Black leaders rally to speak out against bills to take away local control from St. Louis

About 100 Black legislators and people from various organization gathered at the Missouri Capitol, vowing to fight against bills that would put St. Louis police and a part of the prosecutor’s office under state control

By: - February 15, 2023 3:01 pm

Rev. Darryl Gray, a civil rights activist from St. Louis, speaks at the “Stand Up Against State Control and White Suppression Rally” on Feb. 15, 2023 on the steps of the Missouri capitol in Jefferson City (Annelise Hanshaw/The Missouri Independent).

Black legislators and community leaders stood on the Missouri Capitol steps Wednesday to rally against GOP-backed bills seeking to expand state control over the police and prosecutor in St. Louis.

The group of nearly 100 people gathered in Jefferson City — which included lawmakers in the Legislative Black Caucus alongside leaders of various organizations — took turns decrying legislative efforts targeting cities with large Black populations, calling the bills “blatant racism.”

“The actions of the Missouri state legislature mirrors other GOP legislative bodies throughout the country,” said the Rev. Darryl Gray, a civil rights activist from St. Louis. “Their intent is to take this country back to the Jim Crow era, insidiously working with all deliberate speed and effort to dismantle human, civil and voting rights in America.”

Chanting “Black votes matter,” they denounced several bills filed by Republicans that would put the St. Louis police department back under state control — a policy originally born out of pro-slavery leaders’ attempt to maintain control during the Civil War.

Kansas City is the only major city in the country where the city’s elected leaders don’t control the local police department. A state-appointed police board does.

Up until 2013, St. Louis was in the same situation. However, the city gained local control of its police department after a 2012 statewide referendum.

The Black leaders who gathered Wednesday also decried a House bill that would give the governor the ability to strip the authority of any elected prosecutor to handle violent crime cases — which Republican leaders have argued would decrease crime.

That House bill originally targeted only St. Louis’ elected prosecutor, Kimberly Gardner, a progressive Black Democrat who won her re-election in November 2020 with 74% of the vote. 

It was eventually amended to apply to any elected prosecutors across the state out of concern singling out one prosecutor would be unconstitutional. The governor would be allowed to appoint a special prosecutor, who would have a staff of up to 30 people and paid for out of state revenue.

Last week, when debating the bill, House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, didn’t allow a Black representative from St. Louis to finish speaking, saying that his comments were off topic and out of order. No other Democrats were allowed to speak before the House leadership cut off debate and moved for an immediate vote. 

“What is ironic about the efforts of the GOP to strip St. Louis’ democratically elected African-American officials of their authority to govern is that they are doing so under the guise of ‘public safety,’” said Rep. Marlene Terry, D-St. Louis and chair of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus.

Lamar Johnson’s release

Rev. Linden Bowie, president of the Missionary Baptist State Convention, tells Republican legislators, during a Feb. 15, 2023 rally in Jefferson City (Annelise Hanshaw/The Missouri Independent).

By silencing the representatives who “wanted to defend” Gardner during the floor debate, Terry said they were silencing St. Louis voters who re-elected her. 

“Today, we can celebrate the justice of an innocent man being set free — that was spearheaded by the circuit attorney’s office,” she said. “It’s time for our communities to be respected.”

A day before the rally, a St. Louis judge ordered the release of Lamar Johnson, a man who spent nearly 30 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit.

Gardner said in December that her office “fought tirelessly” for four years to present evidence of Johnson’s wrongful conviction. 

The case shows, she said, what happens when the criminal justice system is “blinded by the pursuit of a singular conviction.” 

“Missouri Republican leaders say they want a special prosecutor who will prosecute violent crime cases quickly,” Gardner told The Independent in a statement Wednesday. “But that’s a dangerous directive, especially for someone who isn’t accountable to the voters and residents of the City of  St. Louis. Lamar Johnson’s case shows what happens when prosecutors rush to get a conviction. An innocent man spends 30 years in prison.”

Johnson’s case came up repeatedly throughout Wednesday’s rally. 

The Rev. Linden Bowie, president of the Missionary Baptist State Convention of Missouri and a pastor from St. Louis, said many city residents are proud of Gardner’s work in trying to overturn wrongful convictions, like in Johnson’s case.

She’s been able to do this work, he said, despite being under attack “since the day she took office.”

“Has she made a few mistakes? Of course. Which one of us has not?” Bowie said. “She’s had to juggle defending herself and operating that office at the same time. It shows the talent that she has.”

When Johnson was released on Tuesday, his mother, Mae Johnson, was there waiting for him, among several other family members. With tears in her eyes, his mother told The Independent that her prayers had been answered.

“He has a big job now,” she said of her son. “Lamar has to put his life back together.”

Several Democratic lawmakers are calling for the legislature to pass pending bills that offer restitution to people like Johnson who have had their convictions overturned. That includes providing financial assistance, access to further education, housing, among other support, they said.

“We will use our voices,” Terry said. “And we will show them how powerful we are. But we need your help. They have shown us who they are. Now we will tell them who we are.”

The Independent’s Annelise Hanshaw contributed to this story. 

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas is a multimedia reporter who covers Missouri's cannabis industry. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, including more than a decade as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation’s leading African-American newspaper.