DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR news. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. Let's follow along now with a crowd of people. They flowed into a church last night in Ferguson, Missouri.
MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: What's your...
MARTIN: Stephanie? Thanks for coming out.
INSKEEP: They said hello to NPR's Michel Martin who moderated a community meeting in a small city that was the scene of a police shooting and then weeks of sometimes violent protests. St. Louis Public Radio convened the event attended by more than 200 people, from the mayor to many young people. This morning, we will hear some of the discussion and talk with the person who was asking the question. Michel Martin is with us from St. Louis. Hi, Michel.
MARTIN: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: So what were you trying to do?
MARTIN: Well, as you said, I was invited by St. Louis Public Radio to moderate the conversation. And I thought that in that role my job was to help everybody have a good conversation. And by good, you know, I meant a conversation where everybody felt heard, that people really felt that they were talking to each other. And at times, I will tell you that was hard because feelings ran very high. But we did it. And I think it was very powerful.
INSKEEP: Why in a church?
MARTIN: Well, in part, because the pastor there really impressed a lot of people with his willingness to be in the mix. I mean, he spent a lot of hours out on the street. I mean, there was a photograph of him that was captured that really went viral. He talked with our colleague, Melissa Block, about it where he was literally putting his body in between a young man who seemed very angry and upset and a police officer. He spent, you know, hours on the street trying to defuse tensions. And this was his church. And he saw this kind of as an opportunity to offer a safe space for people to have some difficult conversations.
INSKEEP: And it sounds like every kind of person came to that church last night.
MARTIN: Well, you know, that was one of the things that stood out for me, Steve, is that this was a very diverse crowd. One young African-American woman told me after the event that this was the most people that she had seen participating in a conversation like this, particularly around this issue. Also, the crowd initially was, in fact, largely white and older. But as the evening wore on, more and more young people started to come. And they made it very clear that they wanted to be heard. One of them said, look, I'm in church. Let me give you my testimonial. A number of them talked about being harassed and even injured by the police in recent weeks. One young man even pulled up his shirt to show where a rubber bullet had hit him. And another young woman did the same. And I also want to play a short clip from one of the young women who came and spoke with us. She's a 20-year-old college student. And her name is Alexis Stumbleton.
(SOUNDBITE OF FERGUSON TOWN HALL MEETING)
MARTIN: What's now going on? Take this opportunity to tell - what's most important for the mayor to know right now? What's the most important thing he should know from you right now?
ALEXIS STUMBLETON: What's most important for the mayor to know right now is that the people that are up under you are directly taking our rights away.
STUMBLETON: Like (Laughter) I can explain - I can explain to you that my First Amendment rights have been taken away. And that I have been told directly by a police officer that I don't have this right when I know for a fact that I do. I was told that I did not have the right to assemble. And I know for a fact, you know for a fact, we all know for a fact that we have the right to assemble.
MARTIN: Well, she was talking about two things here, Steve. One is that, you know, as you know, there has been a lot of criticism about the way that law enforcement here handled those demonstrations. That many people feel that they used heavy-handed and abusive tactics to address largely peaceful demonstration. And many, many people feel that they escalated the situation. But she was specifically addressing herself to the mayor of Ferguson, James Knowles, who was there throughout the evening. And I think that that's important to note because he has not had very many public appearances. And in fact, he's been heavily criticized by people for not being very visible during this crisis. And a number of the young people there specifically wanted to address him. They wanted to ask him why he was not more visible, and what he was going to do to address their concerns. In fact, one person specifically told him that he should step down. And he was very emphatic that would not. But it was interesting to me to see that, particularly, a number of the young people felt it was important to hold him accountable for his leadership. And they wanted to let him know that they did not feel that he heard them and was representing them or even really understood them.
INSKEEP: We should remind people the mayor is white. The majority of the community is black. A lot of people were black at this meeting that you moderated. But you mentioned, Michel, there were a lot of white people there, too. What were they saying?
MARTIN: Well, I'm glad you mentioned that, too, because I want to say that it wasn't just the African-American constituents - residents of Ferguson who were expressing frustration about the quality of leadership that they were seeing throughout this crisis. I want to play you a clip from a woman named Emily Davis who is white. She said she's a mother of three. She said that when this first happened, she first felt deep sorrow. But now she felt angry because she was very disappointed in the leadership that she was seeing from the community and from leadership in general, but particularly from the police. I just want to play a short clip of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF FERGUSON TOWN HALL MEETING)
EMILY DAVIS: My kids are confused. My sons said, I thought police were the good guys. And my feeling is that no mother should have to fear for her son's life every time he leaves home.
INSKEEP: That's a painful thought to hear.
MARTIN: It is. And I think that one of the things that emerged for a number of the white residents who came to the meeting was a number of people shared that they were surprised by the level of pain, fear and anger that were regularly experienced by their African-American neighbors. In fact, one man who was white told us that his son has an African-American friend. And they were talking about, you know, recent events. And the African-American friend was talking about how, you know, when he rides his bike over to their house how he is stopped by the police, and people ask, you know, where did you get that bike? And can you prove that you own that bike? And they had no idea. They had no idea that he was experiencing this kind of thing. You know, speaking of the police, Steve, I have to tell you that Daniel Isom was also there. He was just named Missouri's director of public safety by Governor Nixon. He's a former chief of police in St. Louis and has been teaching a criminology and public safety in the interim. And he is African-American. He will also be the only African-American in Governor Nixon's cabinet going forward. He starts his job next week.
INSKEEP: Oh, in Missouri. What did he have to say to people who expressed such deep and widespread concerns about police behavior?
MARTIN: He seemed to be very moved by what he was hearing. I don't want to say shaken by it. But I do want to say he seemed very disturbed. As I mentioned, he's been teaching. So he was very professorial in some ways. I mean, he was kind of explaining police philosophy and their philosophy around handling certain situations. But I will tell you that one of the more powerful moments in an evening full of powerful moments came when he specifically criticized the way that Michael Brown's remains were handled. As you may remember, many people were very upset about the fact that 18-year-old Michael Brown's body laid in the street for quite some time after the shooting in view of many, many people including members of his family. I mean, people were very upset about that and felt it was disrespectful. And he very pointedly said that this was a mistake. It was a mistake from the standpoint of law enforcement. And he said, I believe, it was a mistake from just the standpoint of human relationships. I think that a lot of people in the audience were appreciative of someone in authority saying that it was wrong. And I will note that many people in the audience were very disappointed that the mayor, himself, did not make such a statement nor did he really seem to apologize for the hurt that was experienced by people who were specifically upset by this.
INSKEEP: Michel, you mentioned that this was all taking place in a church where the pastor is Willis Johnson, known to many of our listeners for a very moving interview that he gave. What did he have to say?
MARTIN: Well, he expressed the desire that people would start talking to each other as opposed to about each other. And I'll just play a clip of what he had to say. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF FERGUSON TOWN HALL MEETING)
PASTOR WILLIS JOHNSON: We need to dare to care. We need to defy convention. But most of all, we need to demonstrate some commitment. And just coming here tonight is not enough. Just going out in the streets for the last 12 or 13 days, going up and down, whether that was just holding your hands or throwing tear gas back or just yelling is not enough. We've got a long struggle ahead of us. We've got great work to do.
MARTIN: You know, obviously, this is not a representative group. Everybody who came to this conversation chose to be part of this community conversation. But I really sensed a desire on the part of those 200 people there to continue that dialogue. And I certainly hope that happens.
INSKEEP: Michel, thanks very much.
MARTIN: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Michel Martin. And if you want to hear more of this town hall meeting, it's being broadcast locally in St. Louis on St. Louis Public Radio. And they are also streaming it on the web at noon today. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.