Racial tension flared among Missouri lawmakers last week when black Democratic lawmakers accused the state’s Republican House leadership of racism for disrupting a black lawmaker’s speech and passing a bill that could remove power to the black woman elected prosecutor in St. Louis.
The discord in the Missouri House came days after a similar situation in Mississippi, where black lawmakers denounced the majority-white, Republican-led legislature for voting to disempower local leaders in the predominantly black city of Jackson.
As in Mississippi, the Missouri legislature has a largely white Republican majority. Most black legislators represent the state’s two largest urban areas of St. Louis and Kansas City.
Missouri Republicans made anti-crime legislation a priority this session, often highlighting high crime rates in St. Louis as an impetus. The House passed legislation by a 109-35 vote that would allow Republican Gov. Mike Parson to appoint a special prosecutor to handle violent crimes in areas with high homicide rates, such as St. Louis. The bill would also expand mandatory minimum sentences for persistent offenders, among other things.
State Representative Kevin Windham, a black Democrat from St. Louis County, was reading aloud an article on the state of Mississippi during the House debate when some white Republican lawmakers interrupted him, claiming his speech had nothing dealing with Missouri legislation.
House Speaker Dean Plocher shut out Windham, cutting his speech short. Windham’s microphone was off. House Majority Leader Jon Patterson then introduced a motion to end debate over the bill, which the Republican majority backed, leaving other black Democrats standing without an opportunity to speak.
Black lawmakers were outraged.
“It’s racist not to let him speak,” Congresswoman Marlene Terry, a St. Louis County Democrat who chairs Missouri’s black legislative committee, told reporters after the debate.
Terry said he was inviting Black leaders and community activists to come to the Capitol.
“From now on there is nothing more peaceful, nothing more peaceful, there will be actions,” Terry said. “We’ll let them know we’re here to be heard.”
The Rev. Darryl Gray, a St. Louis pastor and a leading racial justice activist, posted a message on Facebook urging people to gather at the Capitol this week to stand up “against state control and white suppression.” .
Patterson defended his role in shutting down the debate, saying “the conversation was devolving and may have gotten worse.”
“I’m not ruling out any of the experiences that our black lawmakers or white lawmakers have had,” Patterson told the Associated Press. “I can guarantee it: He didn’t play a role in deciding it was time to vote on the bill.”
In Mississippi, tensions were fueled by two separate ballots on Tuesday. The Mississippi Senate voted to create a regional council to ultimately take control of Jackson’s struggling water system, which is now overseen by a federally appointed administrator. Then the House voted to create a new courthouse in portions of Jackson, overseen by judges who would be appointed rather than elected.
Mississippi Democratic State Senator John Horhn said during a Legislative Black Caucus press conference that the actions “amount to a symbolic beheading of Black elected leadership.”
The Missouri debate last week was relatively short. But the previous day the House had spent several hours debating and amending the bill. The final vote didn’t fall solely on racial lines. Among those who voted for the bill were a black Republican lawmaker from suburban St. Louis and two black Democratic lawmakers from Kansas City. This included Democrat Representative Mark Sharp, who supported a provision in the bill that makes it a crime to discharge a firearm criminally negligent within the city limits.
Plocher said passage of the bill — which now goes to the Republican-led Senate — was an exciting step.
“We are beginning a process of improving the lives of Missourians by cracking down on crime,” Plocher said.
St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office Kim Gardner released a statement calling the legislation “a political stunt.”
Zaki Baruti, leader of the St. Louis-based Universal African People’s Organization, described the attempt to strip Gardner of power as “a move against democracy.”
Gardner, the first and only black circuit attorney elected in St. Louis, pursued a progressive agenda. It has stopped prosecuting low-level marijuana offenses, favors diverting first-time nonviolent offenders to community programs instead of prison, and has developed an “exclusion list” of several dozen police officers who are not allowed to bring cases to his office, based in part on concerns of potential racial bias among those officers.
“It represents the hopes and aspirations of the black community,” Baruti said. “Clearly this is an attack and it is happening not just here in St. Louis but across America, where when Black people capture key positions of power and take actions that some lawmakers feel they cannot accept, they are under tremendous attack. “
Associated Press writer Jim Salter contributed from St. Louis.[[[[