St. Louis Activists Rally to Stop Airport Privatization

Billionaires and Buy Offs

As St. Louis struggles to achieve fiscal solvency, a local billionaire and his enablers are trying to snatch what remains of our assets.

Eyes tend to glaze over when people use the word “neoliberalism,” but examples abound, especially during times of acute economic crisis—”disaster capitalism,” as Naomi Klein and others have described the phenomenon. A few years ago, former mayor Francis Slay floated a plan to privatize St. Louis’s excellent public water supply, but citizens shut him down. These grassroots activists and volunteers were able to stop the sale of this public asset to the company that took over water operations in Flint, Michigan, the source of an ongoing public-health disaster.

But before Slay left office, he left his preferred successor, current mayor Lyda Krewson, with a hot potato: an ongoing, expensive study to privatize St. Louis Lambert International Airport. This scheme to privatize St. Louis’s only major airport has been funded almost exclusively by local billionaire Rex Sinquefield, who assembled a panel of “experts” who won’t get paid unless it goes through—an obvious conflict of interest.

There is a reason that the U.S. has no privatized airports, except in the commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Privatizing a public good, whether it’s the community water supply or an airport, is a failed strategy.

Privatization and Its Discontents

If you believe all the billionaire-generated propaganda, you might suppose that Sinquefield’s privatization proposal makes sense financially. After all, our mayor holds an advanced degree in accounting, as she’s fond of reminding us. But then why did every independent analyst who doesn’t stand to profit from the deal call it an inadvisable risk? If it’s such a great idea, why isn’t it happening everywhere, and why wasn’t it a miracle for Puerto Rico?

More urgently, why should we trust the recommendations of experts who won’t get paid unless the deal goes through? If it’s possible to extract so much surplus value from a public good, why can’t we do it ourselves and reap the certain rewards? Why should a radically right-wing libertarian billionaire and his cronies enrich themselves at the taxpayers’ expense? Why should we allow Grow Missouri, the Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity, and their ilk to set the agenda when control of a public asset is at stake?

One multinational corporation that’s jockeying for a place at the public trough is the Spanish firm Ferrovial. Guess who works as a lawyer and lobbyist for Ferrovial? That’s right: Slay, longtime mayor and loyal ally of Krewson, the current mayor. Both have received hefty donations from Sinquefield and his proxies.

Other actors driving the privatization agenda include, at least indirectly, the Trump administration and its aggressively pro-corporation Federal Aviation Administration. As longtime St. Louis Not For Sale (STLNFS) volunteer Glenn Burleigh explains, “The benefits of privatization accrue to the company awarded the contracts, not the residents who get stuck with higher costs. The airport is the current front of struggle, but recurring local media chatter about privatizing the city’s water supply and refuse service indicates that there will likely be more fronts opening up in the not too distant future.”

Fighting Back

STLNFS is an all-volunteer group of city residents who oppose plans to privatize the airport, refuse department, water supply, and all other important city services and assets. This coalition of volunteers includes members of local policy activist groups and political organizations, including St. Louis Democratic Socialists of America (STLDSA). Approximately half of the most active members of STLNFS are members of STLDSA. In fact, STLDSA was the first group to endorse STLNFS when it launched this summer, and we’ll be working to recruit DSA members to help collect signatures at the polls on March 5.

Where Does the Airport Deal Stand Now?

Last August, the Sinquefield-subsidized consultants announced an 18-month timeline. A “working group” devoted to privatization meets regularly, safe from public scrutiny. Ensuring that the privatization scheme goes through is the primary—and possibly sole—objective. But nobody gets paid if the deal doesn’t happen, and costly consultants don’t work for free.

STLNFS volunteers continue to collect signatures to put an ordinance on the ballot in November. If passed, it will require a public vote to approve any contract offered to private operators. Ald. Cara Spencer, with the support of many of her colleagues on the Board of Aldermen, also introduced Board Bill 93, which would mandate a public vote before airport operations could be privatized. Unfortunately, after being assigned to the Transportation and Commerce committee by Ald. Marlene Davis, who supports privatization, it was voted down in January, when Ald. John Collins-Muhammad, a co-sponsor of Spencer’s bill, capriciously flipped his vote.

Spencer is up for re-election in March, and the fate of the board bill that she sponsored is uncertain. “If I’m reelected, I absolutely will introduce this bill again,” she told a Riverfront Times reporter the day her bill narrowly failed. “This is the single biggest asset the city has. You’re damn right we’re going to make sure a vote happens.”

Spencer’s opponent, Sunni Hutton, has also signed the STLNFS pledge to oppose airport privatization efforts. However, if STLNFS gathers the necessary number of valid signatures, the matter will bypass the Board of Aldermen entirely and go on the ballot for voters to decide—which Sinquefield and his supporters strongly oppose. But even if voters reject a plan to lease or sell off the airport and its management to a private entity, the GOP supermajority in the Missouri legislature could override them, as it did when voters recently enacted legislation to improve puppy-mill oversight, and as it may be doing right now with the recently passed CLEAN legislation for electoral reform.

In the upcoming elections, St. Louis voters could change the dynamic of the airport negotiations. In the March primary race for president of the Board of Aldermen, both of the major challengers—Democrats Ald. Megan Ellyia Green and State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed—have signed the STLNFS anti-privatization pledge. (The Democratic incumbent, President Lewis Reed, has yet to sign it.) Green, a member of St. Louis DSA who has been endorsed by both the local chapter and national organization in the race, has been a stalwart proponent of the public vote and privatization skeptic since the scheme first bubbled up early last year.  Nasheed initially came out in favor of a public vote only, but the continuing escalation and pressure of the Not for Sale campaign succeeded in advancing the narrative that municipal asset sell-offs are incompatible with progressive politics, and she too signed the pledge in late January.

Opponents of privatization are wary because, in some cases, candidates might equivocate by promising not to sell the airport while simultaneously pursuing deals to lease it, which is unlikely to benefit anyone except the investors (and their highly paid consultants and lobbyists). But a long-term lease of the airport to a private entity is privatization, even if the airport isn’t technically sold.

The future control of Lambert International Airport will have consequences far beyond St. Louis and its local government. “The Koch Bros. and hedge funds from across the planet are watching the process,” Burleigh notes in an e-mail. “A hedge fund employee, whose firm was in town to review ways to get involved in the bidding process, flat-out said that they were looking at St. Louis’s process as something that would be exported to cities across the country, if [privatization efforts] are successful. Forcing the question onto the ballot and stopping the privatization of our airport will send a message to finance capital that future attempts to privatize other airports will also be hard fought.”

Chapter Update: St. Louis

St. Louis rechartered its local DSA chapter in early 2017, and in the year since we’ve been actively engaged in a number of different statewide and St. Louis-specific campaigns. In all of these, we strive to uphold the goals and values of our local chapter and the DSA organization: delivering meaningful material improvements that help build our organizing capacity, fighting back against corporate dominance of the political agenda, and building powerful coalitions of the working class.

In August we scored a major victory with the repeal of Missouri’s Right to Work law. Experience teaches us that states which enact Right to Work see marked declines in salaries, benefits, and the ability to organize; this repeal reverses a serious threat to workers’ rights throughout the state. In the lead-up to the repeal initiative, St. Louis DSA hosted a voter registration drive and a rally with local union, community, and political leaders speaking on the dangers of Right to Work laws. We had members canvassing and phonebanking to ensure Right to Work was soundly defeated at the polls.

Looking forward, there are two other statewide initiatives we have been supporting since their early stages. The CLEAN Act is a state constitutional amendment that includes much-needed campaign finance, election, and lobbying reforms. In addition to bringing candidate donation limits more in line with federal standards (there is no limit under current Missouri law), it radically limits lobbyist donations, closes loopholes that allow big money donors to hide in shell corporations, and moves congressional redistricting authority to a non-partisan board in an attempt to reduce gerrymandering. There is also an initiative to increase the statewide minimum wage to $12 an hour—important not only for the increase in compensation for thousands of workers across Missouri, but also as pushback against a state legislature that has overturned municipal attempts to set their own minimum wage.

On the local level, we are engaged in a two-pronged effort to fight our city’s increasing trends toward neoliberalization and gentrification. First, we are involved in the organizing coalition behind the STL: Not For Sale campaign that is combatting local attempts to privatize our airport. Instead of letting a small group of developer-friendly politicians decide the fate of our municipal assets, our strategy is to let the voters determine the future of our shared public resources. While the airport is the first staging ground, our hope is to build a strong coalition able to resist future attempts to gut other utilities, such as water, sanitation, or parking. Finally, in conjunction with local community organizations and other leftist organizers—and under the umbrella of the national Homes for All coalition—we have started working with tenants and residents to stand up and fight against predatory landlords, developers, and outside investors that are working to shape our communities without our input.

There is an adage that “action is the oxygen of an organization.” While we agree that practice is important for any meaningful socialist organizing, we also recognize the importance of making sure our values are articulated clearly in all of our work. This mutual relationship between actions and values is the strongest basis for building working class power and a socialist future.

Photo by Richard Reilly

Necessary Disruptions (and the Illusion of Order)

ST. LOUIS — In September before the Stockley verdict had even been passed down, Missouri Governor Eric Greitens was preparing for the fallout. Greitens readied the state’s National Guard the day before the trial concluded, stating that he was “committed to protecting everyone’s constitutional right to protest peacefully while also protecting people’s lives, homes and communities.”

The governor’s remarks not only signaled that Stockley was likely to get off—as most cops do in these kind of cases—but also that the state was ready to stand by and defend that decision by any means necessary.

Months later, the civil unrest that has resulted in St. Louis shows no sign of slowing down. Police retaliation to demonstrators has proven to be an ineffective deterrent even as local law enforcement has become more punitive and violent in its response. Tensions continue to rise, and the St. Louis police have actively escalated conflict at every turn.

This was especially clear a few days into the unrest when police celebrated taking control of the city back from protesters. After more than 100 demonstrators were arrested, St. Louis’ Interim Police Chief Lawrence O’Toole said that police “owned tonight,” according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch. The paper reported that he told a news conference, “We’re in control. This is our city, and we’re going to protect it.”

The police, after finally clearing the city in the early hours of the morning, celebrated by reciting a favorite chant of protesters: “Whose streets? Our streets!”

St. Louis DSA has been involved in the upheaval since the verdict was first handed down in the last days of the summer. The chapter is young—it was only founded at the beginning of 2017— but has already grown to 200 dues-paying members. The local is part of a growing coalition of activists groups, including Missouri Jobs with Justice, Metropolitan Congregations United, the #ExpectUs organizers, other local socialist groups and more that are working together to challenge the systematic racism and police brutality that’s been etched into the fabric of the city on every level.

“The direct actions in St. Louis against state violence, police brutality, the egregious racial injustices and treatment of black folks have built Y’allidarity across this region,” said St. Louis DSA electoral chair Ben Conover.

Conover defines “Y’alladarity,” a term popularized by DSA chapters in the South, as a  “portmanteau of the classic Southern pronoun ‘y’all’ and the classic organizing principle of solidarity.” It’s a rallying cry for Southern socialists.

But the St. Louis demonstrations didn’t just build camaraderie among protesters. They also “forced our Mayor to appoint a new public safety director, who is likely to fire the interim police chief,” Conover said. “We believe we are making serious progress towards implementing the Ferguson Commission‘s recommendations across the region and starting to build a culture that #YallGonStopKillingUs. The mass mobilization of our region has done this.”

Conover and other DSA activists across St. Louis and the South see their hometowns as prime territory for DSA to organize within.

“The material conditions of rural, working-class Missourians are ripe for socialist organizers, even if there is still lingering animosity toward the ‘S’ word,” Conover said. “They’ve been used and abused by the bourgeois through corporations and trade policies that don’t [improve] their lives materially. They don’t have health care. They hate the liberal establishment. They voted for Trump. Our chapter in St. Louis sees an opportunity to build a coalition of working class people, and we’re working to see that happen.”

Case in point: organized labor in the state led a historic ballot campaign to put a stay on right-to-work legislation pushed by the governor, smashing signature expectations in the same rural areas that had voted heavily for Trump.

The local has seen its own confrontation with the St. Louis police. During an October 3rd protest put on by the #ExpectUs organizers, demonstrators stopped traffic on Interstate 64 (known locally as Highway Forty, or “Fawty”). Police arrived and began arresting participants of the action en masse, including many members of St. Louis DSA.

“The officers decided they were arresting everyone in [our] group,” Conover said. “They had us sit down on the street and zip-tie cuffed us, including hitting an older woman with a riot shield in the wrist, causing significant bruising. We were taken from South Jefferson to the Justice Center downtown, where we were processed.”

Police processed 143 arrests for Conover’s group. Law enforcement’s treatment of the arrestees while in custody was no better than their treatment on the streets.

“Many protesters never saw a nurse, and at one point they put over the maximum number of women in a holding cell,” he said. “Transfolks were misgendered repeatedly, including an officer asking ‘What even are you?’ to one of them.”

It’s worth noting that none of the arrested have received charges from the action and they were released without bonds or bail.

The different acts of vandalism the city has seen in the wake of the verdict are often highlighted as justification for the militarized police response. For many, those small acts of vandalism seemingly present a larger moral conundrum than the continued state-sanctioned murder and violence. To them, a need for the state to preserve order will always trump any need to protect freedom of expression and dissent.

But it is not order that the state is after. Rather, the state seeks continued control and the return of public obedience. To reform or address the causes behind the continued civil unrest in the city would be an admission of wrongdoing and unlawfulness—everything that police and our governing bodies supposedly stand against. What they care about is preserving the illusion of order, and those who openly question the legitimacy of their power—who challenge their authority to decide what is and what is not lawful—stand squarely in the way of enforcing that illusion.

But while the dead have long been buried and those responsible acquitted, layers of freshly shattered glass line the streets. That present-and-visible reality is not so easy to ignore.

Is there an end to the protests in sight? “No,” Conover said.

“#ExpectUs organizers have called for a minimum of 100 days of protests, and in fact a #NoJusticeNoProfit boycott was just announced. The establishment can continue to #ExpectUs.”

Police violence and state oppression is not foreign to Chicago, nor to any other American city. It is not some epidemic that’s mysteriously spread across our humble nation vis-à-vis the camera phone. Rather, it is endemic to the very foundation of law enforcement in our country, a foundation that is crumbling fast under the weight of increased public visibility and demand for accountability.