(The Center Square) – The Legislative Black Caucus accused Missouri House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-St. Louis, and Majority Floor Leader Jonathan Patterson, R-Lees Summit, with racism on Thursday for stopping debate on a crime bill targeting St. Louis.
Rep. Kevin Windham, D-Hillsdale, began to read an article about the white supermajority in the Mississippi Legislature approving a separate court system in Jackson, a city with an 80% Black population. Republicans yelled for the Speaker to stop Windham’s remarks due to relevancy and Plocher allowed Windham to continue. Republicans yelled a second time and Plocher ended Windham’s time.
Minutes later, the House voted 109 to 35 to approve House Bill 301, which would allow Republican Gov. Mike Parson to appoint a special prosecutor in St. Louis and other areas with more than 35 homicides per 100,000 people. St. Louis has a population of approximately 300,000 and is averaging 214 homicides per year since 2019, according to statistics from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
“What we have going on in St. Louis city is completely unacceptable and we’re addressing that today,” Plocher said during a press conference on Thursday.
A statement issued by Democrat St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner said the bill was a “political gesture based on entirely unfounded premises. The notion that anything presented in the bill will improve our violent crime situation is ridiculous. It defies logic to think the creation of a duplicative department that’s totally devoid of the relationships, institutional knowledge, criminal justice partnerships, and experience required to prosecute these complex cases would do anything to curb crime.”
Plocher and Patterson said they ended debate due to the substance of Windham’s remarks. Democrats and the Black Caucus said three Black members representing districts in or bordering St. Louis were standing and waiting to speak when debate was stopped.
“I think I enumerated my displeasure with the fact that the discussion was not concerning the bill at hand,” Plocher said. “It concerned discussions involving legislation in Mississippi. I heard allegations of apartheid.”
Plocher praised Patterson for managing the floor and added the bill was debated for three hours on Wednesday.
“I felt today that the conversation was devolving and may have gotten worse,” Patterson said. “There were allegations being thrown out. When I sensed that things are going downhill and the discussions are not productive, I think it’s time to move on and that’s why I chose to end the debate.”
Afterward, Windham apologized to his party and caucus for his part in the incident. He said the Mississippi Legislature’s action was parallel to what was happening in Missouri.
Legislative Black Caucus chairwoman Marlene Terry, D-St. Louis, and the three Democrats awaiting their turn to speak – LaKeySha Bosley, Rasheen Aldridge and Raychel Proudie – all said the actions were racist.
“I was in tears because it is blatantly racist,” Bosley said. “What happened to Rep. Windham on the floor is blatantly racist. This bill, which started out to directly attack Kim Gardner, our circuit attorney, is blatantly racist. When they get up on the floor and say there’s a crime problem in the City of St. Louis and majority of the people that live there are African American, and yet you won’t let the Black representatives or even those who represent those Black folks to have a conversation… Yes, I am furious.”
Terry said she made calls to the NAACP and activists in St. Louis regarding the incident.
“It’s time to let the people in our communities know why and what’s going on,” said Terry, who choked back tears during a 30-minute press briefing. “Our hands have been tied. And so from now on, there’s no more peaceful. No more peaceful. It’s going to be actions. We’re going to let them know that we are here to be heard… We have the same rights and privileges that they have. And if we are denied that, it is absolutely racist.”
Plocher didn’t respond to a request for comment on the allegation of racism Thursday afternoon.