–from the St. Louis Riverfront Times
Any protest that gets local Republican, moderate, well-reasoned activist Jim Buford to join ranks with nationwide, left-of-center and anything-but-moderate activist Al Sharpton has something strange and powerful going for it. And then the protest on July 13, 1999, actually blocked Interstate 70 in both directions as promised — well, that’s one hell of a protest. The cause was just, participation was significant and there was an actual beneficial result. The flashpoint was the lack of minority contractors and construction workers on the repair of I-70 through North St. Louis. Led by local attorney Eric Vickers, the blockade of early-morning Monday rush-hour traffic was intended to force Gov. Mel Carnahan’s hand, making the state increase minority participation in such public works.
The goal was more training of minority youth for construction-trade jobs and more contracts to minority contractors. So far, the state seems to be headed in that direction, with the opening of the Construction Readiness Training Center in Wellston. That center is temporary, with a permanent one planned for North St. Louis. The only vaguely negative fallout from the I-70 protest was that it heightened expectations and ambitions for ensuing demonstrations, expectations and ambitions that were not met. More jobs in projects funded by tax dollars is one issue, but when two men were killed by police on a Jack in the Box parking lot in Berkeley when only one of them was a drug suspect, the idea of blocking the highway didn’t draw as much interest. A threatened blockage of Interstate 64 (a.k.a. Highway 40) was canceled in part because nowhere near the 300 who blocked I-70 would have shown up for the Highway 40 protest. Draw what conclusions you want from that, but it doesn’t diminish the effectiveness of the I-70 shutdown. At least the young African-Americans who will be taught the construction trades will come out ahead on the deal, thanks to Vickers, Buford, Sharpton, and everyone else who sat down on the interstate to force those politicians to give in and do the right thing.
Now, in my own words just a brief summary of this event before and after–
July 13th, 1999…
A very significant day in my life.
It was the first time I was arrested. At the time, I was a case manager for the Children’s Division under the Department of Social Services in the State of Missouri. I took off work that day along with my close friend, Kevin. We, at the time, were a part of a local activist group for workers’ rights. We also aligned ourselves with Better Family and Life, which consequently, several of their members, including their founder, were a part of the protest. What caused this civil disobedience?
You see, black and brown folks were being excluded from the local unions, which caused them not to work on big projects that involved road construction. This action enraged everyone, and some conservative folks were pissed (not many of them but some). For the first time in a while, local black organizations joined together to protest. Before that could happen, they attempted to speak with the mayor.
That didn’t work.
Then they asked their aldermen/women to talk to the mayor concerning our grievances.
Some tried, and that still didn’t work.
Then they spoke to the local state reps to address the concerns to the governor at the time.
That absolutely didn’t work.
The meetings to address the people came, and everyone agreed. “SHUT THIS SHIT DOWN!”
In the beginning, weeks before July 13th, a few others disrupted a construction site near highway 70 and were promptly arrested. Then the planning began to shut down the highway in its entirely.
Kevin and I were all for it. We attended anti-police corruption and anti-war protests for a few years and spoke out on local small radio stations in St. Louis. We also, along with our other friends Mario and Joel, came up with a small publication called “Po Theory” and wrote articles about racism in the current environment of the city. You see, my father was involved in the Civil Rights protests in the 60s when he attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Kevin’s father was involved in civil rights when he went to San Diego State University.
We were bought up in civil disobedience and learned much from outspoken people in the past, such as:
- Malcolm X
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
- Bayard Rustin
- W.E.B Du Bois
- Fannie Lou Hamer
- Stokely Carmichael
- Huey P. Newton
- Angela Davis
…along with many, many others.
As I mentioned before, it was in our blood. It also helped my big brother teach me a lot about the struggle and African/African American history beyond the confines of slavery.
The day was surreal.
It was early in the morning when we gathered up, and all the leaders informed us about what would happen, including potentially being arrested. They gave us the option of not getting involved but no one left.
It was effectually, “Go Time.”
Before it went underway, I had the privilege of meeting past activist Dick Gregory, who was born and raised in St. Louis. We shook his hand and spoke briefly. We started marching to the highway, then suddenly, three cars on both sides of the high sped up and positioned themselves to block oncoming traffic. All the vehicles stopped, and I was pleasantly surprised that no accidents occurred. That was our chance, and we descended onto the highway and protested there, which lasted hours. But in reality, it was just a little over 30 minutes. Everyone was cheering, and we saw the media driving up on the side roads as they entered the highway speaking with protesters and the leaders.
Then the police came with the police buses, and we were taken off to jail (well, the halfway house located off of N. Broadway in northside St. Louis).
I wished things could have happened, like continuing the protests and asking for more workers’ rights, but a small victory was won. The unions did build schools and open them up to black and brown people.
A few years later, I saw more black and brown men and women working in the city and were included in the local unions. I am glad something good came out of this and getting arrested, pleading guilty, and performing community service was well worth it.
This also shows that you have to fight if you want to correct a wrong. Systemic racism will never crave if you are just a casual observer and not becoming physically involved. Of course, there are other methods to achieve such goals, and true empowerment is controlling your resources to become economically independent from corporate overloads, but that is for another day. That is for someone who is well versed in such matters. For me, I am a grassroots guy—the same who family and friends taught to study and honor those who came before me. Those who weren’t famous put their lives on the line nevertheless. I celebrate such people.
My new fight is for all to have universal healthcare! That is a right and not a privilege, just the same for worker’s rights for black and brown folks in every city and town.
-K. G. Bethlehem