as long as the deep racial divide continues. In December 2007 the National Society of Black Engineers said that St. Louis would risk losing its convention if the atmosphere did not improve.

Stories of the racial crisis in St. Louis soon appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe and Associated Press. Fully a month after the story of the boycott broke and after it had been covered nationally, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch finally wrote about it.

If Francis Slay wants St. Louis to be his plantation, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch strives to be his overseer. Not only did it fail to cover issues related to Sherman George, the recall and the boycott, it refused to regularly cover Green Party efforts to audit the City.

Yet the local press covered petition drives in much smaller municipalities in the area and the Post-Dispatch had regularly covered the audit petition drive of 1986. Its failure to provide responsible reporting meant that Greens lost potential petitioners and signers, thereby increasing the difficulty of their efforts. Greens would have liked to boo the Post-Dispatch as loudly as they did Slay.

Despite sparse reporting in the white press, mayor Slay’s support is slipping. During the week before MLK Day, as black leaders were asking that he be uninvited, a group of business and political bigwigs arranged to discuss the crisis with several Black critics. Slay was not invited to its meetings. Former City Comptroller Virvus Jones, a critic who was at the meeting, told the St. Louis American, "The mayor wasn’t in this room because some of the people in the room wouldn’t meet with the mayor."

Meanwhile, current Comptroller Darlene Green, one of the most respected Black elected officials in St. Louis, announced that she welcomes the audit prompted by the Green Party. Minutes after Francis Slay was booed off the podium, Green was cheered as she announced her support for the continuing struggle of Black fire fighters in the City of St. Louis. These words were not insignificant since the comptroller sits on several committees with the mayor and coordinates regularly with his office.

Even Hillary Clinton seems to be distancing herself from Slay. Even though he was an early and vocal supported of Clinton, Francis Slay is noticeable by his absence from her campaign rallies.

There is an unambiguous effort to drive low income people, especially Black people, out of major cities across the US. This will increase incredible hardship as oil dries up and transportation costs skyrocket.

St. Louis activists are well aware that local institutional racism reflects this ongoing nationwide effort to intensify the subjugation of people of color. They heard the moderator tell them to be quiet so the mayor could speak as she claimed that MLK Day was a time of peace instead of protest. She could not have been more wrong. Honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King requires continuing the struggle against injustice.

Don Fitz was an organizer of the petition to audit St. Louis, produces Green Time TV and is Editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought.

Zaki Baruti is an organizer of the petition drive to recall Slay, Co-chair of the Coalition Against Police Crimes & Repression and President General of the Universal African Peoples Organization.

DON FITZ and ZAKI BARUTI are Co-coordinators of the Green Party of St. Louis.