It has been several weeks since that fateful day in August when Michael Brown was shot dead by Police Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Since that day, the world has been riveted by events in that city, by protests and discussions, by violence and charity, by every variety of response to an unthinkable tragedy.
The legacy of racism in the St. Louis region was evident in the early response of law enforcement and the use of military force on the subsequent peaceful protesters. This historic moment will inform dialogue for generations to come, but it is a painful reminder that simply passing civil rights legislation is not enough to overcome prejudice.
As the events in Ferguson unfolded, we at PROMO wrote a statement of support (PROMO Michael Brown statement of support) and asked our peer organizations at the state level around the country to sign on, because we know these situations and challenges are not unique to our region. We promoted ways for people to support the community of Ferguson through food drives, vigils, and public forums. We will continue to connect people to these forums and will seek out ways in which we can aid the conversation to dismantle the systemic racism we all see and experience.
However, we have been careful, perhaps too careful for some, in speaking beyond this statement. The reason is simple: In the last few years, the LGBT community has seen an almost-unbroken string of victories in equality, particularly marriage equality. In state after state, in court after court, marriage bans have been struck down, and polls in just about every demographic category show rapidly increasing tolerance, acceptance, and even celebration of LGBT persons in communities throughout the United States. If our reserve has been interpreted as lack of interest in and empathy for the people of Ferguson, nothing could be further from the truth. We have felt, though, that the last thing that was needed was to have PROMO act in a way that could be perceived as patronizing, as saying “We know how you feel because we feel it, too.” That is not true. What is true is that being marginalized, being told “You are not the Ideal, you are not welcome,” is always painful, even though the experience of that is unique to each of us.
I want to be clear in this. On issues of racism, PROMO always and forever stands as an ally in the effort to overcome discrimination and profiling, whether in a community, a region, or the state. But in this realm, on issues of race, PROMO does not speak with authority, and we believe that at critical times such as these. it is important that we can best engage by actively listening to the voices that do speak with authority. Those voices have been clear in their calls for an independent review of police-involved shootings and for the fiefdom of small-town municipal courts to be dismantled, and we support these actions to bring about systemic change.
Yet despite the immense strides that LGBT people have made in this country, PROMO still frequently needs to step up and speak with authority, as happened in September because of the actions of a Springfield, Missouri, defense attorney. Our deputy director, Stephanie Perkins, has worked with Capt. Andi Mooneyham of the Ozark Fire Protection District to seek domestic partner benefits for her wife through the district (OzarksFirst.com).
The Fire Board was prevented by state statute from extending those benefits, but local attorney Dee Wampler chose to take the cruel step of sending a letter (Dee Wampler letter) through his practice to Mooneyham and others stating that he supports the decision and is “tired of promo [sic”> attempting to cram homosexuality and lesbians down our throats.”
This issue in Springfield comes just weeks before the Springfield City Council is set to vote on extending basic protections, an effort that PROMO has been working on for nearly a decade. And while many of our opponents claim that this type of discrimination doesn’t happen in Springfield, they have Dee Wampler to thank for proving otherwise.
Some of the primary principles behind PROMO’s work for equality have held that we are in it for the long term and that we want to be as sure as possible of the facts when we do act. These principles are among the reasons why we have made bipartisan inroads into all branches of government and why I am confident that equality will continue to grow through legislation, executive action, and court decisions. We have seen and admired the many people who have come from other states, even other countries, to protest and work in Ferguson. At some point, though, many of them will go home. Ferguson citizens will continue to need support, and we at PROMO are committed to being part of the continuing journey to wholeness.
No human being deserves to die the way Michael Brown died. The common thread is that oppression in its many forms can never, ever be tolerated. PROMO will continue to be a voice calling for justice, whether from a place of authority or to echo that authoritative voice as a staunch ally. We remain committed to the principle of equality for all Missourians.
A.J. Bockelman is executive director of PROMO, Missouri’s statewide organization advocating for LGBT equality through legislative action, electoral politics, grassroots organizing, and community education.