'America is Ready:' Missouri voters on whether they see a turning point on policing and race relations

"I will say that, at least locally, there's more transparency," said Cori Bush.

September 6, 2020, 5:20 PM

In a summer marked by high-profile cases of violence against Black Americans, some voters and leaders in Missouri are taking stock of how race relations have changed, for better or for worse, in their communities.

"I will say that, at least locally, there's more transparency," said Missouri congressional candidate Cori Bush about the infamously fraught relationship between police and protesters in her hometown.

In a conversation with ABC's "This Week" co-anchor Martha Raddatz, Bush reflected on what's happened since the 2014 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, which galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement and inspired her run for office.

"When a police shooting happens (now) you know, the police, they're immediately having a press conference … and they're opening the door for us to talk, for activists to talk," Bush said of St. Louis-area law enforcement.

St. Louis and Ferguson police have faced federal civil rights investigations over treatment of protesters and Black residents over the last six years. While Bush has noted signs of change, the rising progressive political star said she and other activists are still being met with excessive force at times.

"We were maced, just in July," said Bush. "So we have a lot of work to do."

Bridging the divide

Police Chief Jason Armstrong is hoping to continue that work in Ferguson. He joined the department in 2019, becoming the city's second Black police chief. This summer, he joined events to honor Brown and protest the killing of George Floyd.

"I don't look at it as me being on two sides of an issue," Armstrong told Raddatz of bridging the divide many see between the law enforcement and Black communities. "I look at me as being in the middle of an important issue."

"It is a struggle because some people in the Black community, when they see me, they call me a traitor or Uncle Tom for me wearing this uniform," he continued. "And I can't let that discourage me. ... If it wasn't me wearing this uniform, trying to do this work, who would it be?"

Armstrong was frustrated, however, with reports of looting and vandalism during recent local protests. Activists, including Bush, have argued for critics to examine how police violence and systemic racism can engender looting to begin with.

"If we don't have police brutality, there won't be looters," said Bush.

PHOTO: Demonstrators march in protest towards the Rochester Police Station on Sept. 03, 2020, in Rochester, NY.
Demonstrators march in protest towards the Rochester Police Station on Sept. 03, 2020, in Rochester, NY.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

But Armstrong rebuked any suggestion that there's ever an excuse for looting.

"Too many people, especially in this community here," he said, "have been through some of these events before, and the trauma that comes along with that."

Ferguson protests, then and now

Ferguson restaurant owner Cathy Jenkins knows that trauma. Speaking to Raddatz in front of Cathy's Kitchen, she recalled getting a message about rioters targeting her building after the acquittal of Darren Wilson, the former officer who shot Brown.

"My heart dropped to the bottom of my feet," Jenkins said of that night. But she was later heartened by watching protesters link hands on the street to protect her restaurant from further damage, and by those who showed up the next day to pick up broken glass around her storefront.

"This was something positive, showing for the first time that we're sure the vandals that were destroying property weren't the same people as the protesters," said Jenkins.

When protests again took over her block following Floyd's death this year, Jenkins observed another shift from 2014.

"What was different about this time: We had white and Black protesters out together," she said.

'We all want the same thing'

While demonstrations against racial inequality and police violence have grown more diverse in 2020, St. Louis still saw an extreme example of opposition to recent protests in Patricia and Mark McCloskey -- the white couple who went viral for brandishing guns during an otherwise peaceful march in June.

The McCloskeys were subsequently invited to give an address at the Republican National Convention -- one that, in line with the Trump campaign's message, warned of anarchy and promoted a desire to keep their neighborhood safe.

PHOTO: Patricia and Mark McCloskey speak during the first night of the 2020 Republican National Convention, Aug. 24, 2020.
Patricia and Mark McCloskey speak during the first night of the 2020 Republican National Convention, Aug. 24, 2020.
Republican National Convention

St. Louis voter Jami Cox, 24, who has taken part in Black Lives Matter rallies since 2014, believes the McCloskeys and the protesters who streamed past their home have the same goal.

"I definitely agree with a conversation about needing to have law and needing to have order. That comes having a conversation about justice," Cox told Raddatz.

"We want reduction of violence. We want a reduction of crime. And so it's really not one side or the other, it's really the same idea -- and all we're doing is just needing to have a conversation about how we get there," said Cox.

Voter Phillip Sangokoya, who serves with Cox on the board of a local affordable housing nonprofit, agreed.

"I think sometimes we get caught up in stereotypes and different tropes, and we really have to realize that people are people. People are humans. They're not statistics," said Sangokoya, calling for more dialogue between those on either side of the growing political wedge over this summer's unrest.

"It starts with talking to each other."

Unprepared for 'outright hate'

Across the state, one couple initiated dialogue on racism following an emotionally painful experience.

Army veteran Jamari Roland, who now works for the State Department, moved from California to Kansas City with his wife, Maureen, and their two young children in June.

Jamari is Black, and told Raddatz that white strangers were immediately hateful when the family moved into their new home.

"I was standing inside my doorway and, you know, someone essentially screamed a racial slur at me," he said, describing what he said was only the first time neighbors targeted him with racist words.

Maureen, who is white, said she and the kids have also felt the hostility, including an instance where she was told to stay with her "own kind."

"It's astonishing for it to be so bold, to be so vocal, to be so loud and proud," said Maureen. "Racism shouldn't be proud."

But after the couple published a blog post about how they hadn't expected to receive "outright hate" from others in Kansas City, local news outlets started picking it up. That's when the Rolands saw a shift.

"I mean, we were flooded with emails, messages, reaching out for support," said Maureen. "I never in a million years expected this, ever."

In reflecting on both their experiences, the broader national focus and protests against racial inequality, Raddatz asked the couple if they think the nation is at a turning point.

"I believe we are," said Jamari, suggesting he sees a broader willingness among Americans to acknowledge and confront racism. "I think now that the nation is talking about it, the conversation has been initiated. I think people are going to use that as leverage to further their dialogue, and hopefully come up with some viable solutions for a better tomorrow."

Maureen also highlighted the overwhelming support she's felt for her family in recent weeks.

"The minority of people who are very negative and giving us negative feedback are completely overshadowed by the positive," she said. "So, yes, America is ready for a turning point."

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