Time for Justice: Sheryl Ferguson Speaks on Activism in Kansas City
Brynn Laurel - Associate Writer
Sheryl Ferguson speaks in front of the KCMO PD headquarters.
Photo by Andrei Stoica
Time for Justice: Sheryl Ferguson Speaks on Activism in Kansas City
9/29/2020- Kansas City, Missouri
By Brynn Laurel
After years of dealing with empty promises and insufficient changes in Kansas City Missouri's government and police department, activist Sheryl Ferguson said her protest is far from stopping. In her years as an activist, Ferguson has worked with a variety of groups in Kansas City to advocate for justice, reform, community-based policing, and other changes, and she said that now, more than ever, it’s important for people to get involved.
One of Ferguson’s major focuses lately has been on the Board of Police Commissioners in Kansas City, before whom she has argued for a variety of changes to the Kansas City Missouri Police Department, including the removal of Chief Rick Smith. She said she wants the board to use their supervisory power to enact change for KCPD.
“It’s not that complicated. We shouldn’t have to fight this hard,” she said.
Beginning of Activism
Ferguson said her activism work started in 2012 with the murder of Trayvon Martin. She recalled that while there were protests at that time, there were fewer follow-up actions to keep momentum. However, in 2016, with the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Ferguson said a friend of hers felt he needed to do something. He ended up going live in front of the police station, leading to 30 days of protests in front of the police station, Ferguson said.
Following those protests, Ferguson said her focus was on trying to help shift KCMO PD toward community policing. She said she even formed relationships with some officers at the time, and, in 2016, received an award from KCMO PD for her engagement.
She said her hope, then, was that “instead of having us be so against, maybe instead (we could) try to embrace, make them understand more why community policing would work.”
Working with Kansas City
Results of this work were mixed, Ferguson explained. She said some community meetings turned out to be full of empty promises, while she learned that going to other meetings—especially the regular meetings of the city council and board of police commissioners—was crucial.
And, although KCMO PD did make some changes—such as putting a social worker at every police division—Ferguson explained that even these efforts were already “setting them up to fail.”
“If you’ve got one social services worker in each station, you’re setting it up to fail,” Ferguson explained. She said that while social workers responding to mental health related calls instead of an officer with a gun is an important shift, setting up a system in which a single social worker at each station is too over-burdened to do anything isn’t giving the system a fair test run.
Police Chief Rick Smith’s blog, for example, indicated that KCMO PD social workers handled over 1800 people in 2019 alone.
Ferguson said she stayed involved on and off over the next several years. The next turning point, she said, came on December 3, 2019, with the murder of Cameron Lamb by Eric DeValkenaere, an officer with KCMO PD. Ferguson said her daughter had been close to Lamb—high school sweethearts who stayed friends over the years.
As she consoled her daughter, Ferguson said something shifted, for her. Although Lamb’s family had been told by their attorneys not to speak publicly, Ferguson said she knew someone had to be his voice, had to get people engaged and keep them engaged in order to get him justice.
In January 2020, she walked in to the Police Commission Meeting to return her award certificate from KCMO PD. While Ferguson said she still took invitations to try to form collaborations within the police department and attend meetings, her focus was on getting Kansas City engaged around justice for Lamb. Specifically, her efforts focused on Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith, who allowed DeValkenaere to return to work only a few days after murdering Lamb.
Ferguson said Smith is responsible both for his decision to allow officers to return to work after committing acts of brutality and also for the culture he created within the department.
“It’s the culture that is bad, and that culture comes from the head,” she said, noting the numerous incidents of police brutality in Kansas City under Smith’s leadership.
Ferguson said Smith needs to be replaced with a chief that focuses on a community-based model, and who can transform the culture with input from community members that should start during the selection process.
“Just getting rid of him doesn’t stop my protest,” she said. “You will not keep the community out of the selection process like the last time.”
Mobilizing Kansas City: ItsTime4Justice
Despite her advocacy around justice for Lamb, however, Ferguson said getting Kansas City mobilized was difficult.
“It was impossible to get KC engaged,” she said.
That changed with the murder of George Floyd on May 25. Just six days later, at the May 31 protest in Kansas City, Ferguson said she talked with the organizer and was able to speak.
“We went out there with a plan for what to do next,” she said.
Her plan included ItsTime4Justice, a group she had already started on Facebook but which grew drastically following the May 31 protest. The group also has a website, Twitter, and Instagram presence—all aimed at providing the tools for sustained engagement around justice that Ferguson said she lacked when she was first trying to engage in this work.
“When I started with Cameron, it was hard to find those entities that might help,” she said. From other activist groups to support and shared stories, she said she wants to help facilitate connection points and resources.
While many activist groups working on racial justice, Black liberation, and related causes exist in Kansas City, Ferguson said many have slightly different goals and emphases, even if they all come together around shared causes and actions. She said she hopes to help people find the resources they need to get involved.
In addition to providing resources and education to help others get involved, Ferguson said her education work is more broad—such as at a June 27 protest, when a number of police showed up in spite of the small group of protestors.
“We helped teach them how to deescalate the situation,” she said, explaining that police “came with intimidation tactics” instead of talking to protestors.
As ItsTime4Justice continues to grow, Ferguson also said that telling stories—especially local stories—will also be a key part of her work.
“There are so many unsungs,” she explained, noting that while some people get national recognition at protests, others, especially local people—such as Cameron Lamb, Terrence Bridges, Ryan Stokes, and Brianna Hill—go largely unnoticed.
“I wanted that website that people could say, ‘Hey, my loved one was killed by police, and here’s their story, and here’s their picture,’” she said.
“You’re the Somebody”
Ferguson said the most important way people can be involved in combating police brutality and systemic racism in Kansas City is to show up to local events—both to protests and to city meetings.
In particular, she noted that attending police and city council meetings to speak on local issues and push for changes is crucial.
“You cannot express your passion or your concerns in an email the same way that you can in person,” she said. And you never know who you might inspire to get involved, she noted. “You might not be able to attend the next meeting, but the person that you sparked can.”
While she shares information about current issues related to both the police commission and city council in ItsTime4Justice, she said that part of being involved in local government is connecting with your community.
“We have to actually get out and know our neighborhoods again,” she said. “You’ll find out who needs to be the spokesperson.”
“You’re the somebody,” she said. “Do something.”
You can learn more about Ferguson via her regular Facebook Live posts in which she further engages in various topics relevant to the Kansas City community or by connecting with her group, ItsTime4Justice, via their website, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.