On racial upheaval in Saint Louis—or at least Ferguson | Bleader

On racial upheaval in Saint Louis—or at least Ferguson

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Captain Ronald Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol talks with protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, after being put in charge of security there.
  • Getty Images
  • Captain Ronald Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol talks with protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, after being put in charge of security there.
I haven’t lived in Saint Louis for a long time. When I did—and for many years afterward—Ferguson was a white, blue-collar suburb north of the city. My senior year we beat their football team 33-13. Cleaned their clock. As we usually did.

By we I mean Kirkwood, a white, white-collar suburb west of Saint Louis. When I moved to Kirkwood and enrolled mid-year in ninth grade, its handful of black students befriended me, and for a long time I wondered why. Later I looked back and realized that had been the first year Kirkwood ran an integrated school system. The black kids were almost as new at the school as I was. They saw that I was scared too. So they were nice.

Of course when I got my bearings my friends were white.

Anyway, that was a long time ago, long before Kirkwood made it into the national headlines—in 2007 when a local guy who worked at a pizzeria turned out to have kidnapped a couple of boys who were living with him, and then again the next year when a local malcontent burst into a town hall meeting and shot six people fatally, including the mayor. That malcontent was black, and the next year his kid brother was inducted into the high school hall of fame because he'd been probably the best basketball player the school's ever seen.

And now Ferguson is national news. In the time since I lived in the area, black Saint Louisans pushing beyond the city limits for a better life transformed Ferguson into a suburb that was mostly black, while the power structure stayed white. Last Saturday Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot to death by Ferguson police. And Ferguson went up for grabs.

"This is not Saint Louis," says a video editorial prepared by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Well, technically it isn’t—Ferguson is no more Saint Louis than Maywood is Chicago. Maywood, like Ferguson, is an inner-ring suburb onto which the inner city has vented some of its racial steam. Chicago would never deign to answer for Maywood, but Saint Louis isn’t so grand, and when the Post-Dispatch says "Saint Louis" it means the collective Saint Louis, the metro area, which is collectively chauvinistic about the Cardinals and the zoo, if nothing else.

The law enforcement response that made Ferguson a national story came from the Saint Louis County police, who moved into Ferguson to restore order with armored vehicles, tear gas, water cannons, camouflage, and assault rifles. It's as if the county police had been waiting for this opportunity since the 1960s, when more volatile parts of the country went up in smoke and all Saint Louis could do was sit idly by and take notes.

"When you love a broken, beautiful city," says a Post-Dispatch headline. Again, this city it speaks of is neither Ferguson nor Saint Louis. It’s the spiritual Saint Louis, the metropolis, that the writer, Aisha Sultan, thinks has gone to pieces. "There is an odd, fractured governance structure that got us to this place," she writes. "A separated St. Louis city and county. A patchwork of 90 municipalities within the county. . . . We are more segregated than other parts of the country because of the vestiges of a systemic process that the city and county establishment followed to enforce residential segregation."

I wonder if that last part is true or if it’s a sort of local boast. When progressives in Chicago mourn how segregated Chicago is thanks to its own residential enforcement history, I think, you're not so special! I bet progressives in lots of other cities are just as touchy—we all like to think our home town’s the worst.

But Saint Louis is bad enough. What's so compelling about Ferguson is how little sympathy there’s been for the police. "Our problems with police brutality and racial profiling can be found in every major city," Sultan goes on, as if the role of police brutality in creating, or at least profoundly aggravating, the crisis in Ferguson were something stipulated by all sides.

"This is not Saint Louis," the video declares. "This is not Saint Louis. This is not the United States of America. We are not a police state. But this is what’s happening in our community right now. . . . We don’t have to be a police state. We have to talk to each other. We have to heal as a community."

And then the video, created by the editorial page editor of the Post-Dispatch, takes its sentiments to another level. "Put the sniper rifles and tear gas away. Put your police uniforms back on and reach across the street to the protesters and shake their hands and talk to them and feel their pain. Somebody needs to end this madness. This is not Saint Louis. This is not the United States of America."

Meanwhile, a collective of anonymous hackers, demanding that the police release the name of the cop who shot Michael Brown, began releasing personal information about the police, including photos of the county police chief’s family. The police chief of the city of Saint Louis criticized the tactics his county counterpart was using in Ferguson and withdrew the handful of cops he’d sent there to help out. And then the governor of Missouri sent in the highway patrol to take over for the county police. The head of the highway patrol, Ron Johnson, a black native of Ferguson, was reported to be exchanging "hugs and kissing with protesters."

With Ferguson at the crossroads—apartheid or kumbaya—Johnson had chosen kumbaya. He'd reached out and felt their pain. Maybe he'd grown up with it. Maybe he'd watched the Post-Dispatch video and taken it seriously.

Before Johnson took over, a Saint Louis alderman and a couple of out-of-town reporters were arrested in Ferguson, and an Al Jazeera reporter complained that police had tear-gassed his camera crew.

From Chicago, the details sound horrible but almost retro, the bumbling of a callow metropolis attempting big-time civic upheaval for the first time. I remember 1967 and 1968, when big cities across America went up in flames, Chicago being a blue-ribbon example. Saint Louis didn’t go up in flames. Nothing happened in Saint Louis (though across the river in East Saint Louis, things got dicey). The reason everybody gave is that Bob Gibson was pitching up a storm and the Cardinals were winning pennants both years. Times were good in Saint Louis.

Demonstrators—and some looters and rioters—have now made their appearance, and all eyes are finally on Saint Louis—or Ferguson at least. But the world has changed so much. Al Jazeera? Meanwhile, the Tribune has counted on the LA Times to cover Ferguson, and the Sun-Times has counted on the wires; they don't have the budgets to staff a big story 300 miles away.

At least the timeless Al Sharpton showed up. Do you realize Sharpton’s been at it since the 80s? He spent a day in Ferguson and called for restraint when he could have just phoned it in. Props to Sharpton, who can still crank it up.

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