Rebel with a cause – a young Ferguson commissioner

I met Rasheen Aldridge at an overcrowded Starbucks in the central west end of St. Louis, an area now infamous after a recent tense moment between Ferguson demonstrators and motorists weeks ago. As he walked up wearing a grey winter coat, and a ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ t-shirt, one would never guess that this unassuming young black man is making waves in the sea of Missouri politics as the youngest member of the Ferguson Commission. He also serves as co-chair of Missouri Jobs with Justice.

The commission is an independent group created by Gov. Nixon to study and generate recommendations that can diffuse tensions resulting from the recent police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

Earlier that day over the phone he let me know about the first time he heard the call to activism following the 2008 election of Obama as president of the U.S. This motivated him, he said, to join Show Me 15, the local fast food workers campaign, while working at Jimmy John’s sandwich shop and attending community college. His commitment to winning a living wage and union recognition for all fast food workers led him to quickly become a household name among activists and young workers.

As we sat down outside the Starbucks, doing our best to keep warm, I couldn’t help but throw out the most obvious question.

Neal: As the youngest member of the commission, do you feel that your voice and ideas will be taken into real consideration by your older colleagues?

Aldridge: I think having a young person who has been out in Ferguson, who has been active in this movement, and who has been working on building relationships with other coalitions is good for the commission. Deeper than that, when the whole selection came together and Nixon decided he wanted a young person; [laughing] I’m not sure how his team went about it –  and don’t get it twisted, I’m grateful about this opportunity –  I’m just curious as to why it was me. But, it’s always difficult being young and a minority of anything. Because you always end up asking yourself, “will my voice really be heard?”

What I would say is that I need to step up more than ever to really get my voice heard. The other folks on the commission do want to hear what I have to say and I just really need to be assertive and not let their time around the city and city politics prevent me from speaking out. I can’t let that situation happen. If I do that would be a failure on my part and a failure to be a voice for the youth out there.

Neal: This last commission meeting it seemed that many residents expressed their frustrations through visible anger. Do you feel that their voices are being heard at these open meetings?

Aldridge: You have to understand that the anger is really based on two things. First that the commission was set up by Governor Nixon. There is a long list of reasons why people feel that he is not on the right side of history and I am one of them. I respect him as our Governor but his decisions have been unbelievable throughout this whole ordeal. We are an independent body that has nothing to do with him (Gov. Nixon) and I know that I would not want to align my decisions with the Governor currently.

Second is racism, the issue that no one wants to talk about. When Michael Brown was murdered it was the youth who said that they would not let it go on. There is a lack of trust in the system, not just the police but the system itself. Someone is gunned down, the police pick up the body, people are angry, and then there is no justice for the community. Justice is never served. The disruption and anger that is there (at these meetings) is normal and needed. The commission is the place for that to happen. It’s a place where everyone can come into a room and have their voices heard.

Everything truly needs to be on record. Sam Dotson (St. Louis City Police Chief), who was at this last meeting, which a lot of folks weren’t happy about, needs to be there on record to be held accountable just like we (the commission) need to be held accountable. The people need the truth. If we say we are going to do something than people need to know that they can call us out. The community hopefully over time will see that this commission, including myself do want change.

Neal: What happened with Chief Dotson?

Aldridge: He was there because the main point of that meeting was to discuss community improvement, police, and how to ensure trust is rebuilt between residents and police departments. When he got to speaking, it was more of a planned talk about how great the department was and that not every cop is a bad cop instead of talking about how we are going to come together, what they are going to change and what the community can do. The talks are done, we need to hear both sides of the story and the youth started to speak out and then he started to get snarky and very dismissive of their concerns . . . His comments and rude behavior was not what the community needed right then.

We took a quick break in our conversation and made our way to a less crowded café. As our luck would have it the wind began to pick up and teeth began the usual winter chatter.

Neal: Ok, now that we’re back, you mentioned earlier that a lot of people are angry with the commission and believe that it is just a distraction created by the Governor’s office. Were you ever worried about the potential backlash from the activist community when you accepted this position?

Aldridge: What’s been great about being out here and working with these folks in the streets for the past 123 days is that you really do get to build a real relationship. You tend to see them more than you see your family, they get to truly know you. I thought I was going to get some backlash because of who put this commission together; someone (Gov. Nixon) who has not been pro-protestor and has done nothing to try to ease the situation and lower the tensions between police and the community. Surprisingly, I got more flak from the older folks who have seen how truly messed up things are and see this as another thing the system is putting together to sweep it under the rug. We can’t let the tragedy in Ohio, Florida, and New York go. This again goes back to people not believing in the system. The support I have gotten from the younger activists has been great and I just hope I can be a voice for them inside the commission.

Neal: I’ve noticed that a lot of the young activists out in Ferguson have some close ties to the Fight for $15 movement and that you got your community organizing start with the Show Me $15 campaign. How does it make you feel now that the Fast Food movement has come out in full support of the fights in Ferguson, Ohio, and New York?

Aldridge: [Smiling proudly] I’m very happy that the fast food workers across the country didn’t just focus on their fight. At the end of the day all our fights are connected. You know here locally, they were the first ones in the labor movement to show support and solidarity with Ferguson. There is such a lack of good jobs in these communities that continue to bring people and families down. It’s a bad system overall and I salute all the fast food workers who took a stand for 15 and a union and for Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. The labor movement needs to look at them (fast food workers) and not be scared of change. Instead they should learn from the workers and help to fix communities where only low-wage jobs are available.

Almost as quickly as we had seated ourselves to re-start our conversation his phone began to ring and I knew that our talk would soon come to an end.

Neal: I know you have to get going but the last thing I would like to ask is, what do you think the commission will actually accomplish when it hands in the much-anticipated Ferguson report?

Aldridge: I really feel like this commission is not going to create all the change that people want in St. Louis. But, I do feel that the people on this commission, including myself, don’t care about just the report we have to make. We have the ability to really tackle these issues and make something happen. Come six months down the line you can ask me this again but for now I know where I stand and I am going to be speaking to the community, with my mentors, and learning how to make change happen and dedicating myself to doing everything I can to see that change become a reality. Starting with the police, going into the issues of economic disparity, and institutional racism in our country. I don’t want to just focus on one thing because all of this is tied together and we need to fix all of them instead of just putting a band-aid over one of them.

Aldridge headed out after that final question. He was off to another action planning meeting and apologized for not being able to stay any longer. For this young Ferguson Commissioner it seems that there is only one solution and come November 2015, when the Ferguson report is released, I look forward to sitting down with him again and asking that last question one more time.

Photo: Rasheen Aldridge organizing protesters in St. Louis.   |  Camille Phillips/St. Louis Public Radio


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.