Missouri legislator Jamilah Nasheed recently raised a question that shook the ground in places already upended by frustration. Hours after a New York City grand jury declined to indict the officer who used a chokehold in the death of Staten Island, N.Y. resident Eric Garner, Nasheed tweeted, “Has the KKK infiltrated the police department?” When the local media called for comment, she answered unapologetically about posing the question.
A few days into the protests following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the state senator from St. Louis’ fifth district walked into the middle of the street in Ferguson. She sat down. And she refused to move.
“I went to Ferguson to get arrested. I wanted to show protesters how to get arrested,” Nasheed said. “I want my involvement to convey that it is okay to be angry. It’s okay to be frustrated, and to let them know they can protest in a peaceful manner,” she adds.
Nasheed is known for standing firm. She is also not a novice in civil disobedience. In 2003, in the early days of her political career, Nasheed joined lawmakers, activists, and others to close a local highway, making the point that there were not enough African American contractors working on a state building project.
This time around, her concern surrounds the grand jury decisions not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson or New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo. Both ended the lives of unarmed black men while on duty. This time, her protest will reach the state legislature in Jefferson City, Missouri. Nasheed has written legislation to address police-involved shootings. She is particularly adamant about what she describes as the “broad power” Missouri law gives police officers to shoot fleeing suspects.
She says, “The way the Missouri statute is written right now it states, ‘Deadly force is immediately necessary if the officer reasonably believes the suspect has committed or attempted to commit a felony.’” That law allows the officer to shoot a fleeing suspect, and it supports Darren Wilson’s explanation for shooting Michael Brown. According to a 1985 Supreme Court ruling (Tennessee v. Garner), federal law prohibits an officer from shooting a fleeing suspect.
Federal law trumps state law, yet in a growing controversy, the grand jury in the Brown case initially received instruction that Wilson had the right to shoot Brown as he ran away from him. Days later, a clerk reversed herself in a sloppy attempt to explain the federal law. When a juror asked if federal law superseded state, the clerk simultaneously marginalized the request for clarification and confused the issue.
Nasheed filed Senate Bill 42 this week to “align the state statue with the federal law.” The bill also contains a provision to place an officer who shoots and kills a suspect within 20 feet on unpaid suspension until an investigation is completed. The Missouri Legislature convenes in January.
Critics of the decision are asking if the bungling of the use of force instruction to the members of the Ferguson grand jury was deliberate. Protesters who called for a special prosecutor in the Brown case point to the incident as further proof of their mistrust of Bob McCullough, the prosecuting attorney.
After Wilson shot and killed Brown in August, Nasheed recalls that she “immediately got on MoveOn.org and petitioned for a special prosecutor” to handle the case. She and many others questioned McCullough’s ability to be fair and impartial.
They cited McCullough’s backstory: an African American man shot and killed McCullough’s father, who was a police officer. And, as with most prosecutors, McCullough maintains a cozy relationship with law enforcement.
As Nasheed explains, “We have had the opportunity to see throughout the years the deep connections Bob McCullough has with the law enforcement officers throughout the county. You know, that shouldn’t be a problem. They should have a good relationship. However, when you have such a close relationship with law enforcement and prosecutors sometimes you find a gray area where the prosecutor can become very impartial.”
Nasheed is also at the forefront of another issue for her African American constituents. In St. Louis, the capital is the hub of the metropolitan area, with numerous municipalities, unincorporated areas, and villages making up St. Louis County. In some of those villages, police departments pad their budgets with revenue generated by traffic violations. Many times those stopped by the police are African Americans.
“[Those police departments] bring in revenue on the backs of poor, indigent young men and women,” says Nasheed. “They create checkpoints, and you can’t make a U-turn. You have to go through the checkpoint. A lot of times you have young men and women who are extremely indigent and they may be driving without insurance.”
She pauses to emphasize her exasperation and continues, “They may earn less than $8 an hour, and they can’t afford insurance, [and when they receive a summons], they wind up not going to court because they can’t afford the fine. The fines pile up. And before they know it, they are in jail with a $2,000 bond they cannot pay!”
Nasheed says she wants to “eliminate the villages and designate them as part of the unincorporated county. That way the county manages the fines, the courts, and you don’t have a lot of checkpoints throughout the county.”
From the streets to the statehouse, Nasheed is protesting. And like every good leader, she understands the value of both venues.