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Besieged Black female prosecutors refuse to fold under racial attacks

By J.A. Salaam -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Jan 22, 2020 - 11:45:53 AM

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St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner (middle) flanked by other Black female prosecutors including, L-r: Rachael Rollins, Suffolk County, Mass.; Aramis Ayala, Orlando, Fla.; Stephanie Morales, Portsmouth, Va.; Marilyn Mosby, Baltimore, Md.; Diana Becton, Contra Costa County, Calif. and Aisha Braveboy, Prince George’s County, Md.

ST. LOUIS—“You’re not alone!” said six fearless Black women prosecutors from across the United States. They came to support St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim M. Gardner and highlight the major challenges and difficulties Black female prosecutors across the country often face when they push to enact criminal justice reform and progressive changes.

The women spoke in St. Louis at a Jan. 14 rally on the steps of the Carnahan Courthouse with other supporters of Atty. Gardner.

Taking office in 2017, Atty. Gardner was elected as a “progressive” with a platform that included holding police accountable and reducing incarceration rates. Her term has been rocky as her agenda often clashed with the city’s political and law enforcement establishment.

Her supporters contend Atty. Gardner has been hampered by courts, cops and those who are upset at her efforts to institute reforms that would benefit Black and Brown communities that have been disproportionately affected and targeted by the criminal justice system in St. Louis. Atty. Gardner is the city’s first Black circuit attorney.

She recently filed a federal lawsuit against the city of St. Louis; the St. Louis Police Officers Association and its longtime business manager Jeff Roorda; a former police officer named Charles Lane who sued Atty. Gardner’s office; and Gerard Carmody and his children, who are private attorneys appointed as special prosecutors to investigate her office’s handling of the investigation of former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, noted The lawsuit alleges there is a conspiracy to remove her from office for trying to institute reforms in the city and other aspects of the job she was elected to do.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby speaks at press conference with Suffolk County, Mass. District Attorney Rachael Rollins and Osceola County Fla. State’s Attorney Aramis Alaya and other supporters of St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner who recently filed a federal lawsuit against the City of St. Louis; St. Louis Police Officers Association and other parties alleging they are conspiring to remover her from office.

“Gardner was elected in 2016 on a promise to redress the scourge of historical inequality and rebuild trust in the criminal justice system among communities of color. Unfortunately, entrenched interests in St. Louis, including Defendants, have mobilized to thwart these efforts through a broad campaign of collusive conduct, including the unprecedented appointment of an ethically conflicted Special Prosecutor to investigate the activities of Gardner’s office and a patently overbroad and unconstitutional ransacking of the office’s electronic files,” the suit says in part. A spokesperson for St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson called the lawsuit “meritless” in a statement.

Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby led the press conference at the rally in support of Atty. Gardner. “What we can attest to is that keepers of the status quo that brought us mass incarceration, the over criminalization of Black and Brown people, tough sentences, no redemption and no second chances won’t give up their power quietly,” said Atty. Mosby.

In addition to Atty. Mosby other Black women prosecutors who traveled to St. Louis to support Atty. Gardner included Diana Becton, Contra Costa County, Calif.; Aisha Braveboy, Prince George’s County, Maryland; Stephanie Morales, Portsmouth, Virginia; Aramis Ayala, Orlando, Fla., and Rachael Rollins from Suffolk County, Mass.

The women participated in a panel discussion later that day at Harris- Stowe State University describing the trials and opposition they often face as “reform minded” Black women prosecutors. The Criminal Justice Reform Forum was sponsored by Mothers Against Police Brutality.

The lawsuit filed by Atty. Gardner “is an action to redress violations of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 also called ‘The Civil Rights Act’ and the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.” This KKK Act is a United States federal law that prohibits ethnic violence which is politically expressed and motivated by hatred against Blacks. There are several allegations in the 33-page court document including a breakdown of “the history of invidious racial animus within the city, its police division, and the St. Louis Police Officers Association.”

Allegations leveled in the lawsuit include:

• The police association has gone out of its way to support White officers accused of perpetrating acts of violence and excessive force against African American citizens.

• Defendants’ resistance to Atty. Gardner’s attempts to improve fairness in the St. Louis criminal justice system.

• Defendants’ attempts to intimidate, silence, and sideline Atty. Gardner to prevent her from carrying out her duty to provide equal protection of the law to all.

• Defendants’ unconstitutional search and seizure of the Circuit Attorney’s investigative files and cooptation of the grand jury process.

Jamila Hodge is director of the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based nonprofit that works with prosecutors, and specifically those who specialize in criminal justice reform. “We’ve been working with Kim here in St. Louis for the last two years providing data analysis, technical assistance, training, and helping with policy change that will help her to implement her reform platform,” she said.

“So many people don’t know that Black women who are prosecutors are receiving death threats, have been called the ‘N-word’ and have been sued in their personal capacity. There have also been recent prosecutors elected since 2015 that have been attacked. We see White men; we see White women and they are not attacked in the way these Black women are attacked,” said Ms. Hodge.

According to the lawsuit, since being elected Atty. Gardner has taken a number of steps to improve fairness in the St. Louis criminal justice system and has worked to increase trust in the system among communities of color. Among other reforms, she created and deployed the most prosecutor-led diversion programs of any office in the state. She also established a pilot program with the St. Louis’ Public School System to break the school-to-prison pipeline.

Longtime St. Louis activist Anthony Shahid (left) is among many residents backing Atty. Gardner.

One of the centerpieces of Atty. Gardner’s bold plan to achieve racial justice and equality in St. Louis was to institute a protocol for independent investigations of officer-involved shootings.

This protocol was due in part from cases where officers are reluctant to testify against fellow officers or even provide investigators with any evidence, leading to what is known as “the blue wall of silence.”

The work of these Black women and the support they have shown Atty. Gardner was much needed, said Anthony Shahid. After Attorney Gardner took office her agenda for the city was met with backlash tied to the White power structure, said the longtime St. Louis activist.

“The mere fact they think that they don’t need to be reformed is a problem and the mere fact that they think that the police is not doing anything wrong is a problem. The minute my sister started checking them out and started looking at things, and started listening to the people who were saying they were having a problem, it became a problem to the White power structure,” he told The Final Call.

“Each one of those individual sisters, they had these people doggin’ them in their individual city but Allah blessed them to do what the Honorable Elijah Muhammad said, ‘pull your resources together’ and that’s where your strength is at,” he said. According to Heather Taylor, president of the Ethical Society of Police Officers, “Anyone denying Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner’s allegation of racism in SLMPD has chosen to disregard the voice of the Ethical Society of Police Officers, park rangers, deputy marshals, and civilians who have repeatedly exposed racism and corruption in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD).”

The Ethical Society of Police, a Black police group in St. Louis, said while it could not verify all aspects of Atty. Gardner’s lawsuit, it agreed “that there is an environment of racism in SLMPD that has failed to adequately remove racism in our ranks.”

“Whether officers agree with none or some of the policies of the circuit attorney, some of the antics of the St. Louis Police Officers Association’s toward the circuit attorney are vile and steeped in a racially biased agenda that is often spearheaded by their business manager, Jeffrey Roorda,” added Ms. Taylor.

In a pre-written statement Mr. Roorda refuted Atty. Gardner’s claim that he and other critics have conspired to prevent her from doing her job as prosecutor. He contends, “That nothing could be further from the truth.”

“My police officers and I want her to do her job. We want her to stand up for innocent victims, put dangerous criminals behind bars and respect the rule of law. She has not done her job and this lawsuit demonstrates that she has no intentions of doing the important work of defending the most vulnerable citizens in America’s deadliest city,” he argued.

Atty. Gardner’s supporters remain steadfast. Many of them contend that at the heart of the most challenging difficulty Atty. Gardner is experiencing is largely due to her prosecution of former Gov. Greitens, who resigned his office. In February 2018, Atty. Gardner charged the former governor with felony evasion of privacy relating to alleged action associated with an extramarital affair before becoming governor. After the release of a 24-page report from a Missouri legislative committee, dozens of legislators and other elected officials both Republican and Democrat reiterated calls for Gov. Greitens to step down. Atty. Gardner hired a special investigator, former FBI agent of 23 years William Tisaby who was later charged with seven felony counts including multiple perjury charges. His alleged conduct during the investigation was a factor in prosecutors dropping the felony invasion of privacy charge against the governor.

On Jan. 15 the Ethical Society of Police held a press conference declaring their support for Atty. Gardner and Ms. Taylor and Atty. Mosby revealed she had received a voicemail allegedly from a White female calling prosecutors “Black b--ches,” the N-word and other racial slurs.

“Kim Gardner has done a spectacular job as chief prosecutor of St. Louis. Her fearless faithfulness to law, and due process has been her foundation since elected. She does not litigate by personal political motives but on the basis of law no matter what status of a citizen,” said Spencer Lamar Booker, pastor of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“The nation is watching, the prosecuting attorneys across this country are watching and the citizens of St. Louis are watching. Most of all, God Almighty is watching!” he added.

During the community gathering and panel discussion, the six visiting U.S. prosecutors answered questions and talked about their personal experiences as Black women. Later, Atty. Gardner entered the standing roomonly crowd where she reiterated the “unthinkable challenges” she and other Black female prosecutors who focus on criminal justice reform face. She affirmed that her experiences in St. Louis vary little from similar experiences of other Black female prosecutors around the county who attempt to make bold changes.

Atty. Gardner believes these changes may better the lives of Black and Brown people in particular, and people in general.

“No longer are we going to sit here and have the powerful few get together and choose to take out the peoples’ voice. This is not about Kim Gardner. This is about the people who elected us to do our job. I want to make sure that a person that acts like Kim Gardner can exist after Kim Gardner,” she said.

(Tariqah Shakir-Muhammad and Final Call staff contributed to this report.)