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To Save Black Lives, Protester Bruce Franks Will Do the Unthinkable: Work with Cops 

Can he really reform law enforcement from within?

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click to enlarge Peacekeepers Carlos Ball, Franks and Calvin Kennedy. - COURTESY OF BRUE FARNKS / @IAMOOPS
  • Courtesy of Brue Farnks / @iamoops
  • Peacekeepers Carlos Ball, Franks and Calvin Kennedy.

One of the darkest hours of Tom Jackson's tenure as Ferguson police chief, he says, actually occurred in Boston — and Bruce Franks was part of it.

The chief was seated inside Harvard Law School alongside seven other panelists on January 17. Their goal that afternoon was to discuss how to heal the wounds festering in St. Louis since the Ferguson unrest.

Jackson is not a smooth orator under pressure. He jumbles words; his voice quivers. That was evident at his first press conference after Brown's shooting back in August 2014, when he looked totally overwhelmed by the national news cameras. During an unscripted apology to protesters weeks later, he had even publicly called Brown's death "a fucking tragedy," without realizing he'd dropped the F-bomb until a reporter pointed it out the next day.

At the Harvard panel, Jackson hoped to calmly dispel some myths about his handling of crisis. He also wanted to flesh out his ideas for overhauling Ferguson's police force — a project he said he truly believed in.

"Otherwise, why would I be here," he said into the microphone, "knowing some of the response I'm going to get?"

The response did prove hostile, but to his surprise, it came from his fellow panelists.

"When will you offer your resignation?" asked Justin Hansford, a Saint Louis University law professor, directing the question at both Jackson and Ferguson mayor James Knowles III, one seat over. As the chief replied, the Harvard Law student on his left, Derecka Purnell, physically turned her back on him.

Paul Muhammad, also on the panel, took his turn sparring with Jackson, at which point former Missouri GOP gubernatorial candidate Dave Spence, sitting in between, gave up listening and played with his cell phone.

But nobody exploded like Franks.

At first, the wiry five-foot-five Franks just seethed at the far end of the table. Then he rose and glided toward Jackson, spitting bars about how a police gun gets used on a black person: "'Round my way, one flash from that tool get rid of that body, leaving only recollections and memories."

Jackson recognized his face. "I knew him from some 'home events,'" he says.

Franks finished his rap and sat back down. A half-hour later, he erupted again after Jackson claimed that police only deployed tear gas on protesters after gunshots.

"You can't tell me we was tear gassed because of no gunshots," he railed, jabbing his finger. "I was tear gassed because I was standing there making it inconvenient for you motherfuckers!"

Once the event ended, Harvard campus security guards ushered Jackson and Knowles separately out of the building.

Still, the panelists reconvened for dinner at Legal Sea Foods, a restaurant in nearby Harvard Square. Andre Norman, the ex-con and motivational speaker who had organized and moderated the panel, noticed Franks was still upset at the chief. He pulled the 30-year-old aside.

"I told him, 'If you want to do business on behalf of your people, you're going to have to talk to that man,'" Norman recalls.

How are you going to change policy, he asked Franks, if you won't talk to the policymakers? Screaming at people only makes them shut down.

Franks walked over to Jackson's table and took a chair.

"He had his hands folded in front of him with his head down," Jackson says. "Then he quietly said, 'I'm not sorry for what I said. But I'm sorry for the way I said it.' So I said, 'Let's just talk.'" And they did. For hours. Until the restaurant closed.

Back in St. Louis, Franks says, Jackson called him within 48 hours to ask for his advice on various initiatives, including diversity training for officers, minority recruitment at Ferguson's high school and a cop-community brunch.

Ultimately, Jackson lost his job. Six weeks later, the U.S. Department of Justice released a blistering report. It concluded that Jackson had presided over a police squad that disproportionately used force against black residents and targeted them for petty offenses to fund city operations.

The DOJ report revealed Jackson's role in the so-called "taxation by citation" practices. It did not, however, clarify the extent of his complicity in the targeting of African Americans. Maybe the chief should have been aware of it and wasn't. Or maybe he was indeed aware, then had a change of heart. Franks doesn't dwell on it. He says he saw in Jackson a genuine desire to right the wrongs committed by the department. To this day, he considers Jackson "a good guy."

The Ferguson police under Jackson would seem like a prime example of "institutional racism" or "white privilege," but Franks almost never uses those words. He doesn't deny their existence; he simply prefers to speak in terms of specific individuals who either help or hurt his cause.

Those who share his goal of saving black lives, he says, are "my people" — however they may look.

When it comes to solutions, he says, "It ain't about black and white. It's about right and wrong."

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