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St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Messenger: A lesson for St. Louis alderman – respect is a two-way street

I was sitting in the back of the hearing room at City Hall in St. Louis when Alderman Joe Vaccaro began his lecture. It was two years ago, and he was speaking to the activists of the Close the Workhouse movement, who were there to try to get the Public Safety Committee to advance a bill to remove funds from the budget for the troubled jail.

Many, but not all, of the activists, were Black. I remember watching Inez Bordeaux almost trembling, wanting to jump out of her seat as Vaccaro, who is white, told the activists that they needed to show aldermen more respect.

That’s what the lecture was about. The activists, many of whom had been in the Workhouse, held on minor charges, were describing the conditions as they remembered them. Vaccaro and another alderman, Tammika Hubbard, who is Black, were all but calling the activists liars as the temperature rose in the room.

Last week, Vaccaro found himself in hot water after a traffic stop. Vaccaro’s version got the first headline: A COVID-infested, rude St. Louis police officer pulled him over for speeding, singling him out because he has a big truck. Vaccaro said he was late to a meeting involving city business. The officer, Vaccaro said, coughed on him, was mean to him, and should be punished. Vaccaro called police Chief John Hayden to complain; Hayden said he’d take care of the ticket (according to the alderman). Vaccaro demanded an investigation.

The video told a different story.

Vaccaro got out of his car on Interstate 44 after he was pulled over and started walking to the police car, before the officer, using the command-and-control sort of voice inflection all police officers are taught, demanded that Vaccaro get back into his car. The officer, who is Black, did seem to have a cold. But he was polite and professional. He wrote a ticket to Vaccaro for speeding and for not having insurance.

On that second charge, I feel Vaccaro’s pain. Like me, he carries his proof of insurance on an app on his phone. I keep forgetting to make sure mine is up to date on the app, or I forget my password. Several months ago, I was pulled over for speeding, and it took me nearly five minutes, with a very patient state trooper, to get the insurance card pulled up. Of course, I wasn’t on an interstate at the time.

“I don’t think that’s fair,” Vaccaro told the Post-Dispatch’s Katie Kull. “If you’re going to pull somebody over, you need to be at least kind somewhat and give them time.”

Be kind.

It’s good advice. But Vaccaro’s the wrong messenger. When you watch the bodycam video of his traffic stop, it’s clear he’s the aggressor, not the police officer. Here’s how the Ethical Society of Police, an organization that represents minority police officers on the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, put it in a news release:

“The bodycam video shows the officer being nothing less than professional and polite towards the alderman,” the organization said, going on to call Vaccaro’s behavior “extremely unprofessional and unacceptable.”

Plenty of people who have been on the opposite side of an issue with the chairman of the Public Safety Committee have seen that firsthand, sometimes on social media, or in hearing rooms where respect between aldermen and residents doesn’t always flow both ways. Vaccaro is hardly alone in this regard. Neither is the Board of Aldermen. Today’s politics too often is manifested in an “us” vs. “them” mentality, with the opposite sides of the political coin just having different names: Democrat vs. Republican; moderate vs. progressive; liberal vs. conservative; left vs. right; Black vs. white. Some elected officials get outright indignant when they are questioned. Vaccaro is one of those, though, again, he’s hardly alone.

At the end of that committee hearing two years ago, Blake Strode, the executive director of nonprofit law firm ArchCity Defenders, where Bordeaux works, went to the dais to try to have a conversation with Vaccaro. Strode, who is Black, is one of the most soft-spoken, polite people I know, and he gently tried to discuss with Vaccaro why some of his words set off the activists in the crowd. He tried to explain how respect is a two-way street.

Vaccaro would have none of it. He waved Strode off and sped away.

Perhaps he was late to a meeting.