Protestors interrupted a speech by St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch at Saint Louis University Law School Friday morning with songs, chants and a mock trial. But overall, SLU Law Dean Mike Wolff said he thought things went well and it was a good start to a much-needed discussion.
McCulloch gave the opening presentation at SLU Public Law Review’s annual symposium, which this year focused on policing post-Ferguson. He spoke in-depth about the grand jury process and the aftermath in Ferguson.
Protests began just a few minutes into his speech, with a woman in a black robe standing up and declaring “court is now in session.”
“I now, hereby call to order the case of the people of the state of Missouri vs. Robert Paxton McCulloch,” the woman said.
A mini-mock trial ensued, which involved several other people in the crowd, with the mock defense attorney saying McCulloch was “indefensible.”
“His complicity in these cases has prevented the rendering of…justice. His actions have impacted victims, their families and entire communities, particularly black communities throughout Missouri. They have set a precedent for militant policing in this region,” the woman said.
“His complicity in these cases has prevented the rendering of…justice. His actions have impacted victims, their families and entire communities, particularly black communities throughout Missouri. They have set a precedent for militant policing in this region.”
The mock “jury” found McCulloch guilty and “sentenced” him to removal from his public post, disbarment from the Missouri Bar and requested an apology to the family of Michael Brown and the people of St. Louis. The decision was met with some applause.
McCulloch continued to speak throughout the protest, and went on with his discussion of the grand jury process once the protestors were seated. Protests erupted again, with one man speaking out about black men killed by St. Louis area police and saying McCulloch denied those men justice. Other protestors later joined in with a song that asked “Which side are you on friends?” and continued with “justice for Mike Brown is justice for us all.”
Several speakers reminded protestors that there would be time for questions later and that they needed to respect the speaker. Someone in the audience screamed for someone to “do something about it” and another shouted for protestors to be removed, and security escorted the group out.
Another group, however, started a protest a few minutes later, with another song, and security removed the remaining protestors, who shouted “black lives matter” as they left the room.
In an interview after McCulloch’s speech, Wolff said he did not recognize the protestors as SLU Law students, although he said he could not see them all from where he was sitting. A professor who asked a question during the Q&A with McCulloch, which followed his speech, said she recognized at least one of the protestors as a student.
Wolff said overall, he was satisfied with “the expressions and the manner in which they were handled.”
“I think that we showed respect to the people who were wanting to interrupt. And I think we ultimately showed respect to the speaker…and the other guests,” he said.
Wolff said he wasn’t surprised by protests because it’s a “raw and touchy subject” with a lot of high feelings, but one that needs to be addressed “in a thoughtful way in an academic setting regardless of how raw feelings might be.”
“We’ve got a lot of things to fix in our system…that go beyond policing,” he said. “Problems with economic justice, social justice, race relations in the area. A lot of things people don’t want to talk about, but we should because we’re really, I think, trying to bring our community together.”
McCulloch’s speech focused chiefly on explaining the grand jury process. He focused on discrediting misinformation, like that his job in the case was to get an indictment.
“Anybody who tells you that is absolutely wrong,” he said. “My job and the job of any other prosecutor is to see that justice is done.”
Most cases that go to the grand jury do result in indictment, he said, but the difference is that most cases have been reviewed by his office before going before the grand jury, and many don’t make it to the grand jury process.
McCulloch also discussed the future, post-Ferguson. He stressed a need to address fragmentation in the St. Louis area.
“Just common sense ought to tell us something….If you have [within] one school district, 20 plus municipalities, 20 plus municipal courts and probably 17 or 18 police departments, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out…that’s probably not an efficient use of what we have,” he said.
He also said the biggest issue now is “making sure nothing crazy…happens in Jefferson City,” referring to some of the Ferguson-related bills, particularly the one that looks to abolish the grand jury process.
After his speech, McCulloch answered questions from the audience. Some apologized for the protestors, including one professor who then proceeded to ask critical questions about how the questioning of Officer Darren Wilson was handled. Some asked what McCulloch would do differently in the situation, knowing what he does now, and others questioned the timing of the announcement.
Wolff said he thought it was a productive conversation, but needs to be a longer conversation.
“There were a lot of things we barely touched on. There were many questions people had that they didn’t get to,” he said. “It’s a start of a discussion. This isn’t the whole discussion.”
Wolff said he didn’t know if there would be any follow-up discussion with McCulloch. He said it was late in this semester, but there is always “the next year and the next year.”
“This is not something that is going to go away,” he said.