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Mike Milton Has a Question for St. Louis: Who Keeps Us Safe? 

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click to enlarge "Our communities are deeply wounded," Milton says. "If we want to really address violence, these communities have to heal at the core." - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • "Our communities are deeply wounded," Milton says. "If we want to really address violence, these communities have to heal at the core."

Much has changed since the tragedy of Samuel Scott and Marcia Johnson. The work of the Bail Project sent the population of the Workhouse into a nosedive. Political change swept through the region, and Milton joined the campaign to close the Workhouse for good. During election season, he volunteered for the campaign of Tishaura Jones — who as St. Louis mayor made the closure of the Workhouse official city policy in 2021. (The Workhouse still holds about 145 detainees as an "annex" to the under-repair downtown jail, which is operating with limited capacity.)

In September, the Bail Project officially ended its mission in the city, though it still operates in St. Louis County and St. Charles.

But Milton's new mission is bigger than bail.

Earlier this year, he founded the Freedom Community Center, an ambitious community aid and restorative justice organization. Milton says that its focus — supporting the survivors of violence — was partly inspired by the tragedy that unfolded after his meeting with Samuel Scott.

"Sam Scott was an opportunity for us to consider all of the nuances of intimate partner violence," Milton says now. "It really led me to think about this deeply: What could have happened? What could we have done differently? How can we support victims like Marcia, but how can we also support a Sam Scott? Because nobody has to die."

The Freedom Community Center, or FCC, is still in its early stages. It is not a court-sanctioned diversion program. It's not a violence prevention agency. It's not a political advocacy group.

Instead, Milton is aiming to combine all these elements into a comprehensive vision — "a movement of survivors," as the group's website states, "that will meaningfully address violence in St. Louis City and collectively design alternatives to state systems of punishment."

On a recent Thursday evening, Milton hovers on the periphery of a "Power Builder" meeting. Held twice a month in the Jeff-Vander-Lou headquarters of Mission STL, today's gathering finds about twenty people arranged around circular tables. They talk about activism and the nature of city-wide change.

The subject of the day's Power Builder meeting is the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, an effort that began with riders such as Rosa Parks refusing to obey racist laws. The boycott lasted more than a year, involved 40,000 residents and produced a grassroots system of carpools — what was effectively an alternate public transportation system. The movement would lead a young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence, help launch the Civil Rights era, and, more than 60 years later, stand as a piercing example of the power of an organized Black community.

During the meeting, people break into clusters to discuss a series of questions related to the boycotts. What would such an effort look like in St. Louis in 2021? Would people show up? Would they stay organized? The participants write their thoughts on large poster boards before presenting the conclusions of their discussions to the full group.

Observing the discussion from a table in the back of the room, Milton sees potential: "Imagine this room, but multiplied by 30," he says, gesturing to the participants hashing out their positions and activism goals. "What we hope to see is a politicized body of people who've been affected by violence come up with a strategy for what St. Louis can do to keep itself safe."

One by one, the groups select speakers to present their findings on the day's topic. One young woman notes that the boycotters in Montgomery had to be willing to give up the convenience and familiarity of the bus system to get their message across. "It seems like the future was on their mind," she says. An older man suggests that sheer numbers are more important: "We need a mass movement," he argues, "more than we need leaders."

At the meeting's conclusion, Milton walks into the center of the room. He poses a question to the room, the same one that's driven him for much of his life. It's now become the group's closing mantra.

He challenges the room: "Who keep us safe?"

In unison, the voices around him respond: "We keep us safe!"

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