Wesley Bell ousted St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch in August, four years after protesters assailed McCulloch’s actions after a police officer killed Michael Brown in Ferguson. Defeating McCulloch, who had been in office since 1991, involved years of sustained organizing on the part of activists who participated in the Ferguson protests.
Last week, I talked to Reverend Dr. Cassandra Gould, the executive director of Missouri Faith Voices, about her work in St. Louis and about what toppled the longtime prosecutor.
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
How were you involved in the Ferguson protests and in this year’s election for prosecutor?
I’ve lived in the St. Louis area for more than 35 years. When Ferguson happened, I was there between August and the non-indictment [of Darren Wilson] on Nov. 24. I stayed a minimum 75 nights in the street, as a person who was part of the community. It was a situation where all hands had to be in deck. I became officially employed by Faith Voices in 2015.
I was very fueled by the events of Ferguson. Literally on the night of the non-indictment my prayer was I would have an opportunity to be directly involved four years later in changing history. Everybody figured Bob McCulloch would stay in office forever, more in less. Last year, we decided that this prosecutor race would be the biggest thing that we would work on this year. We held our first meeting on the role of the prosecutor training in 2017 so that ordinary citizens could understand how their lives are affected. We saw this race as being very pivotal in restoring hope to the community and in changing the course of history.
Bob McCulloch had been in office since 1991. What do you think made his loss possible in 2018 when he’d been winning for so long?
In 2016, there were [local] elections in Ferguson. It resulted in the same leadership that was already there prior to the murder of Michael Brown. One of the things that I realized was that despite the fact that there were grassroots organizations that were there for years, no one was actually coordinating organizing in the African American community specifically around criminal justice reform. In the city there were organizations working on police reform neighborhood policing for years, but in St. Louis County no one was specifically coordinating the organizing, particularly in African American communities. Our bet was that if we focus specifically on increasing the electorate by having conversations with voters of color and Black voters who don’t normally vote, we could increase turnout, and not just for the sake of one election. People could start taking ownership of their own community.
We were knocking on doors and talking to young people, particularly in Ferguson, and asking them what they wanted to be different. We discovered that there was a sense of hopelessness in the situation. They felt that the system was completely against them and that they didn’t have an opportunity to change it. But we talked to people and we listened; people really started to come on board and to re-imagine what their community could look like.
We made this big bet to do something different. Most campaigns focus on white swing voters, but we decided we wanted this to be the people’s campaign. We hired people who understood the criminal justice system. We had a young man run our canvassing campaign who was a formerly incarcerated person. We wanted people who had a stake in the game and understood the criminal justice system from the inside out.
How receptive did you find your audience to be, compared to in the past?
This receptiveness was not there before. It wasn’t there before at all, particularly in the St. Louis metropolitan area, when you go against this Democratic icon. It’s more than just a political trend, it really means that the people actually spoke, and the people started to work toward their own liberation. We had honest conversation that centered on the criminal justice system and the implications that race and racism have in the criminal justice system, and this really resonated with people. What we saw was people who didn’t come out before and thought whatever would happen would happen. We never actually endorsed Wesley Bell, we gave the people the information that they needed so that they could make informed decisions, and empower them to use their voice in the ballot box.
How did you collaborate with other organizations as part of this work?
Locally we coordinated specifically with the St. Louis Action Council, run by Kayla Reed, an activist who I met in the streets of Ferguson. And Color of Change, they were on the ground in Ferguson as well. The three of us, three organizations, Color of Change, Action St. Louis, and Missouri Faith Voices, we had one of our offices together in Ferguson, and that meant that we were dividing up turf, that meant that we were using different tactics and more people had opportunity to be reached. The three of us specifically focused on African American voters. Other organizations’ message was not the same because their audience was not the same.
We talked a lot about Mike Brown and murder with impunity, and how a system that has white supremacy as a cornerstone continues to ensure that African Americans will rarely get justice in a system like that. We’ll be dealt with unfairly in a system that has a cornerstone of white supremacy. We tied that with cash bail and high fees and fines, and we tied that with what it would mean to the African American community if things stayed the same.
What were the main messages you heard in your conversations during the campaign?
Particularly among young African Americans, it was about feeling harassed. I would say 98% of the people we talked to they had some personal involvement with police, with traffic stops, with fines and fees, or if it wasn’t them it was some family member who was impacted by the system in very negative ways. We heard a lot about the amount of time they spent in jail waiting for a hearing or trial.
Some people don’t know that, they don’t know what happens behind the curtain. Having people share those stories in public spaces made a tremendous difference. It was extremely eye-opening for [an all-white congregation at an event in the Eliot Chapel in Kirkwood, Missouri] to have people from the African American community share their stories about how they were impacted by the criminal justice system. It was a very different audience, but them listening to the stories of people who were impacted also had an indelible effect in them in how they saw the prosecutor and the role of the prosecutor.
People who are impacted know it’s not just their stories. But rarely do they get to tell their story, and rarely do people care enough to listen to their story, and many of them are not accustomed to the power of their story. Using their voice and engaging in a democratic process, it’s also a way to lift their voice. We were able to connect the story of their pain to their opportunity to make something different happen, as opposed to keeping it to yourself but not ever bringing it to light.
What are some specific expectations you have now of Wesley Bell, and what do you think is the role of organizing going forward?
I would say that Wesley Bell’s camp cares enough about grassroots to stay connected by having a liaison to transition; grassroots organizations have met with the Wesley Bell Campaign almost monthly since he got elected. We expect that some things won’t change overnight. We do expect some sentencing changes, we expect diversions, so particularly in nonviolent cases instead of jail and cash fines and fees people would be able to have some alternatives to that. One of our goals in the next 18 months is to really work on eliminating cash bail in the state of Missouri, using the St. Louis area as a test case of that. We expect that Wesley Bell will lead the way,bail.
We want to have an ongoing relationship with the prosecutor’s office. We don’t want a staff position, but we want to be in conversation with him, and remind him of the pain of the people, remind him of why it was necessary to elect him so that things don’t stay the same. We don’t expect St. Louis County to be run the same way in two years that it was run over the past 27 years. We believe that ongoing engagement and commitment with the prosecutor’s office is extremely important.
I also believe that, even beyond the prosecutor in St. Louis County, we put elected officials on notice that the power still rests with the people. We believe this puts elected officials on notice that the people will have the last word, and they can no longer expect for the people to sit by and allow things to happen to them. We know that there is an awful lot of work to do, but we are also excited about the opportunities, especially as it pertains to the historical fight for African Americans in Missouri and around the country. We really want to be a model for change.
I want to say that I want to say we are a multifaith, multiracial organization, and one of the questions we ask our members was, What does your faith say about a justice system that is punitive for one race of people or one class of people? We approached it with our faith leading the way, and we had people in Springfield, and Columbia, which are hundreds of miles away, but participated in this prosecutor race whether it was phone-banking or other ways. It was a pivotal moment. It was a shared decision that this was the most important engagement this year. We made the case that this is about the liberation of all of us in that state, it was everybody’s fight.