WASHINGTON -- Activists involved with the Ferguson, Missouri, protests followed their presidential meeting on Monday with words of caution: There's a long fight ahead to make crucial changes to police practices in the St. Louis region and across the country.
Several of those who met with President Barack Obama said they were generally encouraged, and they framed the White House meeting as an indication that their movement is having an impact. They said they saw some progress in the moderate initiatives on police training and push for police body cameras announced by the White House on Monday, though they agreed there was a lot more to be done. A list of goals released by multiple activists demands that the federal government, among other actions, get more aggressive in prosecuting police officers who kill people and stop sending money to local police departments that use excessive force or engage in racial profiling.
“We’re definitely going to keep doing the work on the ground, but meeting with the president, for me -- well, I’ll say for everybody -- is just an affirmation that this movement is working,” said Ashley Yates, co-founder of the group Millennial Activists United, in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. Yates, who goes by @BrownBlaze on Twitter, posted a selfie with Vice President Joe Biden following the meeting.
Phillip Agnew, of the group Dream Defenders, said on the call, “This moment has awakened the consciousness of folks around the country, and what we’ve seen -- as much coordination as folks in Ferguson, folks around Ferguson, folks on this line have done to ensure that there’s infrastructure for this movement -- there are people around the country that are waking up and acting on their own."
“And that’s a hallmark of this movement: It is decentralized,” he said.
Leaders of more established civil rights organizations struck a similar tone, declaring that the changes that will grow out of the protests following the death of Michael Brown have just begun.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a statement Tuesday that the White House meeting was "a significant first step in acknowledging the problem of racial bias in policing and searching for real, concrete measures for change."
After she left the meeting with Obama on Monday, Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said she had heard "real difference-making strategies for communities of color who have been targeted as a result of a failed war on drugs."
"The ACLU tends to be cynical about these matters because we sue the government, but today I'm feeling wholly optimistic about the progress that can be made under President Obama and Attorney General [Eric] Holder," Murphy said.
In the conference call on Tuesday, some of the younger demonstrators who had been on the ground in Ferguson said they felt Obama understood their concerns about the relationship between police departments and residents in the St. Louis region. Kareem Jackson, a rapper who goes by the name Tef Poe, said he hoped that the president's race helped give him greater insight into what people in St. Louis County were facing.
“I tell everybody all the time, if you come to St. Louis, Missouri, Ferguson, whatever you want to call it, you don’t have any constitutional rights if you’re black. You can throw that right out the window. They would point a gun at the president’s face, if he wasn’t the president of the United States, and he was walking down West Florissant,” Jackson said, referring to the avenue that has seen many of the protests.
Antoine White, who goes by the name T-Dubb-O, said that "overaggressive policing" was a major problem in north St. Louis County, where many tiny municipalities survive only by imposing stiff fines on residents for minor offenses.
"We don't need more police," said White. "We need better policemen ... someone who is going to patrol the avenues, patrol the communities and build better relationships with the people, someone who knows the people, someone who actually cares about the community, someone who stays in the community, someone who really wants to protect and serve."
Jackson agreed, arguing that many municipalities in the St. Louis region already have more officers than they can afford.
"Most of the time, the police in our neighborhood are just there to give us a speeding ticket, give us a traffic warrant, and landslide us into the system however they can," Jackson said. "I've had situations where I've called the police because I've witnessed crime happening or had crime happened to me. By the time the police showed up, I am the criminal."
Reflecting on the meeting with the president, Yates said it's too late for Obama to visit Ferguson, but she hopes he'll use "the power of the highest office of the land to enact some real change."
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