Mayor Sly James prompts conversation about race relations and police at All Souls Church

Kansas City Mayor Sly James during Sunday's annual speech at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church.
Kansas City Mayor Sly James during Sunday's annual speech at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church. The Kansas City Star

Spurred by events in Ferguson, Mo. and other national incidents, Kansas City Mayor Sly James invited an audience Sunday at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church to share their thoughts about race relations and police.

And he got an earful.

Chris Steinauer, 26, told James that his family and friends who live in the suburbs are concerned that he lives east of Troost. Steinauer said they watch the evening TV news, see nothing but stories about “black people committing violence,” and don’t know the more positive and complex story.

Janet Brown Moss, who lives in Midtown, told the mayor that Kansas City used to have great organizations working on race relations, such as Harmony in a World of Difference, but they all lost their funding around 2008 during the economic downturn.

And Austin Hoffman, a University of Missouri-Kansas City student, described his experience being arrested at a recent Kansas City protest related to Ferguson. He said that while some police were humane, others were crass and hostile. He said police need to learn that protesters’ grievances about conditions in minority communities are valid, while the protesters need to remember that police “have a huge burden” to protect society.

“There is a huge rift, a chasm,” Hoffman said, describing the tension between the police and many communities.

The conversation came at what is normally the mayor’s annual informal “State of the City” speech at All Souls Church, 4501 Walnut St. James summarized positive 2014 trends, such as a plummeting homicide rate and innovative educational programs, but said he wanted to listen to others about an issue that has gained national prominence: race and police.

Many in the audience of more than 100 people said the city should start at the grass-roots level, bringing residents of diverse neighborhoods and the police together to foster trust and break down negative stereotypes.

“We need to build the relationships and the bonds,” Moss said.

James acknowledged the thought-provoking comments from the largely white audience and said he is anxious to spur an ongoing conversation and specific action steps. He took down names and ideas and said there will be more events and collaborations announced in coming weeks.

“Coming together, bridging divides and reaching a place where all of our residents can appreciate, respect and understand each other not only builds a strong community,” James said. “It builds a better community for generations to come.”

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.