Travel advisory warns of "looming danger" in Missouri
State law on discrimination lawsuits prompted the warning
Travel advisories warn you to carefully consider visiting certain places. Reasons typically range from severe weather to government instability, from civil war to terrorism.
The US State Department issues such advisories on a regular basis. Earlier this month it warned Americans against traveling to Somalia because of widespread terrorist and criminal activity, including kidnappings, bombings and murders.
Last week, the NAACP issued a travel advisory of its own, warning people of color that their civil rights could be violated in the state of Missouri.
The advisory, issued by the Missouri NAACP State Conference and endorsed by the national organization, is the first of its kind in the civil rights organization’s 108-year history. “Individuals traveling in the state are advised to travel with extreme CAUTION,” the advisory says. “Race, gender and color based crimes have a long history in Missouri.”
Why the “Show Me” state? Why now?
A ‘Jim Crow Bill’
Rod Chapel Jr., Missouri NAACP State Conference president, said Senate Bill 43 – a new state law making it more difficult to sue for housing or employment discrimination – coupled with a long history of civil rights violations and discrimination forced the action.
Senate Bill 43 drastically shifts the burden of proof from defendant to plaintiff in employment and other discrimination cases, Gerald Early, chair of African and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote last week.
“Before, a plaintiff had to show that race or gender bias was a contributing factor to dismissal,” Early said.
“Under 43, the plaintiff must prove that bias was, in effect, the sole reason that explains the treatment he or she received.”
The Missouri NAACP State Conference calls it a “Jim Crow Bill.”
“It says that you cannot sue the individual that harassed or discriminated against you,” Chapel said. “That’s a first. That’s different.”
The ACLU of Missouri praised Chapel’s “visionary leadership during this shameful act in Missouri’s history.”
“We are saddened the Missouri Legislature chose to continue its mistreatment of people of color and women by passing Senate Bill 43,” ACLU executive director Jeffrey Mittman said in a statement.
“Senate Bill 43 guts the Missouri Human Rights Act – a piece of legislation that was both innovative, inclusive and modeled what our democracy should champion: equal rights for all.”
The legislature passed the controversial bill in June. Gov. Eric Greitens signed it into law. Greitens and other supporters said the law puts Missouri’s standards for lawsuits in line with other states.
“None of those other jurisdictions say that individuals that discriminate and harass other folks have immunity,” Chapel said.
The governor’s office has not commented on the advisory, but acknowledged that Greitens met with “passionate advocates” on both sides of the issue.
The Missouri Division of Tourism has not responded to requests for comment.
Discrimination and ‘looming danger’
The NAACP advisory – which the organization’s St. Louis County branch opposed – cited several incidents in Missouri as examples of discrimination and “looming danger” for people of color who venture there.
Among them is the case of Tory Sanford, an African-American man who died in a Missouri jail cell in May after getting lost and running out of gas on a drive to Memphis.
It’s unclear why Sanford, 28, was taken into custody. However, he was involved in two altercations with jail personnel in his cell, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley told CNN affiliate WKRN. His death is under investigation.
In May, Missouri state Rep. Rick Brattin came under fire for saying on the House floor that there’s a “distinction between homosexuality and just being a human being” – a statement an editorial in The Kansas City Star called “deplorable.”
In 2015, the University of Missouri’s president and chancellor stepped down after African-American students accused school leaders of not adequately addressing racism on the overwhelmingly white Columbia campus.
The NAACP also cited hate crimes as grounds for issuing the travel advisory.
Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 32, died after he was shot at a bar outside Kansas City in February. The Indian man was having an after-work beer with a friend in Olathe, Kansas, when Adam Purinton allegedly shot him and two other men.
The gunman reportedly shouted “Get out of my country” before opening fire.
Purinton was indicted in June on federal hate crime and other charges.
The suspect was arrested hours after the shooting at an Applebee’s restaurant in Clinton, Missouri, about 70 miles away from Olathe. Purinton reportedly told a bartender, who made a 911 call, that he had shot two Iranians.
The shooting raised worries among Indians and other communities about possible violence against foreign workers in the US.
In November, about 200 students at Ladue High School in St. Louis walked out of class to protest incidents in which African-American students were assaulted with racial taunts and a hot glue gun, CNN affiliate KTVI reported. Facebook posts by the mother of one student showed burns he received when poked with a hot glue gun.
In 2016, there were 98 hate crimes committed by 135 people in the state, according to a report by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Compared to the year before, the figures represent a 3.9% decrease in hate crimes, but a 15.3% increase in known offenders.
“Most offenses had a bias of anti-race/ancestry,” the report said.
Police profiling and violence
The NAACP also noted tensions between police and minority communities in the state.
Michael Brown, 18, who was black, was shot and killed by white Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in August 2014.
The shooting sparked outrage and protest across the country. Many protesters saying they felt that Ferguson was a reminder that the American criminal justice system doesn’t treat blacks and whites the same – and that young black men in particular are often killed with impunity.
Demonstrators took to the streets later when a grand jury chose not to indict Wilson – burning buildings, looting shops and destroying cars. In more than 150 cities, protesters blocked bridges and tunnels, spilled into roadways and disrupted that year’s holiday shopping.
An investigation by the Justice Department brought no charges against Wilson, who argued he shot Brown in self defense as Brown charged at him.
In February 2016, the federal government sued Ferguson after the city council voted to change the terms of a deal on police reforms.
Negotiations on reforms to the police force and municipal court system began after a 2015 Justice Department investigation found that the Ferguson Police Department discriminated against African-Americans, targeting them disproportionately for traffic stops, use of force and jail sentences.
The NAACP’s travel advisory also cited a state attorney general report that found African-American drivers were 75% more likely to be stopped and searched than white drivers.
“We’re looking for a way to truly move Missouri forward … It’s a travel advisory. We don’t have power to put a travel ban on anybody. We’re just saying if you come, you should think about this,” the NAACP’s Capel said.
CNN’s Nancy Coleman contributed to this report.