St. Louisans Rally to Dump Racially Divisive Mayor

The contemptuous demotion of a fire chief ignited unified opposition in St. Louis‘ Black community.  Previously fragmented groups have pulled together whether their focus has been on police violence, employment opportunities, school closings, eminent domain or childhood lead poisoning.

Hundreds of black and dozens of white St. Louisans gathered on the steps of City hall on Sunday October 21 to show their support for former Fire Chief Sherman George and begin steps to recall the mayor responsible for demoting him – Francis Slay.  Zaki Baruti is a veteran organizer against police violence.  He was one of the rally’s organizers.

Don Fitz: When fire chief Sherman George refused to make promotions within the Fire Department, Mayor Slay demoted him in early October.  Why was there such an outcry in the Black community?

Zaki Baruti: The demotion of Sherman George was a direct slap in the face to the Black community.  He was looked upon as a man of great integrity and character – a person of fair play who had worked himself up through the system by adhering to rules and regulations all the way. He represented an element of the community that says that if you do things by the book, you can succeed. He earned the respect of various sectors of the Black community, especially the Black middle class.  It was an insult not only to George but to the entire community.

Don Fitz: The St. Louis media kept saying the promotions were fair and implied that George was obstructing the process of promoting firemen.

Zaki Baruti: We have to understand history.  The press is not a friend of the Black community.  George had long said he only had concerns with 2 of the 10 companies that conduct promotion tests. He said he could go with any of the other eight.  But the mayor’s staff insisted on using 1 of the 2 companies George recommended against.

George believed that the tests gave an unfair advantage to white firefighters.  The Black population is 53% of St. Louis.  But the test said that over 85% of the promotions should go to white firefighters.  After people got their new positions they would stay in them. That means it would be a long time before there would be as many opportunities for promotions as there were this year.

Don Fitz:  You’ve been working for years to have a Civilian Oversight Board for the St. Louis Police Department that would have elected members.  What has the mayor done about it?

Zaki Baruti: The mayor has done nothing but obstruct.  He vetoed a plan that was developed by the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression (CAPCR) working with Black members of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen. We crafted it after reviewing a number of plans across the US and deciding which could really help in reducing police violence.  In order to get support from the Board of Aldermen we had to make some compromises in what we wanted.  But it received the support of every Black alderperson and several white ones.  Then the mayor vetoed the plan.  We had been pushing for election of the Civilian Oversight Board (COB).  It’s ironic that he’d be against election of members of the COB which meant denying the Black majority in St. Louis the right to democratically review police behavior.

The police’s Internal Affairs is the fox guarding the hen house. It has not slowed the history of police abuse.  Abuse has ranged from verbal to physical attacks to several deaths caused by rogue elements of the Police Department. Slay blocked a positive proposal that came from collective work of many groups and individuals trying to solve a big problem in our community.

Don Fitz:  In 2003, Francis Slay put together a slate of 4 candidates for the St. Louis School Board who spent over $400,000 for an election that candidates usually spend less than $5000 on.  What happened after the major’s slate took control?

Zaki Baruti: It was total disaster.  You had a slew of school closings and layoff of support staff. The teachers union AFT Local 420 saw that Slay was trying to break the union. The board ignored seniority rights. They privatized the cafeteria and grounds keeping. Bus routes were changed so that many kids were walking a long way in the dark to catch a bus. 

Under its leadership student test scores dropped dramatically.  The district was only two points away from accreditation in 2003 when the Slay team took over.  By 2006 it was 26 points away from accreditation. Slay’s school board hired a carpet bagger named Bill Roberti to come from out of town to oversee destruction of the school system. His company, Alvarez and Marsal, was paid over $5,000,000. Now he’s in New Orleans doing pretty much the same.

In 2005 an independent slate ran against Slay’s team.  They won, but still had a minority on the school board. In 2006 two more anti-Slay candidates won and then they had a majority on the school board. So, in 2007 the Slay people worked to get the St. Louis Public Schools decertified.  Then the politicians got to appoint a board.  That took away citizens’ right to elect their own school board.
Public schools are important to us.  They hold the key to the future of the Black community as far as kids graduating with skills to survive in the 21st century. Under the leadership of Slay public schools have not been a priority and never will be.

Don Fitz:  How does eminent domain affect the Black community in St. Louis?

Zaki Baruti: During the 1970s we began to hear about proposals to depopulate the Black community.  One was put together by a group called "Team 4."  At that time, there were large densely populated Black areas in the city.  There has been a significant decrease in the Black population since then. 

Many people in the community feel that they are being pushed into north county so that whites who have moved to the suburbs will move back into the city.  People have been losing their homes and businesses by eminent domain. There is a controversial bill in the Missouri state legislature (HB1) that would make it even easier to take away people’s property.

Don Fitz:  For over a year, the Green Party of St. Louis has been trying to find out where childhood lead poisoning prevention dollars are being spent.  The City finally gave limited data in January 2007.  The secretiveness with the finances of the mayor’s lead program pushed the Green Party to petition for an audit of the entire City budget.  In July, the State Auditor certified that there were sufficient signatures and the audit will begin in early 2008.  Why does lead poisoning strike such a chord in the Black community and why are so many people looking forward to an audit?

Zaki Baruti: For decades, Black people have been crowded into old dilapidated houses with peeling lead paint and lead dust which poisons children.  In St. Louis, Ivory Perry was a community leader who awoke the Black community to the dangers of lead poisoning during the 1970s.  People remember him through today.  Everyone knows that there is money to clean lead out of homes if they really wanted to do it.  There’s a lot of people who know that City Hall is spending money every way except the right way.  The audit should show just how it’s being spent.

Don Fitz:  What is the coalition to remove Slay doing?

Zaki Baruti: I think they have excellent strategies. I am humbled by the fact that when I suggested to the Clergy Coalition and other Black leaders that we work to recall Slay there was a unanimous agreement to move forward with efforts to remove him.  It will be a 16 week campaign with a goal to get 60,000 signatures by the date of Missouri’s presidential primary.

Don Fitz:  What’s the three swings strategy?

Zaki Baruti: Three swings and you’re out. First, remove him by petition.  Do everything we can to get the signatures and win a recall election in 2008.

If that doesn’t happen, we will have forced Slay to spend money on defeating the recall and he will have less to spend on the primary election in 2009.  The second swing will be to defeat him in the Democratic Party primary.

Third, if first two don’t work, we’ll have to elect a Green Party mayor in 2009.  Black activist Willie Marshall got 21% of vote in 2005 running on the Green ticket. He got over 40% of votes in three Black wards. It is within striking distance for an independent Black candidate to defeat Slay. Our people will have to ask if the Democratic Party really a friend of the Black community.

Don Fitz:  How can people help efforts to remove Slay?

Zaki Baruti: The web site will be going up in a few days. Look at www.firefrancis.com

Zaki Baruti is Co-chair of the Coalition Against Police Crimes & Repression, President General of the Universal African Peoples Organization and Co-chair of the Green Party of St. Louis.

Don Fitz is Producer of Green Time TV in St. Louis and Editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, which is sent to members of the Green Party USA.


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