Removing the Mask: Ferguson Organizers Expose Veiled Profit in St. Louis

The Veiled Prophet. Credit: Wikipedia.

Every year, the St. Louis political and business elite gather to present their daughters to society at the annual Veiled Prophet Ball.

This past winter’s ball — held just months after the murder of Michael Brown — was no different. The Veiled Prophet, masked and anonymous in all-white KKK-reminiscent garb, selected the “Queen of the Court of Love and Beauty” from among the daughters there assembled. The Veiled Prophet Queens are said to be chosen based on their fathers’ political and financial influence; the identity of the Veiled Prophets themselves remains secret every year. (In 1972, an activist succeeded in surreptitiously unmasking that year’s Veiled Prophet, revealing the then-executive vice president of Monsanto beneath. The activist’s car was later bombed and house vandalized.) While the Veiled Prophet no longer appears with shotgun and pistol in hand, the message — and the organization’s membership’s complicity in racial and economic violence in St. Louis — remains clear.

And that’s why Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) is targeting the Veiled Prophet Organization in its inaugural #UnveilTheProfit week of action to expose the “power behind the police” — the corporate executives, developers, bankers, and others who shape (and profit from) people’s lives in Ferguson and beyond. MORE members are assembling outside the workplaces of St. Louis’s wealthiest, demanding accountability, while building power, developing political education, and working collectively to imagine visions of a more just future. As MORE explains on its Power Behind the Police website, “The police exist to enforce the status quo: a city that is designed to benefit and generate profits for the 1%. In order to end racist policing and killer cops, we need a dramatically different economic system grounded in the notion that Black Lives Matter. We need the St. Louis 1% to stop impeding justice in our city.”

I spoke with Molly Gott, organizer with MORE and the research coordinator for www.powerbehindthepolice.com, to learn more.

Dana: What is the “power behind the police”? What does “#STLFreedomLookLike”?

Molly Gott: The “power behind the police” are the rich and powerful capitalists in our region (including corporate executives, real estate developers, wealthy lawyers, and the heads of cultural institutions across the city). We have been calling these people the “St. Louis 1%.” These are the people who can move their agenda for St. Louis. We’ve had lots of examples of them doing so lately, including scrambling to find hundreds of millions of dollars to finance a new football stadium.

Police don’t really have the power — the 1% does. After Mike Brown was murdered last August, there was obviously a huge movement moment here in St. Louis — thousands of people in the streets, sustained protests, and a growing chorus calling for police accountability and an end to killer cops. But most people realized that the movement was not just about police accountability; it was also about ending structural racism and economic inequality and creating a future in which Black Lives Matter.

#UnveilTheProfit and www.powerbehindthepolice.com seek to make that point clearly. We are calling out police for what they are — agents of the state that exist to protect the 1% and the status quo: a city that is designed to benefit and generate profits for the 1%.

So far this week, we’ve seen again and again that the police do indeed exist to protect the 1%. At every action we’ve done, there has been a row of police protecting corporate buildings instead of us.

We have moved out of a movement moment into an organizing moment. The week of action and the website seek to be tools for political education and organizing large numbers of people to pressure the capitalists we know are upholding the St. Louis status quo of structural racism and economic inequality.

As far as what real STL Freedom looks like… I don’t think we totally know. We are using the week of action to launch the hash tag #stlfreedomlookslike because we know that these 1%ers are the ones that built the system. They can’t be the ones to fix it. We’ll be encouraging folks to use the hashtag to describe what they want in their communities. We have some ideas (large scale worker cooperatives and urban agriculture, guaranteed basic income, quality public education and housing for all), but we created the #STLFreedomLooksLike hashtag and visioning component of this project to create a space where a large range of people can really dig in and do the hard work of building large scale consensus around what #STLFreedomLooksLike and what it would take to make it a reality. We’ve been inspired by the Jackson Plan and People’s Assemblies for this process, and the week of action will culminate with a visioning session that gives people tools to host visioning sessions in their own neighborhoods.

DB: David Farr, the Chairman and CEO of Emerson Electric — which is headquartered in Ferguson, MO — is one of the corporate executives you’re targeting this week. I’ve heard some people say, “Oh Emerson practice corporate social responsibility. What’s so wrong with supporting the MUNY or the Botanical Gardens?” What would you say in response? What is corporate social responsibility really about?

MG: Almost all current corporate social responsibility policies now are really about the corporations protecting their reputations and diverting attention away from the fact that they are causing the problems their SR policies or the charities they donate to aim to address. For example, Peabody Energy in St. Louis has given money to lots of children’s programs and their CEO chaired the local United Way annual giving campaign, but in 2010 they got a massive tax break that took money directly from St. Louis City Public Schools. It is clear that their bottom line is priority number one and any “social responsibility” is an afterthought to protect that bottom line.

DB: For people unfamiliar with the Veiled Prophet Organization (VP), why are you targeting or highlighting VP? What does the Veiled Prophet stand for — what is VP complicit in — that you are trying to dismantle? How does this relate to Ferguson and police brutality?

MG: For people (especially Black people) in St. Louis, the VP has enormous symbolic value. People equate the “veiled profit” wearing a white sheet with the KKK. It represents the power of the ruling class of St. Louis. And connections between the VP and the Police are strong; the first ever veiled prophet (and only one of two to ever be revealed) was the Police Chief Commissioner. It is also tied to a history of resistance in St. Louis because of Percy Green’s famous “unveiling the prophet” action. We chose to launch www.powerbehindthepolice.com during the week leading up to Fair St. Louis and call attention to the VP to highlight that this is a continuation of that resistance and Percy’s famous action that called out the region’s capitalists for their role in upholding structural racism.

St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson at the 2014 Veiled Prophet Ball. Credit: Addicting Info.

DB: As you point our, MORE’s actions to resist VP are part of a longer history of activists seeking to do the same. How has VP survived as long as it has?

MG: The VP’s survival is a testament to the power of the St. Louis 1% and the insidiousness of racism in St. Louis. That is precisely why we are choosing to target them… as long as we live in a place where the VP can continue to operate, we will not have justice.

DB: Several of my friends from high school walked in the Veiled Prophet Ball. What would you say to people who are part of an institution like VP (or universities founded on stolen land, built by slaves, complicit in gentrification, etc.) that is historically grounded in white supremacy, classism, and misogyny? Is there a way to rehabilitate such institutions or should we do away with them?

MG: The past year in STL has been one of true transformation. The cry from justice from young black folks marching in Ferguson has never been clearer. There have actually been hundreds of white people across the city who have heard the cry and are now participating in organizing and movement work. Indeed, a lot of people involved in the #UnveilTheProfit week of action are white people who are committed to anti-racism and believe it is important for white people to use their privilege to intervene with the overwhelmingly white St. Louis 1%. White people have a huge role to play in ending white supremacy — in talking to family members and in ending racist institutions like the VP org. The VP org at this point is a symbol of how the 1%, mostly white, maintain their power and uphold white supremacy. It is the role of anti-racist white people in orgs like the VP to talk to other white people and organize to end racist institutions that are upholding white supremacy.

These organizations are oppressive in their foundations, and reform will just cover that up. If people inside the organization are just realizing that the organization is part of this system, then they need to pick a side. Continued participation with the group is perpetuating these systems of oppression. Because silence is violence, members of VP or people who have benefited off of oppressive systems can engage in addressing the system in their own circles. People should engage in “white-people work;” they can use their relationships to push people in power towards justice. There are many resources on how to do this work online. One source is http://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/.

“At every action we’ve done, there has been a row of police protecting corporate buildings instead of us.” Credit: MORE.

DB: Do you know of similar efforts in other cities to look at the power behind the police?

MG: There aren’t any other specific folks we have been working with. Occupy obviously started doing some of this work. In a way, this is a continuation of Occupy, but with racial justice at the center of the work.

DB: Any actions beyond today’s that you can tell me about?

MG: We will be continuing to add to our list of the St. Louis 1%. The list is going to be organized by category. We’ve started research on powerful corporate law firms in the region as well as the biggest landowners in St. Louis. In the coming weeks, we will add these people to our list. There will be actions tied to the launch of each new category of people.

We’re also going to be digging in on the #STLFreedomLooksLike piece with people’s assemblies and political education. We’re in an organizing moment now after an exciting movement moment, so the priority will be digging in and doing the hard work of organizing a mass movement.

New Haven, CT

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and the co-founder of Know Your IX, the national youth-led organization working to end gender violence in schools. She's testified before Congress on Title IX policy and legislative reform, and her writing has appeared in a number of outlets, including The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. She's also a student at Yale Law School, and you can find her on Twitter at @danabolger.

Dana Bolger is a Senior Editor at Feministing and a student at Yale Law School.

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