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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?

Page 7 of 7

click to enlarge Franks with friends at the makeshift memorial for VonDerrit Myers in the Shaw neighborhood. - STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Steve Truesdell
  • Franks with friends at the makeshift memorial for VonDerrit Myers in the Shaw neighborhood.

Last month, two very different deaths made headlines in St. Louis.

On August 18, someone fired a gun into a Ferguson home, killing nine-year-old Jamyla Bolden as she did her homework. Then, the very next morning, city police serving a search warrant in the Fountain Park neighborhood shot and killed eighteen-year-old Mansur Ball-Bey, claiming he pointed a gun at them.

The latter triggered a swift and angry demonstration, followed by tear gas from police, arson and looting. No such drama accompanied the fourth-grader's death. The conservative website crowed, "Black Lives Matter Couldn't Seem to Care Less About Jamyla Bolden."

But that wasn't exactly true. Hundreds converged at a candlelight vigil for Bolden on August 20, including activists such as Kayla Reed of the Organization for Black Struggle. She says that activists may have initially coalesced around stopping police violence, but the movement has grown.

"Black Lives Matter encompasses black life in every field," she says, from the "community violence" that took Bolden's life to education to housing. "There's enough work for everybody," she says.

Franks does that work — he has become just as invested in stopping community violence as police shootings.

The police department's 3rd District, which he calls home, overlaps with some of south city's most violent blocks. In July, after a spate of shootings involving young men, 3rd District captain Mary Warnecke grew concerned about retaliation. She asked Franks if he could help resolve the beef. So he investigated. He managed to get one of the young men a job through a family member's business.

It didn't last, but Franks decided to scale up. He began recruiting local youths for a jobs-training program through St. Louis City Hall. All told, he has sent 30 young people to the program in about a month.

"These last few weeks I've had fewer shootings," says Warnecke. She hesitates to credit the whole reduction to Franks, but adds that sometimes all it takes for someone to go straight is the right messenger. "I like to think we're on the right path."

That kind of cooperation doesn't always sit well with people on the street. On the day Mansur Ball-Bey was shot by police, a protester at the site of the shooting is quick to dismiss Franks to a reporter.

"Man, I don't know where Ooops at," he says. "He up with the police now."

And later, that assertion proves partly true. At 5:30 p.m., Franks is slouched on the hood of his car in the parking lot of the Nathaniel J. "Nat" Rivers State Office Building on Delmar Boulevard. He has arrived early for the police's minority-recruitment class. A Fox2Now helicopter loops like a vulture about six blocks to the north over Page Boulevard and Walton Avenue, where demonstrators are growing restless.

In an earlier conversation, Franks noted the value of violent protest, citing Martin Luther King's notion that rioting is the language of the unheard. "When they're out here burning and breaking shit," he said, "I don't condone it, but I don't condemn it. I'm a business owner. Do I want my business burned down? No. But if these young adults hadn't burned shit down, then the world wouldn't know about Ferguson."

But this evening, he just wants to vent at his critics in the movement.

"Y'all want to protest until the end of time. But if you can't ever sit down with the people you're protesting against, you ain't goin' toward any solution. The only way to know if what they're saying is bullshit is to actually listen to what they're saying."

The minority-recruitment class is about to begin. He slides off his car and trudges inside.

Within the next few hours, protesters in north St. Louis will hurl bottles at police. Police will respond with tear gas. All will make headlines.

Bruce Franks, meanwhile, will try to make superheroes.

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