Ferguson Commission Announcement

October 21, 2014

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Ferguson Commission Announcement

Good afternoon.

I’d like to thank Florissant Valley, and the many elected officials, educators, business and civic leaders joining us today.

Throughout the history of our nation, we have struggled to treat all our citizens as equals. The same has been said of our democratic institutions and the men and women entrusted with their stewardship.

Too often we have fallen short of the guiding principles on which our great democracy was founded. For too many, the promise of  “unalienable rights” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” rings hollow.

In the small Missouri town where I grew up, the railroad tracks were the racial dividing line: whites on one side, blacks on the other.  Separate and unequal. It was the way things were.

Thankfully, we have come some distance since those days. But the journey is not over in 2014.  The protests set in motion by the events of August 9 in Ferguson echo others within our lifetime.

Across the decades, those protests have been a cry from the heart, heard and felt around the nation and around the world. A cry for justice. A cry for change in the schoolhouse and the courthouse. A cry for change in the social and economic conditions that impede prosperity, equality, and safety for all of us.

When there has been a clear vision of a better future, and a well-marked path for progress, protests have yielded lasting change. When there is only rage and despair, anguish and chaos follow.

Recently, one of the young Ferguson protesters said to an older protester,  this is not your parents’ civil rights demonstration. He wasn’t wrong.

The torch has been passed to the next generation to continue the unfinished work of creating a more just and equal society. The passion and energy of the young have been, and continue to be, a driving force in solving the shared problems we face.

And they are shared problems.

I think of the mother of an African-American teenager, as she kisses him goodbye each morning, hands him his backpack and watches him head off to school, knowing that he might never come home again. She lives with that fear every day.

I think about the wife of a cop, as she kisses her husband goodbye, hands him a cup of coffee and watches him drive off to work, knowing he might never come home again. She lives with that fear every day.

That is the world we live in.

Too much violence. Too little hope.

Too much fear. Too little trust.

But as the smoke clears and the shouting dies down, the question that lingers in the air is this:

What now?

What will we do in this moment, while the whole world is watching?

What will we do to move forward after 73 days of civil unrest?

How do we move on from shouting past one another in the streets, on the Internet and the evening news?

Some people would tell you that the choice is one thing or the other: Trust or force. Speech or silence. Black or white.

It is far more complicated than that. Legitimate issues have been raised by thoughtful voices on all sides. Shouting past one another will not move us to where we need to go.

Outsiders eager to grab the national spotlight and push their own agendas do not have the best interests of this community, this state or this nation at heart.

We need to solve these problems ourselves, we need to solve them together, and we need to act now.

That is why today I am announcing the creation of the Ferguson Commission.

I am asking for your help in identifying individuals in this region to serve on this commission. I plan to announce those selected early next month.

My fervent hope – and my belief – is that we will find thoughtful people from every walk of life, ordinary citizens as well as empowered leaders in business, education, public safety and our faith communities, who are willing to serve their state when it needs them most.

My charge to the Commission through Executive Order will be three-fold:

1.   First, to conduct a thorough, wide-ranging and unflinching study of the social and economic conditions underscored by the unrest in the wake of the death of Michael Brown;

2.   Second, to tap the expertise needed to address the concerns identified by the Commission –  from poverty and education, to governance and law enforcement; 

3.  And third, to offer specific recommendations for making this region a stronger, fairer place for everyone to live.

The men and women selected to serve on this commission must be willing to come together in good faith, endure the fierce crucible of public opinion, and lead the hard work of change.

They must be willing to talk candidly and openly, and – more importantly – to listen to what those on every side have to say. These are difficult conversations that for far too long have been avoided or ignored.

This work is not for the faint of heart.

Make no mistake: there will be anger and conflict, fear and distrust. The enemies of change will not easily yield to reasoned voices calling for a stronger, more united region.

But to move forward, we must transcend anger and fear. We must move past pain and disappointment.

We must open our hearts and minds to what others have seen, what others have lived, and respect their truth.

That is the challenge that lies before us. And I believe the good people of this region are eager to meet this challenge.

Let me be clear: this is not an investigation into Michael Brown’s death, or the facts of what happened in the street that day.

The responsibility for that investigation belongs to the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney, the grand jury, the FBI, the federal Department of Justice and the United States Attorney General.

Whatever the outcome of their investigations, we must move forward together.

More acts of violence and destruction like those we have experienced at times during the past 73 days will not be tolerated, and will only hurt the communities that have suffered the most at the very time they need restoration and healing.

Our faith, our laws, and the principles on which our democracy was founded demand more of us.

We must hold ourselves, and one another, accountable to the highest standards of personal responsibility and mutual respect.

In the end, history will be our judge.  But we are also being judged in the here and now. And the stakes are high.

This is a defining moment that will determine whether this place will be known as a region marred by racial division and unrest, or a region that pulled together to rise above and heal.

This region is the economic engine of our state. For decades, many of the people in this room – and thousands of others -- have worked hard to make this region a thriving center of business innovation, cultural excellence, and scientific research. Its leaders are actively engaged in attracting the best and brightest talent from around the world.

If we do not act – and act now – the damage could be severe and long-lasting.

Our streets cannot be battlefields.

Our neighbors must be free to lead their daily lives – to go to work, to church, to run a business – without fear. Our children must be able to walk to school and play in the park in safety. The wives of police officers and the mothers of teen-aged sons deserve peace of mind.

If we want peace in our streets, we must work together to create a more just and equal society.

What each of us believes in our heart-of-hearts must change as well. That is an exercise many of us undertake weekly – on our knees – in cathedrals and Kingdom Halls, temples and mosques.

We are all flawed vessels, crudely cast in the mold of our maker. 

None of us alone can heal the broken world.  But together, there is much we can accomplish.

With your help and support, the Ferguson Commission will chart a new path forward, as we take the next steps toward healing and positive change.

Let us seize this defining moment to show our nation – and our children -- the true colors of courage.

Together, I know we can do it.