Or, “Damn, I thought brain sandwiches were weird, but St. Louis, you have some strange fruit.”
I have been asked to write about the “race riots” in Ferguson, MO for PoliSMI.ru. I am not going to write about race riots, because that does not adequately describe what is taking place in Ferguson. On one evening a number of individuals did riot. What is important to understand are the events preceding this and those that have followed.
I must qualify my perspective, which is neither that of a journalist nor that of a citizen of Ferguson. I am originally from the St. Louis region (Alton, IL) and have family across the St. Louis metro area, where my ancestors settled in the 19th Century. I have spent a lot of time in north St. Louis County where Ferguson, MO is located. I am white. My little brother used to manage one of the stores attacked in the riot. The following is my understanding of events shaped by reading live reports from local residents, speaking with my friends and family and my own knowledge of the history and culture of the area. I cannot pretend that I am not emotional, that it has not impacted me in personal ways or that I understand what it is like to be there on the ground or a random American in Ohio watching this on the news. I cannot speak for anyone or claim objectivity. I can try to provide context and insight.
Last Saturday afternoon in Ferguson, MO, police shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year old. Unofficial explanations for why police were pursuing him have varied from shoplifting to resisting arrest (for what?) Officially, no explanation has been given. Brown had no criminal record. According to witnesses, Brown had his hands in the air when police proceeded to fire multiple bullets into him, he was denied medical help and his body was left in the middle of the street for hours. Horrified by the unwarranted use of lethal force, the treatment of his body and no explanation for the shooting, residents of Ferguson gathered for a public vigil that evening.
The senseless killing of a young man by police. Young black men are shot everyday in America, but we often only hear about it when they shoot each other. We expect black men to kill each other. It’s sick and wrong, but it’s true. That he was shot by the authorities who were entrusted with protecting his life made it both a tragedy and serious professional misconduct at minimum, a State-sponsored hate crime in the eyes of many. While far less publicized, police routinely mistreat and even kill black men in America. But the real-time communication magic of social media was quickly conjured, and news of the disturbing event traveled like wildfire. The shooting of Trayvon Martin was also still fresh in public memory. These factors ensured that the death of Michael Brown garnered public attention, but I expected the event to disappear with the next news cycle. The residents of Ferguson were determined to make sure that did not happen. And they got a LOT of help from Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments.
The day following the shooting, peaceful protesters demanding an explanation and investigation were met by riot police pointing guns at them and accompanied by police dogs. Such tactics recall imagery of the American civil rights movement of the 1960’s, a time of often violent confrontation between police and American citizens marching for desegregation and voting rights. Protesters in Ferguson already believed that the shooting of Michael Brown was racially motivated. The police dogs and riot gear solidified this fear, the fear that in the eyes of police they were guilty until proven innocent, and that being black in public was the crime. It is worth noting that while the majority of residents in Ferguson are black, the Ferguson police force is almost entirely white, and black residents are disproportionately the targets of police suspicion. That local law enforcement used intimidation tactics in response to people asking for justice was interpreted by many as an attempt by the police to distract attention from their own heinous misconduct and as intentionally confrontational.
Late that night, over a dozen local businesses were looted, vandalized and/or burned by young black men. There is dispute as to whether the looters were residents of Ferguson acting out of anger or people from other parts of city taking advantage of the unrest for personal gain or, probably, a combination of both. These riots were not on the scale of those following the Rodney King beating or the Watts Riots of the 1960’s, but they were evocative of them and the unrest that rocked the nation during those years. And with this night of riots, what was previously seen as an unfortunate event in a rough neighborhood became a situation in a major US city. If the shooting death of Michael Brown was a tipping point for Ferguson, the riots were a tipping point for St. Louis.
Ferguson, located in St. Louis County, is not a suburb in the sense that it is unique geographically or culturally from the city. Logistically, it is located between multiple arterial highways and in close proximity to the airport, area hospitals, etc. St. Louis is a commuter city, with relatively little public transit infrastructure. People drive to work, to school, to the store, to the airport. Which means that despite racial and economic segregation, it is impossible to bypass entire neighborhoods using a subway, as one might do in Chicago or New York. If you run low on gas on the way to dinner or need to pick up milk on the way home, you’re often doing that in a neighborhood that might not be the one you live or work in but somewhere in between. Those are the logistics which bring Ferguson physically into the fold of St. Louis. In terms of identity, residents of St. Louis County are St. Louisans. It’s Midwestern hospitality at its finest. A journalist can point to the borders of St. Louis city on a map, but Benedict Anderson famously theorized that communities are defined in the collective imagination. And those St. Louis city borders do not play a significant role in the collective imagination of the St. Louis community, a.k.a. “Cards Nation”. It is easiest to understand the relationship of Ferguson to St. Louis as that of a small autonomous population within the larger St. Louis community. This is not a story of unrest spreading from a small town to big city, but one of unrest in a local neighborhood becoming impossible for surrounding neighborhoods to ignore.
St. Louis is a proud community. Eye-rollingly proud. If you have ever been around Cardinals fans, you know the kind of pride I am talking about. It’s religious. They are better dressed than Chicagoans and neither shy nor haughty. They can give you baseball stats and their opinion of a Napa Valley vintage in the same sentence. They iron the pants they will wear to make the best barbecue you’ll ever eat. They are not intimidated by high culture or afraid of educated folk. They are not embarrassed by low culture or afraid of uneducated folk. They are Missourians who value straight talk and believe gullibility is a cardinal sin. St. Louisans are a mythological everyman. They are America. If you put the rugged individuality of the west, the industriousness of east, the food and music of the south and the non-nonsense simplicity of the north in a VitaMix, what you’d end up with would be a St. Louis smoothie. It would taste like toasted ravioli, gooey butter cake, Imo’s Pizza and Eat Rite.
Notice: I did not mention anything about scary black people burning down businesses in my mythology of St. Louis. St. Louis is no stranger to violent crime, but violent uprisings, uncommon in America these days, are unheard of in St. Louis.
While everyone condemned the riot, reactions to Sunday night’s rampage varied widely and illuminated a divide between the concerns of black and white St. Louisans whose differences had heretofore been camouflaged by universally red baseball caps. Widespread media coverage of the riot angered black residents who felt the media was only interested in portraying them as criminals and savages, as if to justify the shooting of Michael Brown itself. They asked why there was more public outrage about the destruction of property than the destruction of an innocent human being’s life. (A question that resonated in the context of recent Supreme Court decisions giving the rights of corporations more weight than those of individuals.) My white middle class friends and family were wrought with anxiety about if they could get to work the next day with streets shut down, if it was safe to let their teens go out, if the violence would continue and spread to their neighborhoods. They wondered what exactly was meant to be accomplished by burning down convenience stores. Protesters wondered what exactly they were meant to do with their outrage. Many white residents supported the police, whom they described as trying to secure the area and restore order. If you are a white person who has never been unfairly profiled by police, that’s an understandable if naive expectation. White privilege, in essence, is a lack of awareness of the breadth, depth, causes and effects of racial discrimination. And it is a tacit if hesitant acceptance of a status quo which, while admittedly imperfect, feels preferable to a chaotic breakdown of society. What I heard from white residents was a desire for a return to normalcy. What I heard from black residents was a refusal to return to normalcy. They both just wanted to be able to feel safe.
And there was racism. I remembered all time times I sat in the back of a car headed through north St. Louis County listening to someone say, “I’m not racist but…” or “Some of my best friends are black and even they say…” followed by pontification about how the behavior of these blacks in north county are why people are racist. Pontification about these people having no self-respect, while leaving out the fact that self-respect has to be taught, and reinforced. Pontification about these people having no work ethic, while leaving out the fact that economic conditions in the area did not favor gainful employment. I knew that black people in this area were collectively judged harshly by white people, and their anger was not just directed at the individual but the mentality that took Michael Brown’s life. And then I imagined, What if my little brother had been in that store closing up when a violent, armed mob entered it? My heart broke. Nothing would justify it if he had been harmed, or killed. And then I imagined, What if Michael Brown had been my little brother? My heart broke. Nothing could justify it.
In the days that followed, looting stopped but public demonstrations calling for answers in the killing of Michael Brown -the police department had yet to issue any official statement- continued almost without interruption. Each time the demonstrations garnered a more iron-fisted response from the police, whose ranks had swelled to include the St. Louis County police and tactical forces equipped with tear gas and wooden bullets, which they used without hesitation. Protesters were ordered to disperse and not film anything, in the name of public safety and to prevent a further escalation of tensions. I heard concerns about “outsiders” coming to gape and agitate, making crowd control a security concern. I’ve seen St. Louis police control much larger, equally rowdy, usually drunk crowds outside of Cardinals games and the annual 4th of July fair held under the Arch and know they can effectively do so without resorting to teargas, wooden bullets and media embargoes. Darker explanations for the increasingly vicious crackdown on protests and their media coverage circulated. There was pride. No one wanted this to be what people thought of when they thought of St. Louis. It was becoming an image problem. Some asked, just what were police planning to do that they did not want witnessed by outsiders or documented for evidence? Others recognized the refrain about “outsiders meddling in local problems” employed in a racially charged atmosphere as language lifted straight from the history books about the Jim Crow South. In addition to strong-arm tactics on the ground, an FAA “no-fly zone,” something most Americans associate with the attack on the World Trade Center, an act of war, was placed over Ferguson. It is said that those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it. What isn’t said is that some people read history and mistake it for an instruction manual. Whatever the explanation for the unusual law enforcement strategy in Ferguson, things were feeling … historic. Not so much because of the importance of the events themselves, but because of those they referenced.
By Wednesday, motivated by solidarity, professional responsibility, morbid curiosity or just the opportunity for self-promotion, journalists and civil rights leaders from around the country had booked trips to St. Louis. What they witnessed when they arrived was a police presence that looked prepared to fight the enemy in Iraq rather than to provide security for an American town of 20,000. Outfitted in camouflage, armed with assault rifles, water cannons and explosive devices, perched behind guns atop armored trucks in the middle streets, local police, drunk with unchecked power, appeared to have declared war on Ferguson, MO. In a brazen feat of cognitive dissonance, public officials instructed citizens to remain calm, begin the healing process, work together to return to normal while treating them as an enemy on par with the Taliban. National media were there broadcasting it all. In a routine that was beginning to define the situation, the disproportionate response of law enforcement stoked public outrage. Americans watched and asked how local governments who cannot afford to keep our schools open or even our water running can afford … were those tanks? (They were MRAPs, obtained through a secret program that was news to Americans.) And, why are we treating our fellow Americans like we treat terrorist organizations abroad?
The first tipping point was the shooting – it angered Ferguson. The second tipping point was the looting – it angered St. Louis. The third tipping point was the militarization of the police and the denial of freedom of the press – it angered America.
While permanently at war these days, America hasn’t been subjected to a ground invasion in any of our lifetimes. Our wars take place on the other side of the world. We do not see tanks on our streets. Military parades and showcases are rare, and even then, the guns on those tanks are certainly not pointed at us. Black people are shot by cops in America. People riot and loot in America. But this was something most of us had never seen before: our police dressed up like Rambo ordering Americans off the streets and telling them what they can write in the papers, like a scene from some bad Hollywood action movie where Soviets have taken over America. White people who were afraid of and embarrassed by black looters a few days ago were now afraid of and embarrassed by these police, who, like the rioters, seemed to have lost both their minds and all respect for the law. These men in camo, aiming their guns at the residents of Ferguson and the mainstream media were police, not soldiers. American military service members, the real ones, were infuriated not only that these local policemen were pretending to be soldiers, but were doing a very ineffective job at it. American civilians were infuriated not only that these local policemen were role-playing as soldiers, but that they had reversed the roles and were fighting against our rights rather than for them.
Our country is politically divided, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find an American who does not believe he or she has the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. Criticizing the wisdom of those who practice these rights is a national pastime. But black, white, conservative, liberal, your average American – and what more representative of the average American than St. Louis? – accepts that these are fundamental, Constitutional rights. No right is absolute, but Americans don’t go in for nuance. It is why our right to bear arms is interpreted as “Guns for everyone! Bring ‘em to the bar! It’ll be fun!” Americans will disagree about the right of a dying man to see a doctor before disagreeing about freedom of speech. It’s our little quirk. It’s why we hate Russia. It’s also why when our own police dress up like soldiers and tell us we can’t say that or stand there, our response is not to cower in fear but to mime whipping an invisible Constitution out of our back pocket and say, “Well, actually, uhm yeah we can,” and cock our heads like the mean girls in high school.
Knowing their rights, journalists and protesters stood their ground. A St. Louis elected official who had joined the protesters was arrested. Reporters from the Washington Post and Huffington Post were assaulted and arrested. Al Jazeera journalists were tear gassed. It is as if the police had not only forgotten that the US Constitution protects freedom of the press, but that the press are the media. To call the events of Wednesday evening a PR disaster for the Ferguson and St. Louis County police departments would be an understatement. By Thursday morning all of America was deeply disturbed by how phenomenally out of hand the situation had become.
Unable to ignore the evolving breakdown of law and order in Ferguson, which now looked like a war zone, President Obama appeared on TV to say tanks are for militaries and militaries are for killing Iraqis, and no more burning down convenience stores black people, you are making me look bad. Governor Jay Nixon of MO finally got around to damage control and announced law enforcement in Ferguson would be turned over to the highway patrol. In the American psyche, informed heavily by pop culture, highway patrol conjured images of the fun-loving, charming policemen from the old TV show “CHiPs”. The reality was even better, as Captain Ron Johnson, leader of the new security regime in Ferguson, was black, a local and dressed like a policeman, not like G.I. Joe. Images flowing out of St. Louis were now of protesters and police smiling, hugging, conversing. Thursday night thousands of people all over the country attended peaceful vigils and marches against police violence, and a national moment of silence was held for Michael Brown. Tensions between police and the Ferguson community eased and protests continued with little violent confrontation or arrest – Captain Johnson even marched in solidarity with the protesters. The dramatic change in tone that followed the change in police tactics seemed to validate the belief of many that it had been the Ferguson and St. Louis County police who were responsible for fomenting unrest.
There are still daily and nightly demonstrations by the people of Ferguson who have yet to receive justice for the killing of Michael Brown. They are now joined by protesters affiliated with radical organizations (such as Occupy), whom the people of Ferguson are concerned will both co-opt and endanger their agenda or behave in intentionally provocative ways. There remains a late-night curfew, but police have shown more restraint against those defying it. There are still hooligans out looking for trouble late at night, but they are now being held in check by their peers in remarkable acts of community self-policing. Things are better, according to those I’ve spoken to in the area. It feels tenuous, but promising.
Replacing a hair-trigger police force with a kinder, gentler highway patrol is an effective PR campaign to let the people of Ferguson know their concerns are being listened to and to repair the image of St. Louis on American TV sets. And in fairness, a lot of escalation of the situation can be attributed to bad PR, from the police dogs to the tanks. And in fairness, the message that the people in charge of law and order are supporting those who want law and order is a message we all needed to hear. But the tensions between races did not begin with Michael Brown’s death or the looting and it will not end with Captain Ron Johnson singing kumbaya with protesters. As one person remarked, the people of Ferguson did not create this situation of us v. them but are reacting to it, that if you want to talk about race riots, let’s not leave out the long history of white mobs taking violent action against black people in this country.
From the Missouri Compromise to Dred Scott, from school de/segregation to a current scenario in which the people elected to represent, the people hired to protect and serve the residents of Ferguson not only do not look like the residents of Ferguson, but do not even share a reality of what it is like to be a resident of Ferguson with the residents of Ferguson… the roots of racial inequality here run deep and wide, and that tree is alive, and its fruit is still left to rot on the ground. Electing a black man as President of the United States could not fell that tree. I do not know what can.