This article is part of New Economy Week, a collaboration between YES! Magazine and the New Economy Coalition that brings you the ideas and people helping build an inclusive economy—in their own words.
Last August, the St. Louis area became a hotbed for racial justice organizing when unarmed teenager Mike Brown was gunned down by police officer Darren Wilson. The killing sparked a renewed national debate about the role of police and a wide-reaching movement for black life.
Clearly, Ferguson has had an impact in the world.
When Ferguson erupted, longtime anti-corporate activists with Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) were first responders, supporting protestors—largely black Ferguson youth—with training and infrastructural support on the ground. Since then, MORE’s work has centered on channeling the frenetic energy of last summer into long-term community power, unveiling connections between the “St. Louis 1%” and the city’s deep-seated racial and economic inequality. To hear more about this work, I spoke with MORE Solidarity Economy Organizer Julia Ho about what’s happened in St. Louis this last year, the relationship between direct action and institution-building, and what that all has to do with the St. Louis Rams.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Kate Aronoff: More than a year out from Mike Brown’s murder, what kind of organizing is happening in Ferguson and St. Louis?
Julia Ho: The most significant and obvious point is that this has become a national and international movement. Clearly, Ferguson has had an impact in the world. Locally, people are finding different ways to work, and there’s certainly still action happening here. But in terms of concrete changes in people’s lives, we’re not there yet at all. People are still being murdered here by police. These types of things continue to be the daily reality, as does intense segregation. People are still living in very difficult and oppressive conditions.
A year and a half out, we’re starting to think about what it takes to get more transformative changes. What a lot of people are realizing is that this is lifelong work, given the amount of disruption and vision needed to actually change the structures embedded here.
Aronoff: In the last year, leaders in the movement for black lives have pursued a range of different strategies. Campaign Zero has narrowed in on police brutality and accountability with its slate of policy proposals , while the #BlackLivesMatter network has expanded to include 26 chapters working on a number of different campaigns around the country. In St. Louis, why focus on targeting corporate power and building up local solidarity economies?
Ho: It’s important to note that all of those things—people working on policy, on moving politicians, on agitation—are vital parts of the movement. Thinking about things in an isolated way is not going to get us anywhere we need to be.
Thinking about things in an isolated way is not going to get us anywhere we need to be.
For our part, we see the St. Louis 1%—the Power Behind the Police—as a common target for many struggles. Corporations, like Peabody Energy, pollute our environment, displace people, and steal tax money from the city. They’re forcing Navajo and Diné people off their land, and refusing pensions to mine workers. By putting a microscope onto these entities, we’re able to uncover really disturbing connections among the power elite.
There are two particularly interesting connections we’re focused on right now. One is the rental car company Enterprise, which is headquartered in St. Louis. The Taylor family, who own the company, is one of the city’s most well-known philanthropic families. They donate millions of dollars to cultural and civic institutions. What a lot of people don’t know is that one of Enterprises’s subsidiaries, the Keefe Group, provides commissary services to over 800 public and private prisons across the country. Every time someone in a St. Louis city jail makes a call to a loved one or purchases toothpaste at the commissary, that benefits Enterprise and the Taylor family.
We’re also focusing on groups like Ameren, the utility provider here which has a monopoly in St. Louis. By burning Peabody’s coal they poison and exploit low income communities. Simultaneously, their executives sit on the board of the St. Louis Police Foundation, and funnel private dollars into the police department.
MORE is thinking about how to leverage our knowledge of these relationships strategically.
Aronoff: Could you talk a bit more just about what the solidarity economy work you do, and how that fits into the big picture of MORE?
Ho: All of MORE’s solidarity economy work started about two years ago, prior to the national spotlight on Ferguson. The original intention was to ask, “How do we build an economy that meets the needs of everybody in St. Louis? How do we create alternatives to capitalism that can ultimately be scaled and resourced?”
Every time someone in a St. Louis city jail makes a call … that benefits Enterprise.
We thought of the solidarity economy as a way to create the world we want to live in, and it went hand in hand with the work we have always done to disrupt capitalism through direct action. So as we’re disrupting these systems, we talk with people about what the world they’re trying to create looks like. We find community partners who are already doing that work, and support it by networking them to each other.
Ultimately, we want to have political and economic power capable of shifting significant resources in St. Louis towards economic models that help people have their everyday needs met. We want a solidarity economy to be something that really meets basic needs around jobs, education, housing, and food, not just something on fringe that people think about.
Aronoff: Often there’s an opposition set up between work striving to shut down ‘business as usual’ and work to build up alternatives. What connections do you see when a movement builds up an economy and society where people want to— and actually can—live?
Ho: “Tiring” doesn’t even begin to cover a mindset that’s constantly focused on crisis and shutting things down. It’s very overwhelming, and it’s easy for people to burn out. I see solidarity economy work as a way to make the movement sustainable, and make sure that people are taking care of themselves, of each other, and of their communities.
Aronoff: How does this translate into campaigns on the ground?
Ho: One focus of ours, for example, is resisting the potential development of a new football stadium for the St. Louis Rams, which is projected to cost $1 billion. A year and a half after the St. Louis-area becoming internationally known for racism, it’s ridiculous for the city to justify spending $1 billion on a stadium and continue to deprive residents of basic human rights.
If the city were to really take the last year into account, it would think differently about where resources are being spent instead of trying to build a stadium that would only generate profits for the NFL, the football team owners, and maybe the city—but certainly not most people.
Making matters worse, the city is denying St. Louis residents the right to a public vote before financing the new stadium. This is a clear violation of democracy. It’s an outrage to people who have been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, and a clear devaluation of black lives in St. Louis.
What would you do with a billion dollars to spend on justice?
But it’s also an opportunity to talk about how resources are allocated, and make it clear that tax dollars belong to the public. If it was everyone’s priority to increase justice in St. Louis, those tax dollars would be spent very differently. There’s an opportunity for deep conversations with our members and people who’ve recently become involved with the movement. They’re asking “If you could allocate this money, how would you spend it?”
People overwhelmingly say they would do things like improve the public school district, expand public transportation, provide free housing for everyone, and create a job guarantee. All of these visionary demands become pretty simple when you ask, “What would you do with a billion dollars to spend on justice?”
Kate Aronoff is a Brooklyn-based writer covering climate and American politics. She is a fellow at the Type Media Center and a contributing writer for The Intercept.