It’s been 11 months since Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson. In that time, a broad-based movement has grown in the area, one that goes beyond protesting police violence, and calls for deeper change to address the racial and economic inequalities rampant in the St. Louis region. The movement has garnered national attention and has won some important victories: the resignation of several local officials and a police chief, the passage of a state bill, currently awaiting Gov. Jay Nixon’s signature, that would reduce the amount of revenue municipalities can derive from tickets and fines, and the prospect of raising the minimum wage in St. Louis to $15 an hour.
But activists think there’s much more that needs to change in the area. Many of the reforms that protesters called for have not come to fruition. The state legislature this session considered more than 100 bills designed to address the discrimination, poverty and violence faced by the area’s black residents, but only one passed. The reason, the activists say, is that – as is the case across the country – powerful interests like things the way they are.
Those powerful interests tend to get what they want. Political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page released a paper last year that showed the influence of ordinary Americans on the policymaking process was at a “non-significant, near-zero level.” When the interests of the rich and the desires of the rest of the population diverge, they found, the result is nearly always that the rich win. As inequality — racial and economic — has crept into headlines over the past few years, activists are coming to the conclusion that changing their lives will require challenging the rich directly.
In St. Louis in particular, the civic elite is tight-knit and powerful, connected through a web of board memberships, charitable contributions and political donations, as well as through the secretive Veiled Prophet organization, which bills itself as “a 135-year-old civic, and philanthropic organization founded in 1878 to promote the City of St. Louis and enrich the quality of life for its citizens.” The organization puts on a yearly parade and a big public festival, now called the Fair St. Louis, on the Fourth of July. This year, activists took it as an opportunity to call out some of the area’s richest and most powerful individuals for profiting from prisons and jails, getting handouts from cash-strapped municipalities that then take up the slack by writing more tickets and charging higher fines, and backing politicians who’ve kept wages low and slashed public spending. These are the kinds of individuals — CEOs and other wealthy and/or powerful community members — who have in the past been a part of Veiled Prophets, though the group’s secrecy prevents us from knowing who’s a member today.
Last week, in the run-up to the fair, dozens of activists, supported by Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, or MORE – a community group that focuses on the intersections of the economy, the environment and racial justice – arrived at the doorsteps of St. Louis’s biggest companies, including Enterprise Holdings, Peabody Energy and Express Scripts with protest signs and a message: “Unveil the profits!”
The activists also launched a website, Power Behind the Police, with information about their targets. The site, which is expected to grow over the next few months, shows the networks and relationships of the CEOs of St. Louis’s biggest businesses, illuminating the ways power is interconnected — through membership organizations like Civic Progress, a group of executives from St. Louis’s biggest businesses; by serving together on the boards of the Federal Reserve branch, United Way and Washington University; and by serving on each other’s boards, as Peabody’s Gregory Boyce does on the board of Monsanto.
Roz Brown, one of the activists who spoke at the protests, tells Rolling Stone that racism is “embedded in the infrastructures” of St. Louis, from business to education to the judicial system. She points to the way police lined up to protect business headquarters when the protesters arrived last week — the same police who, in Ferguson, stared down protesters behind armored vehicles and riot shields. Unequal systems reinforce each other, Brown says.
Frankie Edwards says he’s troubled that these executives make a lot of money, but don’t put enough of it back into the community in ways that help people like him: young black men who are constantly harassed by police. To him, they have a responsibility to build a city that works for everyone.
For many people in the area, the Fair St. Louis is an opportunity to celebrate, its origins rarely considered. But the organization that hosts it has long been controversial — the fair’s name changed in 1992 to distance it from the Veiled Prophet organization.
Percy Green has been trying to draw connections between the elite organization and the lack of opportunities for black St. Louisans since the Sixties, when he led ACTION, a direct-action-focused civil rights group that called for good jobs for black people. The Veiled Prophet organization made an excellent target: It was made up of St. Louis’s wealthiest and most powerful individuals, and it was at the time explicitly all-white.
The organization had originated with the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. In St. Louis, black and white strikers acted together to shut down rail freight for a whole week before being brutally put down by police and federal troops. The very first Veiled Prophet — the figurehead of the organization, whose whose outfit and veil Green likened to a Ku Klux Klan robe — was St. Louis Police Commissioner John G. Priest, who had been instrumental in quelling the strike.
The Veiled Prophet was inspired by New Orleans’s Mardi Gras krewes, which were also at the time all-white organizations of civic elites who masked themselves and put on massive parades. Each year, a new member serves as the Prophet, wearing the veil at a ball and choosing a “Queen of Love and Beauty” from assembled debutantes. But the organization was designed to showcase the power of those civic elites as much as to court goodwill with citizens.
“[The elites] were all concentrated there,” Green says. “So we decided to disrupt it.” ACTION began by picketing the Veiled Prophet ball and interrupting the parade; Green was arrested for handcuffing himself to a float. But the group’s most successful disruption came in 1972, when, dressed in the formalwear, Gena Scott of ACTION slid down a cable and yanked the veil from the Veiled Prophet, who turned out to be Monsanto Vice President Tom K. Smith.
To Green, the point was never to get the organization to add black members. “We felt it was outdated and needed to be removed just like the rebel flag needed to be removed,” he says.
ACTION disbanded in 1985, but Green remains active in the region, a sort of elder statesman or consultant to the city’s once again thriving protest movement. And the Veiled Prophet ball remains an easy target for protests. This past year, Ferguson activists passed around photos of St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson at the ball, criticizing the organization’s all-white origins and noting that it was another reminder of which “side” the police chief seemed to be on.
“There’s a lot of old money in St. Louis,” says Kat O’Brian, a volunteer researcher who helped build the Power Behind the Police website. “There’s a whole culture of folks who live in a different world than the rest of us. I don’t think they see or understand why Ferguson happened.”
Bakko says he had already been aware that the wealth in his city is extremely concentrated, but he learned through the project “how networked the power is.”
They used a free web tool called LittleSis, created by the nonprofit Public Accountability Initiative, to trace the connections between powerful people and institutions and create maps to visualize that network. The site uses “publicly available free information that’s already out there,” O’Brian notes. “It’s information that folks will even brag about on the websites of the companies.”
The tool helped them illustrate a web of board memberships and chairmanships, and dollars flowing to Missouri politicians (like Todd Akin, whose U.S. Senate campaign went down in flames after his theories about “legitimate rape” made headlines), charitable giving and community improvement projects, all intended to illustrate how power operates.
For Frankie Edwards, the maps helped him see a connection between St. Louis’s wealthy and the city’s jail system. Andrew Taylor is the executive chairman of Enterprise Holdings, the privately held company that owns Enterprise Rent-A-Car. His family also owns the Centric Group, which in turn owns the Keefe Group, a company that provides privatized infrastructure for more than 800 private and public prisons and jails, including some in St. Louis County. The Keefe Group subsidiaries provide food and care items, among other things, to prison commissaries, as well as the infrastructure that allows people to make phone calls to inmates.
Edwards says that the high price of commissary goods he experienced in jail has the effect of extracting money from many “people who are innocent until proven guilty.” In a place like St. Louis County, where people have regularly gone to jail for an inability to pay a fine, costs within prisons and jails can contribute to a vicious cycle of poverty and imprisonment.
Roz Brown points out that these companies also benefit from subsidies paid with public dollars. Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefit management company with a facility in the Ferguson-Florissant area, is a $100 billion entity; its CEO, George Paz, made $12.9 million last year and is on the steering committee for Fix the Debt, a campaign that supports corporate tax breaks and cutting Social Security. According to Good Jobs First’s subsidy tracker, which uses government data, Express Scripts has gotten more than $132 million in state and local subsidies, including $24 million from Missouri; at least some of that money was spent to keep the company in the area. “They threatened to leave the St. Louis area, and then they created a massive bidding war among states,” Brown says. Because of the property tax abatements granted to Express Scripts, she says, “they’re cheating communities and they’re cheating the education system. We shouldn’t have to pay a business to stay in business.”
Also on the list is Gregory Boyce, executive chairman of Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest private-sector coal company, which infamously spun off a subsidiary loaded with its retired miners’ pension obligations that promptly went bankrupt. The company spent years resisting payment of those pensions. (Boyce, however, made nearly $11 million last year.) The company is also a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which has pushed legislation like Stand Your Ground laws.
Elites like these, Edwards says, get a lot of credit for investing millions in renovating things like the Gateway Arch grounds, while behind the arch the city is crumbling. He questions whether it’s healthy for a small handful of wealthy individuals to, as he sees it, drive the agenda in the city.
But the real lesson, for Bakko, from this project was that it was surprisingly easy to do. “This is something that other communities can replicate, and I think they should. It’s something that any community group with access to the Internet can do. And that’s power,” he says.
The week of actions is over, but the Power Behind the Police project is just getting started; more individuals will be added over the coming weeks and months. The website also has a section for solutions, inspired by the Jackson-Kush action plan created in Mississippi in 2012, that calls on citizens to imagine what a better St. Louis area might look like. It will feature research reports and big ideas for people to consider — an investment in cooperatives, for instance, or a universal basic income.
Frankie Edwards wants to see better education systems and mentoring, and food support for everyone in his community. And he wants to see an end to the racial profiling that has haunted him his whole life. “I have two young boys, and I don’t want them going through the same thing that we’re going through today,” he says. “I want them to be able to travel all over the United States of America and live free.”
To ensure that happens, he says, people in other cities need to take up the project of change as well.
Roz Brown agrees. “The issues that we have here are not just restricted to our area,” she says. “The racism and the prejudices that are embedded in our judicial system, the educational system and employment practices and procedures — that is a nationwide epidemic.”