At the start of a “Weekend of Resistance” to protest police shootings around St. Louis, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) went to Ferguson, Mo., today to hold a “listening session” with the NAACP and local leaders.
The Hands Up United protests are scheduled to run Friday through Monday, fueled by those frustrated with no indictment yet in the August shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Recent protests, though, have centered around Wednesday night’s fatal shooting of Vonderrit Myers, 18, by an off-duty officer in St. Louis; police said Myers fired three shots at the officer first before the officer returned 17 shots.
Protest organizers say there’s no evidence Myers was “carrying anything other than a sandwich.”
“Serious doubt has been cast on the St. Louis City Police Department’s version of events,” said Ferguson October organizers in a statement. “We have serious questions about the right of an off-duty officer to wear his uniform when they aren’t on the job. We have serious questions about what the St. Louis City Police are calling a ‘pedestrian check.’ Most of us know this practice as ‘stop & frisk.’”
Paul’s office said the event he attended today, which included the NAACP, the Urban League, local business owners and church leaders, “centered around Sen. Paul’s belief that the underlying problem in Ferguson—and many other troubled areas of our country—is a broken criminal justice system that unfairly targets minorities.”
“I came to Ferguson today to listen to leaders in the community and to learn more about how we can fix the problems of criminal injustice together,” Paul said.
Paul has introduced since 2013 six pieces of legislation focusing on criminal justice reform. In the unrest following Brown’s death, the senator wrote a TIME op-ed condemning the use of surplus military equipment by local law enforcement to confront the protesters.
“Given these developments, it is almost impossible for many Americans not to feel like their government is targeting them. Given the racial disparities in our criminal justice system, it is impossible for African-Americans not to feel like their government is particularly targeting them,” Paul wrote in August. “This is part of the anguish we are seeing in the tragic events outside of St. Louis, Missouri. It is what the citizens of Ferguson feel when there is an unfortunate and heartbreaking shooting like the incident with Michael Brown.”
John Gaskin III, spokesman for St. Louis County NAACP, said in a statement that they were “encouraged” by Paul’s “decision to call a meeting with us to have a round table discussion and discuss common sense solutions.”
“We were honored to have an informative discussion about the Senator regarding ways that he can help to assist our civil rights agenda in Washington and help to end police militarization,” Gaskin added.
“I try to hear from people and maybe some in the community that Republicans haven’t been listening closely enough to,” Paul told CNN, adding that the meeting went “very well.”
“It’s good to begin that conversation,” the senator added, noting he “agrees with the NAACP on a host of criminal justice reforms.”
Paul was asked if courting the black vote could help his potential presidential campaign. “I think if we don’t, we won’t ever win again… if we do it, I plan on competing for all votes.”