The view from Ferguson ten days after the killing of Michael Brown

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FERGUSON_WINDOW.JPG
  • AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
Before I moved back here to Chicago, I was a reporter in Saint Louis for five and a half years. I worked for the Riverfront Times, the city's alt weekly. A few months before I left, I wrote a story about Ferguson. Well, it was about a group of record collectors who wanted to preserve their 50 tons of 78s; Ferguson was where they happened to live. My cubemate was, I think, the only other reporter during my time there who wrote about Ferguson. He was the food critic, and he was reviewing a wine bar and microbrewery. This was notable because such things were very new to Ferguson. Ferguson, as everyone has learned since last week, is in north Saint Louis County, where most residents are working class or poor. It does not have many wine bars. But it was also one of the last places I would have expected for a domestic war to break out. Then again, I am also white, and so was the staff of our paper—or Asian.

Clearly I had been missing something. I called up Chad Garrison, who's the RFT's editor now (he was a staff writer and managing editor when I was there) to ask what the hell had happened in the past 18 months.

Garrison was tired. RFT has a small reporting staff: two staff writers, a blogger, and an intern. The last time Saint Louis had had this much sustained excitement was the great flood of 1993. For the past week and a half, most of the staff had been working 20-hour days. The two reporters, and also the music and managing editors, had been in Ferguson every night, getting tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets. (The music editor also locked his keys in his car.) They were starting to fray. By last Thursday, one of the writers had forgotten how to spell "Ferguson." Now, ten days in, Garrison said, "the adrenaline of last week is slowly fading into fatigue."

Before last week, Garrison had never spent much time in Ferguson, either. There was no reason to. I wondered if he, as a native Saint Louisan who had lived there for most of his life, had picked up on something that I, a transplant, had missed.

"There were no tremors or anything," he told me, "nothing to indicate that this would happen. Obviously, race is the undercurrent of everything in Saint Louis—the politics, the power structure—but it's quite a powder keg that blew."

"That's a hundred years of powder," I said.

The last time there was a racial explosion nearby was the East Saint Louis riot of 1917, one of the worst in American history. And East Saint Louis is a completely different town, across the Mississippi, in Illinois. (Although the preriot situation there was not dissimilar from the one in Ferguson: a large, newly arrived black population and an old-guard white infrastructure.) Even during the 60s, when there were riots in Chicago and LA and Harlem and Newark (Newark!), nothing happened in Saint Louis.

"There was some stuff in the civil rights era," Garrison reminded me. "The Jefferson Bank sit-in."

I'd heard about the sit-in. It always seemed a typically Saint Louis boast to me, like one about having the nation's second-largest Mardi Gras celebration. Except where the Cardinals are concerned, it's a low-key place. People actually stop at yellow lights.

Or maybe I'd gotten it wrong. It's a pretty segregated city. The whole separation between the city and the county, where Saint Louis City is a separate entity, surrounded by 91 other municipalities, each with its own government and police department, even if, in the case of Champ, it has less than a dozen people, is totally fucked-up. And maybe it was more typically Saint Louis to hold it all in, passive-aggressively, until it all blew up.

A scene from yesterdays protest.
  • AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
  • A scene from yesterday's protest

"Race is not talked about," Garrison said, "except in hushed tones, among your own race. Until you have something."

The last time we'd sort of had something was back in 2008 when a black man named Cookie Thornton shot up the city hall of Kirkwood, another suburb, but in south county, and killed the white mayor. There was a small media circus, and a few conversations about race, particularly race in Kirkwood, but then it all went away after a few months.

"I don't think this is going away," Garrison said. "There's going to be a pre-Ferguson and a post-Ferguson, a BC and an AD era here in Saint Louis for race. There's been so much black-on-black killing, white people can dismiss it. And then something like this. . . . This is opening up people's eyes. It's important to know how the black community feels about law enforcement and its status in the greater hierarchy beyond Ferguson. It's not about Ferguson so much. It could have happened anywhere in the two dozen municipalities in north county."

We tried to imagine what the post-Ferguson Saint Louis would look like. (If Ferguson ever ends. Last Thursday, when Ron Johnson took charge and started hugging everyone, it seemed like it might be over soon. But then the weekend came, and every morning since then, it's just been more bad news.) Garrison reminded me about a story that the paper had run last summer about Vinita Park, another north county suburb that had recently elected its first black mayor after decades of being in the same situation as Ferguson: a mostly black town governed by white people. The mayor, James McGee, had fired five white cops on police force. He was caught on tape talking about how he wanted to clear the whites out of the police department. The city had to pay settlements to the white officers. McGee is still there.

"There are two sides," Garrison said. On one hand, what McGee did was illegal. On the other . . . "It's a black community. Everyone should have people from their community represent them, not some white officers who come from south county."

I wondered just how angry the city was, if the anger was concentrated just in Ferguson, or if had spread across town, to the rich people in west county and the hipsters in the whiskey bars on Cherokee Street down in south city (Saint Louis's north shore and Logan Square, respectively).

"The anger has not subsided," he said, "in Ferguson or elsewhere. There's been no indictment. Each day that passes, and each night . . . more protesters, more police presence."

And, I thought, the police aren't giving any straight answers about what happened last Saturday between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, or why Brown's body was left lying in the middle of the street, or why there are tanks and canisters of tear gas—and, by the way, who, exactly, is paying for that? The tax dollars of the people of Ferguson? This is not justice. And it's the protesters' right to keep protesting until they get some answers. And the reporters' right to be out there, too. Unless they succumb to exhaustion.

Garrison and his staff were on the verge. They'd been overwhelmed by the wave of press that had come into town and by the nights after nights of violence. "The sports section has never been so enjoyable," Garrison said. "It's the only place where you don't have to read about Ferguson."

While we were talking, the news came through that a man in Saint Louis City had come after a pair of cops brandishing a knife. The New York Times would describe him as "emotionally disturbed." "Shoot me now," he allegedly told them. "Kill me now." And, apparently, they'd learned nothing. They did.

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