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Missouri Senators ponder meaning of Wednesday's protest

January 11, 2015 at 5:01 a.m. | Updated January 11, 2015 at 5:01 a.m.

Thursday morning, before Missouri lawmakers went home for the weekend, state senators discussed Wednesday afternoon's protest that disrupted the chamber's opening day ceremonies, and caused the Visitor's Gallery to be cleared.

"What I got from it ... was that there are a lot of people who feel oppressed - and I get that message," Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, said Thursday morning. "I want to tell those people that I believe that every senator in this chamber wants to help them - we don't want people to feel oppressed.

"But I came away from there not knowing exactly what they want."

He asked what public policy changes the protesters want lawmakers to make.

"They haven't come to us and asked us to do anything," Schaaf said. "But I don't know what it's about."

He urged protesters to visit with lawmakers and explain their concerns.

The protesters came to Jefferson City for the Legislature's first day of the 2015 session, to make a point that Missouri laws need to be changed following teenager Michael Brown's death in Ferguson on Aug. 9.

Part of their complaint involves police officer Darren Wilson's split-second decision to shoot Brown, causing the fatal wounds.

Another part revolves around the grand jury process, and the St. Louis County grand jury's decision not to indict Wilson for what state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, called Brown's "murder."

And part of the issue focuses on continuing feelings of racial discrimination - and, particularly among African Americans - that young men of color are discriminated against in traffic stops and just walking down the street.

They note the confrontation with Brown began when Wilson told him and another teen to stop walking down the middle of a street and get on the sidewalk.

In his comments Thursday to the Senate, Schaaf told the protesters who came Wednesday: "Before you come and disrupt our proceedings, again - come and participate in the process. Tell us what you want and let us have an opportunity to consider it."

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, and Chappelle-Nadal, both spent much of the fall meeting working and walking with demonstrators in Ferguson.

Nasheed noted she's spoken "with many of the protesters since Aug. 9 - and I can tell you exactly what they want. They want a special prosecutor (to investigate Brown's killing), because they feel like having a prosecutor within a municipality where you have a police-involved killing, there won't be any impartiality."

Both Nasheed and Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, have introduced bills that would require the Highway Patrol to investigate those shootings, and the attorney general as a special prosecutor to consider charges.

Nasheed said Ferguson protesters also want the legal definition of "deadly force" to be "tightened up," in the laws authorizing law officers to kill suspects in some situations, as Wilson shot Brown.

"It is not well-defined," she said.

Chappelle-Nadal represents Ferguson in the state Senate.

"There is a lot of anger and there is a lot of hurt going on right now," she told Schaaf, "and the injury has occurred again and again."

She noted many of the protesters "have felt oppressed, have been attacked (and) have been targeted."

Although many of Ferguson's residents are poor, Chappelle-Nadal said, "Poverty is not the reason why Michael Brown was killed.

"We have a systematic problem that exists in multiple institutions, including the one in which we serve. But the lack of education is the foundation of everything, on all sides."

Schaaf compared Wednesday's protest with last May's similar demonstration from supporters of Medicaid expansion, which Schaaf opposes.

"I knew what they wanted us to do (last spring), and we weren't doing that," Schaaf reminded the Senate. "And they had asked us to do that (Medicaid expansion), and they were expressing frustration that we weren't giving them what they wanted."

That may, ultimately, be the fate of changes the Ferguson protesters want, Schaaf acknowledged.

"If you will come to us and tell us what you want, we will consider it," Schaaf said. "We may not do exactly what you want but, at least, you will not be eliciting anger from us, which doesn't help the situation.

"It doesn't further your cause."

He also said: "If we fail to make any meaningful change that helps your lives, then come and protest - and we'll feel better about it."

Chappelle-Nadal said: "What we are talking about today is the welfare of our state - where every man, every woman has a chance to succeed."


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