Sharpton leads rally against St. Louis rail

Sunday, August 17, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- Although he was wearing a suit and tie this time, Al Sharpton said Saturday that the next time he comes to town he's willing to go to jail.

Sharpton led a rally against school closures and the exclusion of minority contractors in expansion of St. Louis' light-rail system, MetroLink.

Sharpton, one of nine Democratic candidates for president, had visited St. Louis two weeks ago and led a protest demanding that more MetroLink contracts be given to minorities. He promised to be back in 10 days if civil disobedience was needed.

"If we've got to go into another high gear of activism on the school issue and the Metro issue, we are prepared to do that," Sharpton shouted into a microphone at Saturday's rally.

In 1999, Sharpton was arrested after leading a sit-down strike on Interstate 70 in St. Louis over the lack of minority contractors on highway projects.

The crowd of more than 100 cheered frequently as Sharpton's booming voice was heard aisles away in the parking lot of the Riverview Plaza Super Market. Some held umbrellas to shield themselves from the midday sun.

About 44,000 passengers ride MetroLink daily and about 108,000 ride public buses, also operated by Metro. A ridership survey conducted on behalf of Metro in 2001 showed that about 43 percent of MetroLink passengers and 70 percent of bus passengers were black.

'Apartheid arrangement'

Sharpton said it was unacceptable for minority contractors to receive only 3 percent of the work on the $550 million MetroLink expansion and cited census statistics that showed minorities make up 51 percent of the city's population.

"It is an apartheid arrangement that they have with these contracts," Sharpton said.

Sharpton later told reporters that he and local activists would "decide in the next day or so" whether further protests were needed.

Sharpton and Eric Vickers, of the Concerned Citizens Coalition, said a boycott was among the actions that could be used in further protests.

"Conversation is always better than confrontation," Sharpton said, adding that if conversation does not work, other steps must be taken.

Phone messages seeking comment from Metro on Saturday afternoon were not immediately returned.

Sharpton also spoke against plans by St. Louis Public Schools to close 16 schools and eliminate 1,400 jobs, and encouraged members of the audience to become active.

"If you don't stand up for your children, then you're not worthy of anything," Sharpton said.

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