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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Rev. Starsky Wilson and the Fight to Make the Ferguson Commission Matter

Posted By on Wed, Apr 15, 2015 at 11:00 AM

Ferguson Commission co-chair Starsky Wilson. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • Ferguson Commission co-chair Starsky Wilson.

A petite young woman stands at the back of a convention hall in a line of people behind a microphone. Her brown hair is partially dyed red, an artistic touch that contrasts with the McDonald's uniform she wears for her semi-regular five-hour shifts.

She approaches the podium and faces the members of the Ferguson Commission, the sixteen-member body tasked by Missouri governor Jay Nixon with confronting the St. Louis region's most intractable social and economic problems in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown. It's a Monday night in February, and in the large college conference hall, about 100 people stare at her back. A few scribble notes on legal pads.

"My name is Danielle Polk...I'm one of your young ladies that works at the Ferguson McDonald's in the middle of Ferguson on West Florissant," she says. "I was actually one of the individuals that was affected when the Mike Brown incident," her voice breaks, "happened."

She continues, but the words begin to tumble over each other.

"I had to walk two-and-a-half hours to get to work because I didn't have any money, I couldn't pay my electric bill, I couldn't pay my gas bill nor my rent, OK? I saw my paycheck, it was less than $100, and I have a newborn, OK? When I first had my newborn, I had to leave off of maternity leave in two weeks, I couldn't stay with my daughter, now I have to wake up at four o'clock in the morning to drive my daughter outside in this miserable weather right now, she's only six months. She doesn't even know what's going on in this world."

Her two-minute time limit comes and goes. No one stops her.

"I was also one of the people that had to wake up on Christmas 2014, and Thanksgiving, and tell my kids, 'I can't give you anything,'" Polk continues.

She gasps between words. Someone wraps an arm around her shoulders. She starts listing her expenses against the utter paltriness of her $7.80 an hour: $35 for diapers, the babysitter, the thrift-store crib. She's 27 years old, and she's been working at McDonald's since she was 16.

Danielle Polk addresses the commission. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Danny Wicentowski
  • Danielle Polk addresses the commission.

From his spot in the middle of the row of chairs, directly facing the podium, Reverend Starsky Wilson -- the co-chair of the commission -- digs his elbows into his thighs as he listens. He clasps his hands and rests his fingers on his lips.

"Today I owe rent," she says. "I don't know what I'm going to do."

After eight minutes, she finally stops and leaves the podium. There is a smattering of hesitant applause. The next person steps up.

"My name is --"

"Hold on," says Wilson.

He stands up and walks toward the podium with his own microphone. He has a thin, perfectly groomed mustache, and square-frame glasses. His outfit is, as always, tailored and harmonious: A light gray suit with a white pocket square.

"Thank you for sharing your story," he says in a deep baritone. "Someone needed to hear it. And our commitment is to continue to share your story, Danielle. Thank you, we love you, and we will not let you down."

From the back of the room, Polk says, "Thank you, sir."

Wilson sits back down and listens to the rest of the line -- the ex-con who wants funding for a children's welfare nonprofit, a well-known activist urging the Federal Reserve Bank to distribute low interest loans to municipalities, a former cop railing against the school system. After the meeting's conclusion, he and the other commissioners arrange for Polk's $300 rent to be paid.

"We can help the people in front of us, and we have," Wilson says. "You can't help each Danielle, but you can impact every Danielle by focusing on policy."

Five months have passed since Wilson accepted Governor Jay Nixon's appointment to the Ferguson Commission. He's a pastor who was often seen on the frontlines of the Ferguson protests, but he's also the CEO of the Deaconess Foundation, a 126-year-old health and children's advocacy organization that's doled out millions of dollars in grants. He co-chairs the commission with a man from a very different background -- Rich McClure, an experienced Republican operative and businessman.

Yet Nixon didn't task the commission with something as minute as paying a woman's rent. They were gathered that night to begin to divine a broad solution to St. Louis' collection of racial and socioeconomic woes.

"The men and women selected to serve on this commission must be willing to come together in good faith, endure the fierce crucible of public opinion and lead the hard work of change," Nixon said on the day he announced the group's formation. "This work is not for the faint of heart."

And yet, the commission has no power on its own -- the members only have Nixon's promise that their recommendations and research will be seriously heeded.

"My urgent worry is that it gets caught up in politics and bureaucracy," says Wilson. "My ultimate worry is that we don't honor that this should be a moment of historic transition and change. If we don't honor that, we don't get this back for three generations. The only possibility we have as a region to be a first-class city, a first-rate metropolitan area, is that we learn the lessons of Ferguson."

Rev. Traci Blackmon - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • Rev. Traci Blackmon

On August 10, 2014, the day after Michael Brown was shot, Wilson was on a plane to Durham, North Carolina, for a weeklong conference. He could only watch television reports from the ground about the mass gatherings, the looted stores and the tear-gas canisters arching through the sky above West Florissant Avenue.

When he returned, Wilson convened meetings between clergy members and civic organizations and, with the help of the United Way, began providing emergency services to residents who suddenly found their town had transformed into a military-style occupation. On August 20, Wilson and Deaconess announced a $100,000 grant to fund the burgeoning youth protest movements that had only just begun making coalitions and demands for sweeping change in Ferguson and St. Louis.

At the same time, Wilson hit the streets to join the protesters.

"I first seen him when he was out in Ferguson," says Rasheen Aldridge, an organizer with Young Activists United and the youngest member of the Ferguson Commission. "He was out there at the late nights, out in front of the Ferguson Police Department, being supportive and making sure the young people were being protected while they peacefully protested. He constantly showed up."

Reverend Traci Blackmon, arguably the most visible and vocal clergy member on the ground during the early Ferguson protests, remembers how Wilson bounced between his roles as nonprofit CEO and demonstrator in those early months.

"I've seen him out there in a hoodie, and I've seen him out there in a three-piece suit," she recalls.

But for Wilson, making the leap to co-chairing the Ferguson Commission was fraught with tension, and there were plenty of reasons for him to avoid the role.

Nixon remains a reviled character among many activists. The governor's doughy face graced numerous signs as marchers demanded he do more than issue curfews or call in the National Guard.

Nixon's role in the commission, therefore, was an immediate source of mistrust when he announced the initiative in October. By executive order, Nixon charged the commission with coming up with policy recommendations and a final report due by September 15, 2015.

Observers wondered if this was merely a gesture. Commissions -- while often called in the wake of a national crisis, such as after the Rodney King riots in LA -- are often an ineffectual, bureaucratic method for politicians to appear to be taking action. As one activist put it, they are the "place where movements die."

"If you get a lot of people from a lot of the same mold, who all serve on the same boards together, I don't know if you're going to make a lot of progress," St. Louis alderman Antonio French worried at the time.

Nixon's announcement of the commission came on October 21. The next day, he called Wilson.

The governor made no overt promises, Wilson says, but he did affirm that the commission would have the weight of Nixon's office behind it, not to mention some state funding. Still, Wilson worried; he knew the protesters he'd spent days standing with in the streets remained bitter toward Nixon, especially for his decision not to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Brown's killing.

"I was concerned about the relationships I'd already built on the ground, and whether those relationships were sustained, and whether they would understand what I was doing," he says.

There were more meetings and calls with Nixon. Wilson reached out to McClure. In late October, the two men went out to dinner with their wives. They talked about the commission; the couples prayed together. Eventually Wilson and McClure added their names to the application pool and were appointed on November 18.

"You should know that this is personal for him," says Blackmon, who now co-chairs the Ferguson Commission's work group on municipal courts and governance. "If there were no commission he would still be doing this work. That's what makes him the perfect person to be leading this charge."

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