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Activists spar with Ferguson mayor, police chief at Harvard

Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson, left, and Ferguson mayor James Knowles, right, spoke with Paul Muhammad, founder of Peace Keepers St. Louis on Saturday at Harvard Law School. Sean Proctor/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

CAMBRIDGE — Activists sparred Saturday with the mayor and police chief of Ferguson, Mo., during a Harvard Law School event exploring, among other topics, the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man killed by one of the city’s police officers in August.

The event, sponsored by the school’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute For Race and Justice, came after decisions not to indict police officers in the deaths of Brown and another unarmed black man, Eric Garner, in New York City. The grand jury decisions have sparked waves of protests across the country in recent months, including ones that snarled traffic into Boston on Interstate 93 Thursday morning in the name of the Black Lives Matter movement.


Both Ferguson protesters and prominent Ferguson officials were speakers during one of the event’s panels, which quickly turned emotional and tense.

At one point, Justin Hansford, a law professor at St. Louis University, asked both Ferguson Mayor James Knowles and Police Chief Thomas Jackson when they would resign. Brown’s death spurred protests in Ferguson, where the police also came under criticism for their response to the demonstrations, including the use of tear gas.

Both officials said they planned to stay on.

“The problem is that Ferguson is my community, and it doesn’t cease to be my community if I quit and dump this problem in somebody else’s lap,” said Jackson.

Knowles and Jackson talked about steps the city and its police force are taking after Brown’s death and the protests, saying officials were convening a civilian oversight board for the police.

But panelist Derecka Purnell, a Harvard Law School student who protested in Missouri, said she was uncomfortable sitting next to people “who are responsible for the guns that were pointed in my face.”

Leah Gunning Francis, an associate dean at the Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, insisted on Saturday that society needed to regard the lives of black men to be as important as those of white men, one of the key themes of the Black Lives Matter protests that have gained prominence.


“We have to restore the humanity of young black men,” she said.

Gabriel Baez, the nephew of Eric Garner, said he attended the Harvard event to help prevent such deaths in the future. Sean Proctor/Globe Staff

When Dave Spence, a prominent businessman from St. Louis, told the audience Ferguson was not a “dysfunctional place,” activist Paul Muhammad said he had to interject.

“I respect your perspective, but we do all understand that being black in white America and white in white America, we have two different realities,” he said.

Muhammad continued, saying officers killing unarmed black men is a problem far from exclusive to Ferguson.

Gabriel Baez, the nephew of Eric Garner, also spoke during the event, saying he had attended to help prevent such deaths in the future.

“The problem of police brutality is real; it’s going on in every major city,” Baez said.

Former state senator Dianne Wilkerson, who spent time in prison for accepting bribes, moderated one of the panels. Referring to the anger expressed toward protesters after they blocked I-93 Thursday, she said the inconvenience caused on the highway was part of the point.

“How do you damn protesters on Martin Luther King’s birthday?” she asked. “The whole purpose of protesting is to get you to pay attention, to get your attention.”

The panels followed a screening of “Saving St. Louis,” a documentary by Boston native Andre Norman about his attempts to help a struggling high school and its surrounding community in Missouri.


Norman, a Dorchester native who served 14 years in prison for armed robbery, spent time in St. Louis in 2011 and 2012 to help the city’s Roosevelt High School.

Norman said the discussion of Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter protest was appropriate on the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. He said he gathered the panelists to get people talking about solutions for the community.

“I’m just hoping the protests stay long enough and strong enough until we get a solution,” Norman said.

A panelist addressed the Ferguson mayor and police chief during the Harvard Law School event.Sean Proctor/Globe Staff

Nicole Dungca can be reached at