“If your dreams don’t scare you, you’re probably not aiming high enough.” There comes a time when events transpire that require us to step up and participate at a higher level. Wesley Bell grew up on the north side of Saint Louis County. He attended Haywood High School East, studied political science in college, graduated law school, served as a public defender, ran campaigns for others seeking office, and had a private practice. Six years ago he began teaching law and criminal studies at St. Louis Community College- Florissant Valley. He moved to Ferguson because he liked the community.
Then in 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teen, was shot by Officer Darren Wilson. Wilson was exonerated. Riots erupted. Ferguson became a national byword for police brutality or African-American overreaction, depending on where you land on the political spectrum.
“I was never interested in running for office, but the unrest and issues behind it related to my expertise. I had support and the qualities that could address the issues.” Wesley won a three-year seat from Ward 3 in April 2015, the first election cycle after the shooting.
We met outside City Hall and had a far-reaching conversation on a beautiful Saturday afternoon when Ferguson, Missouri was tranquil as any town in America:
“The media focus on the unrest as if that’s all that Ferguson is about. We have a lot to address, but it’s a nice city. More businesses have come into the city since the unrest than have left.
“Change in the police department has been both structural and attitudinal. It’s the toughest job in the world. There are cultural issues on all sides. In the poor communities people’ don’t cooperate with the police. Police have a culture of protecting each other. Both tendencies enable and protect criminal behavior.
“In our politics, especially at the national level, we try to come up with simple answers for complex problems. We can’t agree on anything and nothing gets done. It has to start with the schools. In Missouri, public schools have a $500 million deficit. Poorer communities have poorer schools. That contributes to the inequities of our prison system. In Missouri, African-America males make up about 8% of the population, but 40% of the prison population.”
I asked Wesley if we must have Michael Brown’s in order to create the change we deserve. “I don’t like that narrative. Michael Brown was the same age as my son. I’ve met his mother; she doesn’t want his death to be in vain. She wants his legacy to be progress, not looting. I’d like to think we could get there without his death.”
I described the range of immigrant communities I’ve visited in my journey, and the pattern of assimilation I witness over and over in every immigrant group, except African-Americans. “Don’t be baffled by that. We know why. But we have to move past it. Racism hurts everyone. It hurts individuals. It hurts economies. It limits who can buy and sell. If you’re building a police department that does not include the widest range of officers, mistakes will be made where you are underrepresented.”
I asked Wesley if he planned to run again. “Living in the most famous small city in the world, we have to live one day at a time. Serving in Ferguson, you learn by fire that you have to be accessible. You have to have public outreach. I am not a career politician. I make my stands known. If the voters don’t want my positions any longer I can go back to do what I’ve been doing.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“We are uniquely positioned to set an example of what progress and change can be. I have the honor to participate in this council. I am aware that our decisions are local, but also national and global. We are viewed as a place of police brutality but we can transcend that. These are issues that pre-date Ferguson. Ferguson can offer a path out that others can emulate.”