By SHERI GASSAWAY
When America’s Center management refused to let Missouri State Representative Bruce Franks, Jr. (D-St. Louis) and a group of Black Lives Matter demonstrators into the building to attend the AFL-CIO’s “All of Us or None of Us” pre-convention diversity conference Oct. 21, citing a fear of “damage to property,” federation officials and convention delegates took the conference outside to them.
Franks had been invited to speak at the conference, putting the issues of racial and economic justice center stage.
“We have come out not just as workers representing workers from the USA, but all over the world, to say that we stand in solidarity with you because we all believe in justice,” AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Emeritus Arlene Holt Baker told the activists.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, when asked about the incident the next morning, said, “It was one of the best showings of solidarity that I’ve seen in a long time.”
MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD
Protesters have been hitting the streets of St. Louis almost daily, advocating for justice and equality and against police actions toward black people, since Sept. 15 when a St. Louis circuit judge found former St. Louis Police officer Jason Stockley, who is white, not guilty of murder in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man.
Franks, who was involved in the Ferguson protests prior to running for office and has been one of the lead organizers following the Shockley verdict, was invited to speak at the diversity conference during a “Voices from the Front Lines” seminar on the subject of building independent political power. Specifically, Franks was asked to discuss what inspired him to run for office.
After Franks and union leaders assured convention center management that there would be no problems by letting demonstrators into the conference, protesters, federation officials and attendees marched into the building united.
Once in the conference room, there was a lot of cheering and hugs and a sense of strong solidarity and empowerment. Franks thanked union leaders for standing up for what was right and coming outside.
‘THIS IS HOW YOU SHOW UNITY’
“That’s how you show unity,” Franks said. “That’s how you show someone you’re willing to stand with them, and that’s how you show someone you’ve got their back – by showing them, not just talking.”
Franks first hit the streets as an activist Aug. 9, 2014 when Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson. Franks said the incident made him feel hurt and angry, but he quickly realized protestors were all out there for the same reason.
‘THE FIRST TIME I SAW UNITY’
“For the first time in St. Louis, I saw unity,” he said. “This tragedy brought people from all walks of life together, and we stood out there and felt the same hurt and the same anger. We got pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed, but we didn’t run. We showed up every day like it was a job.
“And that’s why I ran for office. Martin Luther King said there comes a point in time when you do something, not because it’s political or it’s safe, but because your conscience tells you it’s right.”
ENDORSE CANDIDATES WHO TRULY REPRESENT THEIR COMMUNITIES
Franks, who was elected to his seat in 2016, said another reason he ran for office is because “we have to do things differently.” He asked unions to endorse candidates that truly represent their communities.
“I don’t care how long you’ve been in office, if you’re not right for the people, you’re not right for the seat,” he said. “I need a colleague who I can fight with, who’s going to stand for our issues and not be apologetic in their fight. So, if that isn’t the 16-, 15-, 14- or 20-year incumbent, we need to get them out of there.”
‘ALL THE WAY OR NOT AT ALL’
Since taking office, Franks said he’s received many calls from unions and their members asking him to speak out against the state’s so-called “right-to-work” law and he has done so, along with several other key representatives. He encouraged unions to be equally supportive in the fight for racial justice.
“When I speak about black lives and black bodies littering the streets because of police brutality and when we come out here on Sept. 15 up until now to gather, I don’t see a lot of the people that was calling for me to speak on the floor,” Franks said. “Don’t be with me sometimes. Be with me all the way or not at all.”
After Franks’ remarks, demonstrators were invited to stay for the remainder of the day-long conference and for a reception afterward.