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How A New President And The Pandemic Could Affect Social Justice Groups In Kansas City

Protesters in June express their anger at police during a May 30 protest at Mill Creek Park in Kansas City.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Protesters express their anger at police during a May 30 protest at Mill Creek Park in Kansas City.

Protest groups and social activists in Kansas City are facing a suite of challenges as public attention shifts away from issues of police and criminal justice reform, which mobilized so many during 2020.

As the political furor over the elections begins to die down and a Democrat starts the formal transition to the White House, you could be forgiven for thinking progressive activists are breathing easier.

"There are definitely going to be people that are going to feel relieved — they're going to feel like everything is fine now," says Angela Martellaro, of SURJ-KC, a group that organizes and educates white Kansas Citians about racial justice.

But the coming year promises to be a challenging one for groups looking to reform the way Kansas City approaches race, policing and criminal justice.

Already, protestors and groups using the slogan "Defund The Police" have been criticized for suppressing enthusiasm among more moderate voters, enflaming conservatives and costing the Democrats a "blue wave" at the polls.

Earlier this month, James Clyburn, a prominent Black Democrat from South Carolina and the House Majority Whip, made headlines by comparing the phrase to "Burn, Baby, Burn," an expression that gained popularity during the 1965 unrest in Watts, Los Angeles and precipitated a loss of public support.

"We lost that movement over that slogan," Clyburn told CNN's State of the Union. Politicians closer to home shared Clyburn's hesitation to embrace calls to defund the police.

When asked how those calls affected Democrats at the ballot box, Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver says, "Well, it clearly didn't help. All you have to do is watch the ads that we saw here in the Midwest, where there were no candidates anywhere around us who had called for the defunding of the police."

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and the Democratic candidate for Missouri governor, Nicole Galloway, also went on the defensive in July when Missouri Republicans released a statement saying Galloway wanted to defund the police because she supports local control of the Kansas City Police Department.

"What I do know is that it has been a bogeyman that Republicans were not hesitant to bring out," says Cleaver.

Congressman Emanuel Cleaver addresses a crowd on the Plaza on Sunday afternoon.
Carlos Moreno
Congressman Emanuel Cleaver addresses a crowd on the Plaza at a protest in May.

For his part, activist Ryan Sorrell says Democrats like Cleaver need to be more resilient against these kinds of attacks.

Sorrell is a co-founder of the the Kansas City activist group Black Rainbow, which has organized protests, community cleanups and grocery buyouts.

He credits progressives for bringing the most energy to the Democratic campaigns at the national and local levels and for expanding voter registration.

"'Defund the Police' is a rallying cry for the streets," he says, not a campaign slogan. "So when we're talking about reallocating funds away from the police department, it's not because I'm saying that every policeman is a horrible person, it's that I'm saying the police shouldn't also be trying to be mental health practitioners and clinicians."

In a blog post this summer, Kansas City police Chief Rick Smith touted his department's use of social workers and a crisis intervention team, dedicated to following up with Kansas Citians who came to the attention of law enforcement because of a mental illness.

"When so many people were out of work during the COVID-19 shut-down, our social workers partnered with community resources to ensure some of the most vulnerable people in our community had food," he wrote.

In another instance, Smith continued, "The social workers were able to mostly resolve an issue we had spent nearly a decade unsuccessfully trying to enforce our way out of."

The line of distinction between "Defund the Police" as a political platform or polemic may not matter much for the elected officials who have to walk it.

"I think some things need to be done with police," says Cleaver. "Defunding them in the pure sense of the word is not anything I'm remotely interested in doing."

Pandemic rearranges priorities

COVID-19 and the ongoing pandemic are also posing unique challenges for organizers and social activists in Kansas City. Those hoping national or local politicians will have a renewed interest in police reform or social justice issues will likely have to be patient.

From now until President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20, protecting people from the virus will take priority, says Cleaver.

"And then in February the big issue is going to be COVID. And at the end of February, the big issue is going to be COVID," he says. "Everything is going to have to take a back seat, because it doesn't matter if you have great police reform if you're dead."

The sheer number of people in quarantine or sheltering in place at home has also had an impact. SURJ-KC's Martellaro says that, while there was intense online interest in the cause this summer, Zoom fatigue may be setting in.

"The real loss that we have of not being able to gather in person is it's very hard to onboard new people," says Martellaro. Her group takes great care integrating new members into the organization and doing that in a digital-only context takes longer and has more risks.

Kansas City Chief of Police Rick Smith addresses reporters during an update on Operation LeGend in September.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Chief of Police Rick Smith addresses reporters during an update on Operation LeGend in September. Activist and civic groups in Kansas City have been calling for his resignation for months.

One more concern for activists like Martellaro to clear up is the limited public attention span.

"What we have seen is that public interest ebbs and flows in time with high-profile police shootings," she says. "That is like a very sad and difficult fact but, when it's not making headlines, people kind of go back to their routines."

Martellaro says it's moments like those when her work is most critical — when she can make it clear for people that racial injustice and police brutality happen all the time, whether you hear about it or not.

"For every George Floyd, like how many dozens or hundreds of others were not in the national news," she says. "We've been really trying this year to raise more awareness about local victims of police brutality, like Ryan Stokes, Cameron Lamb, Terrence Bridges."

Home is also where Black Rainbow's Ryan Sorrell wants to focus.

Regardless of who is sitting in the White House, Kansas City has deep and systemic problems, he says — racist police, homelessness, underfunded schools and a lack of mental health resources among them.

But he's encouraged by relationships built with city council members he met at the "People's City" encampment that occupied part of the lawn at Kansas City Hall this fall.

"We know that we have to continue to educate the people, and that a lot of the politicians in the city are still gonna remain exactly where they are," Sorrell says.

Corrected: November 3, 2022 at 12:32 PM CDT
This story originally misspelled the name of Terrence Bridges.
As culture editor, I oversee KCUR’s coverage of race, culture, the arts, food and sports. I work with reporters to make sure our stories reflect the fullest view of the place we call home, so listeners and readers feel primed to explore the places, projects and people who make up a vibrant Kansas City. Email me at luke@kcur.org.
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