Ferguson in Black and White
The policeman looked up and saw someone with an armful of clothes walking down the street near a department store. “Stop,” he yelled, but the 17-year-old black boy fled, and the policeman gave chase. According to the officer’s written report, an unknown “citizen” appeared and told him that the youth was armed. Suddenly the boy stopped, shifted the clothes to one side, and seemed to the officer to reach for a gun.1
The policeman responded to the boy’s motion with a gunshot. The boy did not return fire but paused to shift his load, appearing again (to the officer) to reach for a weapon. The officer shot again, striking the boy squarely in the head and killing him instantly. No weapon was found among the clothes strewn about the body of the boy, whose name was Sequoia Mason.2
It was the spring of 1978.
“Police ought to learn, although they seem to never,” editorialized the St. Louis American, “that the oppressed will strike back when the chance comes.”3
In the evolution of a town, neighborhood, or community, there comes a point when the decisions of the past, the conditions of the present, and the prospects for the future collide. Those words are adapted from a long-buried St. Louis government study4, but they could easily apply to today’s Ferguson, Missouri, the St. Louis suburb that exploded in rage during the summer of 2014. And they help explain why Ferguson, Missouri—and not New York City, Oakland, Dayton, or any number of other cities in which white police officers shot and killed unarmed black men—has experienced months of unrest, with no end in sight.
In St. Louis, the decisions of the past created the conditions of the present, which have imbued so many residents with a nihilism about the future. It is a nihilism—a sense that no matter what they do, unseen structural forces will stifle positive change; an exhaustion arising from decades spent as powerless bystanders to policy adoption and implementation affecting their communities; a hopelessness underlined by the horrific image of a teenager mowed down as he desperately raised his hands in surrender—that we must grasp if we are to understand the images from St. Louis that continue to rivet the world.
In the past two months, we’ve seen it happen over and over again: unarmed black men shot, choked, often killed by fearful white officers. My life in St. Louis—as a basketball player in some of the city’s roughest neighborhoods, a public-school employee, a charter-school cofounder, a youth basketball coach, and then a state senator who often accompanied police on all-night shifts—taught me to not jump to conclusions. But it’s hard to avoid a pretty simple one: None of these men—not Michael Brown, not Eric Garner selling cigarettes in Staten Island, not Kajieme Powell wandering with a knife in North St. Louis City, not John Crawford III absentmindedly toting a BB gun at an Ohio Walmart—deserved to die.
That sentiment seems to describe the feelings of many of those massed in Ferguson, whose mayor opined recently, “There is no history of racial tension here.” The protestors want white St. Louis to ditch the knee-jerk paternalism and actually hear their message. They want white St. Louis to finally make an effort to grapple with its shameful racial history, a history in which a complex alchemy of private decisions and public policies conspired to leave North St. Louis County divided by race and class. They want to win some agency over their own lives instead of being at the mercy of forces that have so often let them down—or actively impeded them. And most of all, they want law enforcement to recognize that black lives have value.
When the television cameras and national reporters descended upon Ferguson to cover protests that occasionally morphed into instigation of police officers and late-night looting, pundits who hadn’t heard of Ferguson a week earlier filled the airwaves pontificating about the root causes. And while some analysts correctly identified various key issues, one question went answered: What about St. Louis’s history, economics, politics, leadership structure, and culture set it apart from the myriad other cities and towns that quietly endured similar tragedies?
Though St. Louis may differ from all the other places that saw similar killings, it has much in common with other places that haven’t yet exploded but might. A closer examination of the structures, policies, and psychology underlying the unrest in Ferguson can give other communities the courage to address their own simmering issues and bend the arc of their destinies so that they may avoid the reckoning St. Louis is now experiencing.
Even in a country plagued by racial divides, the chasm in St. Louis seems unusually wide. What explains this profound disconnect? What type of self-inflicted damage unique to St. Louis lies at the root of its trials and tribulations? Why are most white St. Louisans unmoved by the pleas of protesting black St. Louisans, whose remote lives seem to inhabit a distant universe despite being just miles—sometimes blocks—away? And are possible solutions to St. Louis’s racial division unique to the city, or might they also apply to other communities around the nation?
To properly address these questions, we must first travel back in time nearly two centuries, to Missouri’s 1821 birth. Only by examining how we got here—through the lenses of those who lived it—can we understand the roots of Ferguson’s rage.
Chapter 1: One City, Two Prisms
To understand Ferguson, first we must understand what happened that fateful day—or, more accurately, the widely divergent accounts of what happened.
On August 9, 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown was walking home from a convenience store with his friend Dorian Johnson when Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson rode up behind them. “Get the fuck onto the sidewalk,” ordered Wilson, according to Johnson’s account.5 When the young men did not immediately obey, Wilson reversed the car alongside them and opened his door, which bounced off Brown. At this point the accounts of what occurred begin to diverge.
In an account supported by eyewitnesses who lived in an adjacent apartment complex, Johnson claims that Wilson grabbed Brown through the squad car window. Johnson said that Wilson then fired a shot at Brown while grabbing him, a claim not supported by some other witnesses. Brown and Johnson scurried; Johnson hid and says that Brown ran approximately 30 feet before swiveling to surrender. “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting,” Brown said, as he raised his hands in the air, according to Johnson. Then, according to several eyewitnesses, Wilson shot Brown multiple times, though not—as Johnson originally claimed—in the back, according to an independent autopsy.
Wilson’s version of events, as told through friends, contradicts accounts of eyewitnesses including Johnson, a friend of Brown who appears to have been with Brown earlier that day at a convenience store where Brown allegedly took a box of cigarillos. Surveillance video appears to show Brown strong-arming the store clerk, though Officer Wilson was not aware of the incident at the time of the stop, according to the Ferguson Police Department.
According to Wilson’s account, Brown initiated the skirmish by punching Wilson in the face and lunging for Wilson’s gun, leading to a struggle that caused one shot to be fired from the officer’s gun inside the police car. Brown began to flee but turned around at Wilson’s direction. Except, instead of surrendering or pleading with Wilson not to shoot, as both black and white eyewitnesses suggested he had, Brown aggressively rushed toward Wilson, and continued to do so even after being shot multiple times. “He just kept coming,” a friend said Wilson claimed, until a mortal head wound stilled Brown, permanently.
What neither side disputes is that Brown’s body lay on the ground spilling blood for four hours as forensics investigators conducted their work and police on the scene prevented Brown’s parents from holding his lifeless body as it baked in the sun, left uncovered for all to see.
The reaction to this death has laid bare St. Louis’ deep racial divisions. Young African-Americans have responded with more than three months of protests—sometimes coordinated, sometimes not—that have included taunting police and, occasionally, rock throwing and looting. Protesters initially focused on the fact that Brown was unarmed and surrendering; they soon broadened their critique to indict the St. Louis region’s larger law-enforcement regime. St. Louis County prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch triggered the black community’s misgivings about the system; he had a history of tense relations with the black community, including a 2001 case in which undercover police shot two unarmed men 21 times and killed them, despite the fact that one of the men was not even a suspect. The policemen involved maintained that the men were driving a car toward them in a threatening manner, but both forensic evidence and eyewitness testimony failed to corroborate their claim. McCulloch declined to prosecute the police, which led to lasting distrust in the black community. According to public-opinion polls, large majorities of St. Louis blacks believed that McCulloch could not be trusted to impartially handle the case, and black leaders called for a special prosecutor.6
At first, Ferguson and St. Louis County police responded to protests with overwhelming force, including tear gas, military tanks, and rubber bullets. This increased the size and ferocity of the protests, and helped turn what would have been a local tragedy into a major international story. It also helped reinforce the prevailing view among black St. Louisans that the police were the enemy. Predictably, the more force police used to quash protests, the more antagonistic the protesters became. As one community leader said of the local youths leading the protests, “It’s about pride. They don’t want to be punked out of their own neighborhood.”7
Conversely, most whites responded to the events, at first, with a collective yawn. Surveys showed that overwhelming majorities of whites trusted McCulloch, who had just been easily reelected to a sixth term, to handle the case fairly. As the protests spread across the metropolitan area to sporting events, political fund-raisers, and high-end shopping malls, whites began to chafe. Citizen journalists armed with iPhones recorded incident after incident of tension between black protesters and white bystanders, even amid the celebration of yet another Cardinals postseason run. When a group of protestors stood just outside the gates at Busch Stadium chanting, “Let’s Go, Mike Brown,” one group of angry white men altered their own cheer from “Let’s Go, Cardinals” to “Let’s Go, Darren Wilson!” Even some progressive whites questioned protesters’ elevation of Michael Brown as a symbol of racial injustice. “Look, they gotta pick a better case to litigate,” one liberal trial lawyer and major Democratic Party donor told me, leaning forward intently in his office. Since he represented plaintiffs in personal injury, employment discrimination, and class action suits, and had been notably supportive of my efforts on behalf of the black community while in the state Senate, I was surprised to hear the vehemence of his opposition to the protests: “Look, it may not be convenient for their narrative, but this kid was a thug—did you see the way he chokes the store clerk when he robs the place?”8 Interviews with dozens of white people suggested this attorney’s views were not uncommon. Though a few whites—particularly younger ones—seemed awakened and radicalized by the shootings, most who did not immediately and strongly support the protests surrounding Brown’s death gravitated toward the opposite direction. “Why can’t they just wait for all the evidence to come in and let the system work?” went a frequent refrain.
Because, I thought, it was the same system that had been letting them down for decades.
Nothing that has happened in Ferguson—not the protests, nor the police response, nor the responses of the white political community or business establishment—has surprised any of the black St. Louisans I interviewed amid the unrest. David Buckner, a 40-year-old black man I first met 25 years ago in a basketball gym who has been a close friend ever since, described the police harassment he’s faced around his North St. Louis County home and summed up the feelings of many: “Man, what I can’t believe is that it took this long for some shit like this to happen.”9
Such fatalism was a constant theme mentioned by black protesters. “We gonna die anyway, so we may as well be out here protesting,” a 42-year-old protester named Mike Johnson told me in between taunts he shouted at an impassive officer. “This don’t make sense, all this military shit, unless they trying to provoke us to going to war.”10 Johnson had a long history of antagonism with local police. “Look what they did to me when I was 18,” he said, as he lifted his shirt to reveal a railroad-track-like scar from his chest down through his midsection. He continued: “Shot me in the back, blew my hip out, said I had a gun—‘Oops! We thought he had a gun!’ So you shot me in the back three times ’cause you thought I had a gun? I was gonna sue, but they said they was gonna kill me. I was 18 years old, I didn’t have nobody, I didn’t have all this. They kept pickin’ me up, kept lockin’ my ass up, beating me, until I dropped the lawsuit. When I dropped the lawsuit, that’s when everything stopped. That’s what the fuck happened to me. I was terrorized by some terrorists.”11
Dozens of bystanders nodded at Johnson’s account, and several approached to offer their own stories of being harassed by police. I listened for nearly an hour as I heard story after story of pedestrian harassment, vehicular harassment, tickets given for minor municipal offenses for which whites might receive warnings, evidence being planted, etc. I couldn’t, of course, verify each one. But it struck me that not one white St. Louisan out of dozens interviewed offered a single story of police harassment.
Chapter 2: A Big Small Town, Surrounded by 90 Smaller Ones
Missouri was always betwixt and between. It entered the Union in 1821 as part of the Missouri Compromise, a slave state balanced by the free state of Maine. But Missouri’s pro-slavery status was not uncontested; pro-slavery Virginians, Tennesseans, and Kentuckians who called their new mid-Missouri home Little Dixie were soon joined by anti-slavery Germans, who settled towns like Hermann and Dutzow, founded in 1832 by members of the Berlin Emigration Society. This left the state divided in ethnic patterns resembling those in the rest of the nation. This was not the sole internal tension. Missouri was neither overwhelmingly urban nor rural; neither progressive nor reactionary. It was neither East nor West, North nor South. As its largest city sitting on its eastern front and receiving the bulk of migrants, St. Louis set the tone for the state and exhibited a similar ambivalence. As Bill McClellan, longtime columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, once theorized, “Back when the country was founded, the successful people had no reason to leave the East Coast. The less successful people pushed west [and] reached St. Louis. The adventurous ones pushed on. The slackers stayed here.”12
McClellan’s bemused self-deprecation embodied the character of a city that lacked Chicago’s brawny self-assurance and grit. It wasn’t always this way, though. Back in the mid-1850s, St. Louis was the first Midwestern city to crack the list of the nation’s 10 largest cities, and by 1870 it was the nation’s fourth-largest city, ahead of regional rival Chicago. St. Louis’ excellent location just south of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers positioned the city to exploit the steamboat revolution; steamboat industry titans profited handsomely throughout the mid-1800s. Soon, though, Chicago business and political leaders hit upon a new plan to supplant St. Louis as the region’s key commercial hub: a railway connecting the East and West Coasts.13
St. Louis leaders had likely seen the future coming. But fierce steamboat industry opposition long prevented construction of a Mississippi River bridge, precluding Illinois railway lines from reaching St. Louis.14 St. Louis rapidly lost ground to Chicago. Even when the James B. Eads Bridge, spanning the Mississippi River at St. Louis, was finally built in 1874, the steamboat industry managed to impose restrictions constraining river traffic. It was “too little, too late; Chicago was already on its way to eclipsing St. Louis,” according to the website Built St. Louis. For perhaps the first time, though not the last, St. Louis sabotaged its own future—powerful yet narrow entrenched interests had circled the wagons, ensured their own economic success, and myopically ensured that the city writ large would lose the race for Midwestern primacy. The bridge delay was one of the most consequential policy decisions—or, as public-policy scholars Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz might say, non-decisions—that St. Louis would face, and the impact of its delay and dilution would still be felt well over a century later.
This pattern of parochialism would endure: While other, rapidly growing cities used their burgeoning wealth in part to include marginalized groups, struggling St. Louis often saw local political and economic elites turn inward to fiercely guard their own fiefdoms.
Never was Missouri’s odd geographical position (neither North nor South) more evident than during the Civil War. Some have argued that since Missouri was a rare slave state that never seceded, it was able to escape the indignity of Reconstruction—and thus became the rare culturally Southern state that avoided directly confronting the legacies of its slaveholding past. “There was never a period where African-Americans achieved political control in the late 19th century as was the case in the South, and that meant no policies were put into place that could be a counter force,” said University of Missouri–St. Louis political scientist Terry Jones, who as a longtime pollster has spent decades gauging public opinion in the region. “Missouri shifted immediately from a slave state to a Jim Crow state.”15 That was consequential; it prevented black Missourians from developing a political leadership class with institutional experience and memory when nearly all other states with significant black populations did just that.
In 1876, St. Louis City, which up until then had resided within St. Louis County, voted to secede—in spite of the fact that the city had recently shrunk to just one-third its former size. Why would a city separate from the eponymous county in which it resided? As with most municipal fights, it came down to money. Before the advent of the automobile, it was neither cheap nor easy to provide emergency services (fire, ambulance, etc.) to the far-flung areas 10 miles or farther from the central business district. At the time, there were 10 times more people in the central city than in the outlying areas, and many lamented the expense necessary to service areas then considered rural (but which are now inner-ring suburbs, such as Ferguson) and did not envision much more westward expansion of the city proper.16 Given the relatively sparse tax revenues extracted from the outlying areas and the high cost to service them, city leaders saw little downside to secession, and after several months of haggling over voter-fraud allegations, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in April 1877 that voters had approved splitting the city and the county. Although the city continued to grow in the early 1900s, its growth rate declined relative to that of other cities because of its leaky western boundary. In fact, although it was the fourth-largest city in the nation in 1900, it had slipped to sixth by 1920, behind Cleveland.17 Whites were leaving in droves, moving to St. Louis County and forming new municipalities without considering the long-term inefficiencies inherent to tiny towns; some of the new villages contained fewer than 100 people. These villages embodied St. Louis parochialism; every neighborhood seemed to want to carve out its own niche, its own identity, and anyone who didn’t fit was simply drawn out of a town as boundaries were determined.
It wasn’t long before city fathers began to regret secession and plotted to reverse it. After a lengthy dispute between city and county leaders, a board of freeholders appointed via state constitutional amendment put a plan to recombine the two entities on the 1926 ballot. Unfortunately, in just a half-century of independence, county residents had already soured on the city and rejected the plan. (Support from both jurisdictions was required for adoption.) Voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed borough system three years later, as they would similar plans in 1959 and 1962. The 1962 merger proposal was opposed by 74 percent of city voters and 79 percent of county voters. City voters, especially blacks who had begun to taste political power by electing state representatives, a state senator, and several aldermen, did not want to cede the power they had worked long and hard to accrue; and the rapidly multiplying white county voters who had left the city were loath to merge with the jurisdiction they had recently fled. Whereas opposition to prior consolidation efforts had been concentrated among working-class voters, the 1962 effort was rejected across the board by voters who seemed to sense that the city had begun a long, painful contraction and wanted to preserve their piece of a shrinking pie.18
As the 20th century progressed, Indianapolis, Louisville, and other cities merged with surrounding counties. But in St. Louis, parochialism reigned. It led to extreme municipal fragmentation and a region that remains segregated decades after de jure racism ended. And it carved St. Louis County into 90 separate towns with 60 police departments and more than 60 municipal courts, many of which have been accused of being incompetent and racist. Within the county but outside of those 90 municipalities are another 300,000 people who live in unincorporated areas governed by the county, leading to scenarios in which county police sometimes must drive several miles to patrol areas not more than a few square blocks. One of the only threads uniting nearly all of these tiny unincorporated areas and municipalities is the fact that they steadfastly refuse to merge with one another, or with St. Louis City. Indeed, parochialism has been a key ingredient in the toxic mix of conditions that ignited Ferguson’s fury.
In the past 25 years, broader political shifts have also had profound effects on the St. Louis region, contributing to its enduring fragmentation and broader economic struggles. The state government, once dominated by Democrats with a substantial urban base, is now controlled by Republicans, whose voting base is centered firmly in rural Missouri. This has had significant consequences for North St. Louis City and County; whereas the overwhelmingly Democratic legislators from these areas were once able to cut deals with the rural and exurban Democratic leaders of the House and Senate to bring home state-government-funded projects and goodies to their districts, that ability has been nearly eliminated since the Republicans seized control.
In the early 1990s, Democrats—typically old-school, pro-gun, pro-life Democrats—dominated both houses of the Missouri Legislature. But in 1992, Missouri voters passed a law limiting legislators to eight years in each chamber. Current legislators weren’t grandfathered, and so incumbents’ days were numbered. Rodney Jetton didn’t vote on the term-limits law. In 1992, he was a 24-year-old Marine stationed in the Middle East. The son of a Baptist preacher in rural Marble Hill (pop. 1,502), he hoped to seek office upon returning stateside. In 2000—the year that the full impact of term limits kicked in—the ambitious young Republican firebrand won a seat in the House. More than half the representatives elected that year were freshmen, and most were Republicans. After nearly 50 years in the wilderness, Republicans had a shot to regain the majority.
Jetton wasn’t your typical freshman. He boarded the bus for the ritual freshman state tour with a 100-page document in hand that he immediately presented to Minority Leader Catherine Hanaway. It was a plan to retake the majority. He’d forecast which districts were winnable and which weren’t. He broke down how much money it would take to win them. And he offered a road map for how to do it: Emphasize guns and abortion to woo socially conservative Democrats, and use tort reform to dry up corporate contributions to Democrats (and eventually, to drain the coffers of trial attorneys). Hanaway, no dummy, recognized native political talent when she saw it. She put Jetton in charge of candidate recruitment and training.
Jetton knew something very important: The old-line Democrats were respected in their communities of farmers and small businessmen, laborers and tradesmen, mostly descended from the hardscrabble Virginians who had trekked across the hills long ago. They were Democrats because that’s what you were if you lived in Virginia before the Civil War.
But by 2000, times were changing. As many scholars and journalists have chronicled, the national Democratic Party had, since the mid-1960s, increasingly lost touch with the old-line Democrats, who continued supporting local Democrats but had long since stopped backing them at the national level. Jetton intuitively understood that the way to these men’s political hearts was through their gun racks. And he knew that the way to their wives’ hearts was through the local preacher—that’s where the life issue came in. He established a clear partisan cleavage on cultural issues that, until then, had existed only in federal and statewide elections. In just two years, he went from minority-party backbencher to speaker pro tempore (the temporary speaker of the House).
Jetton, who became speaker in 2007, passed conservative laws restricting abortion access, prohibiting gay marriage, and making English the state’s official language; Republican legislators also tried to ban embryonic stem cell research. Each of these laws accomplished two things, politically speaking: (1) They repelled gays and LGBT allies, immigrants and those who appreciate diversity, scientific researchers, and young, mobile progressives; and (2) they helped retain and attract people with conservative worldviews. It was a vicious cycle: The more retrograde the political debate, the more progressives left Missouri or decided against going there in the first place. And the more progressives left or stayed away, the more conservative the electorate became, and the more reactionary the debate.19
Missouri was always a culturally conservative state outside of its two major cities and, to a lesser extent, even inside them. But Jetton’s strategy attracted rural and exurban social conservatives, helping expand the Republican base.
Like me, Jetton has had his share of ups20 and downs21 since leaving the legislature. But his successors have emulated his deft ability to drive wedges between urban and rural Democrats; in fact, the House Republicans now hold a veto-proof supermajority, as do the dominant Senate Republicans. While the same term limits so critical to his rise forced Jetton from office years ago, his legacy lives on in a Republican-dominated state government that favors low taxes, small government, and limited investment in the types of programs that could begin seriously addressing longstanding racial inequities.
That legacy leaves the Democratic Party essentially powerless to steer significant resources to fighting poverty in North St. Louis City and County, given the appropriations power lying almost solely with dominant legislative Republicans. Just as Virginians and Kentuckians living outstate were able to hold sway in the 1820s and ensure that—against the wishes of the ex-Northerners who had migrated to the St. Louis area—Missouri would be a slave state, conservative outstate interests once again had most of the policymaking clout in state politics. In the late 20th century, black St. Louis Democratic legislators like state senators Jet Banks and Paula Carter could cut deals with Democratic leaders to extract major public works and other state support to North City and County, but that became increasingly difficult under Republican control. And it was one more leg of a stool of autonomy cut out from under black St. Louisans.
Chapter 3: Fragmentation, Race, and Class
In St. Louis, parochialism is inextricably intertwined with race. But it isn’t just about black and white. It’s also about green.
Politics, wrote the political scientist Harold Lasswell in 1936, is about “who gets what, when, and how.” In order to understand the racial power disparities in Ferguson, we must understand the geographic and economic dynamics that underlie them—and the connection between white parochialism and black pocketbooks. As the data show, it’s a connection that lends credence to the pervasive sense among blacks that North County municipalities are elaborately constructed patronage systems for the (predominantly) white people who run them, and that the municipal law-enforcement regimes constitute profit centers targeting some of the region’s poorest residents.
St. Louis City’s decision to separate from St. Louis County is one the city came to regret. Most Rust Belt cities have bled population since the 1960s, but few have been as badly damaged as St. Louis City, which, since 1970, has lost as high a percentage of its population as Detroit has lost.
This exodus has left a ring of mostly middle-class suburbs around an urban core plagued by entrenched poverty. White flight from the city mostly ended in the 1980s; since then, blacks have left the inner city for suburbs such as Ferguson in the area of St. Louis County known as North County. As with many North County suburbs, Ferguson’s demographics have shifted rapidly: In 1990, it was 74 percent white and 25 percent black; in 2000, 52 percent black and 45 percent white; by 2010, 67 percent black and 29 percent white.22
“The initial white migration [out from the City] was for the bigger house and the schools,” said Timothy Green, who represented Ferguson and adjacent areas of North St. Louis County from 2004 to 2012 in the Missouri Senate. Black migration, he stressed, was rooted in the same desires: “Just like anybody else, just like whites before ’em, they moved to get a bigger house and better schools.”23
This movement of blacks into North County accelerated the area’s fragmentation, as small villages formed to ensure control over zoning, help residents leverage existing tax bases, and exclude poorer people in surrounding areas. Soon, in addition to the odd case of a city shedding its eponymous county, the county was split into 90 municipalities, most with their own city hall, police force, and traffic court.
Many rely on revenue generated from traffic tickets and related fines. According to a study by the St. Louis nonprofit Better Together, Ferguson receives nearly one-quarter of its revenue from court fees; for some surrounding towns, it exceeds 50 percent. North County suburbs bring in over one-third of their revenue from courts, on average.24
ArchCity Defenders, a group of St. Louis–area public defenders who specialize in traffic-court defense, wrote a report detailing how North County municipalities use traffic fines and fees to raise revenue from some of their poorest residents. The study found that over half of these towns engaged in illegal and abusive practices, such as arresting impoverished people who were unable to pay exorbitant court fines for minor traffic violations. According to the report—compiled long before Michael Brown was killed—Ferguson is one of the most egregious offenders. In 2013 its court collected $2.6 million, making it the city’s second-largest source of revenue and comprising far more than the town’s total law-enforcement costs.
Supreme Court rulings, laws, and bankruptcy protections are supposed to outlaw debtors’ prisons. But somehow North St. Louis County seems to occupy a parallel universe in which the authorities act with impunity. As one former basketball teammate of mine who works at a firm just blocks from Ferguson described the process to me:
“You just know when you go through [Ferguson], you better be right. Otherwise, they’ll get you on a taillight or a seat belt or a rolling stop, and once they get you, it just multiplies: Your plate expired, your insurance late, your registration old…it’s always something. All of a sudden, you got five tickets, man. And that’s if you don’t got warrants! ’Cause if you didn’t pay every cent on all the tickets the last time the shit happened, then you goin’ to jail. Look, man, I got a good gig now; I can pay a fine. But a lotta these people ’round here…a lotta my friends, man…well, I mean, you can end up owing $1,000 from a single stop the way they pile it on.… Then if you can’t pay that, you’re on the installment plan, and then one day you choosing between food and keeping up, so you let it slide, then you drive to work to get the money to get back right on your plan, but they get you for the taillight that you couldn’t afford to fix ’cause you didn’t have no money to pay the ticket in the first place! Or what about when they get you for expired license, and you suspended, but then you supposed to do what, fly to court on a damn magic carpet? You scared to get another ticket, so you stay home…or if you try to go and they stop you, now you really fucked ’cause you goin’ to jail, and if you can’t make bond, you gotta call your boss with some bullshit ’bout you taking care of your sick auntie, and pretty soon you lose your job, and then how you gonna pay off that warrant? Shit’s crazy.”25
Many St. Louis–area public defenders call the low-level municipal violations that my teammate described—driving with a suspended license, expired plates or registration, failure to provide proof of insurance, trespassing, turnstile-hopping at the train station, failing to mow one’s grass, violations of occupancy permit restrictions, wearing “saggy pants,” or disturbing the peace—“poverty crimes.” Police officers have substantial discretion in determining these violations and often use them as probable cause to forage for other violations.
As the ArchCity Defenders’ report also notes, wealthier (often white) defendants typically hire lawyers who cut them deals, while poorer (usually black) defendants simply accept a guilty plea and the consequent penalty. Defendants unable to pay are put on a docket requiring them to make monthly court appearances to pay a prescribed amount or explain reasons for nonpayment, but this can be easier said than done: Violators’ licenses are typically suspended at that point, and given defendants’ inability to access private transportation or afford cabs, in addition to North County’s uneven public transportation, it may be difficult to get to a faraway court. According to the ArchCity Defenders’ report, Ferguson’s courtroom gets so crowded that judges lock the doors just five minutes after court begins, so that anyone who is late and can’t get in is subject to arrest and imprisonment for failing to appear. As my teammate noted, even a brief period of imprisonment may lead to job loss and a deeper spiral into poverty and legal struggles: a modern-day debtors prison.26 The system may discriminate based on race and economics, but it doesn’t seem to exhibit much humanity; one woman told NPR that she was arrested and imprisoned for seven days while being under doctor’s care just two weeks after having given birth for failing to pay off a traffic fine. “If I don’t pay on the day or before, I get a whole other warrant, and the money that I use don’t go against nothing,” she said, outside Ferguson’s brand-new police building. “It goes to this—it goes to this new building.”27
In an exhaustive piece detailing North County’s suffocating municipal court system, the Washington Post’s Radley Balko chronicled the struggles of Nicole Bolden, a 32-year-old black single mother who was unable to avoid a collision after another driver made an illegal U-turn immediately in front of her. Since Bolden clearly wasn’t at fault and knew she had warrants for her arrest stemming from unpaid traffic tickets, she’d hoped to leave, but the other motorist insisted on calling the police to properly file a report. After being taken to three different jails for processing over the course of two sleepless days, Bolden was practically delirious. “I just freaked out,” she told Balko:
“I said, ‘What about my babies? Who is going to take care of my babies?’… It’s different inside those walls. They treat you like you don’t have any emotions. I know I have a heavy foot. I have kids. I have to work to support them. I’ve also been taking classes. So I’m late a lot. And when I’m late, I speed. But I’m still a human being.”28
Bolden was no hardened criminal; according to her attorney, she earned associate’s degrees in medical assistance and paralegal studies even as she fought to escape the gaping maw of North County’s justice system. But the system doesn’t discriminate—except against poor people. Since potential landlords or employers can access publicly available arrest warrants, many people like Bolden struggle to obtain a job, housing, job training, or financial aid. “They just get sucked into this vortex of debt and despair,” said Thomas Harvey, who leads the ArchCity Defenders.
This was a variation on a story I heard frequently from my former constituents from North City. They’d be picked up for a minor traffic violation when driving through North County, or even, in one sadly memorable case, for staying overnight at the home of a girlfriend and thereby violating her occupancy permit. Often one ticket would somehow multiply into three or four. These constituents, invariably working minimum-wage or odd jobs and struggling to make ends meet, sometimes failed to appear for their court date out of fear that they’d be put in jail—the kind of misconception pervasive among poor people who lacked attorneys and didn’t have lawyer buddies they could call up to ask for free advice.
None of this surprised me as a senator; I’d seen it up close and personal a decade earlier when I went to traffic court for speeding tickets. The judge would take a look at me, clean-cut in a jacket and tie, and ask why I was speeding. “Your honor, I teach as an adjunct while I’m finishing my Ph.D., and I didn’t want to be late to the class I was teaching,” I would say. Or, “I’m working my way through grad school as a deliveryman, Your Honor, and I was rushing to get back to campus.” Often, when the arresting officer didn’t show, the judge would give me a fatherly smile, scribble something on the ticket, and tell the clerk to dismiss it, or scuttle the ticket and reduce the fine to court costs, or some similar show of beneficence. After I began doing political commentary on the local CBS affiliate’s morning news show, the frequency with which this happened increased. I relay this story not to indicate my charm or legal skill but because my story is probably not unique…for a middle-class white guy.
I’d walk out of the courtroom afterward seized with guilt. Because I knew that none of the black people at court that night—and they were invariably all black; on a typical night I’d be the only white out of 50 to 100 people—would get similar deals. I saw the stress on their faces as they tried to explain their situations to skeptical judges and hurried, hard-nosed prosecutors; the judge would listen for maybe 30 seconds and shake his head and scold the defendant, who would grovel and apologize to no avail. These were, in the words of the Post’s Balko, assembly lines of despair.29 These folks needed a break, but I was the one getting it. It was as clear an example of white privilege and class privilege as I’d experienced, and I willingly exploited it—even as I was coaching basketball at an inner-city boys club and starting charter schools in the city’s roughest neighborhoods. Few can compartmentalize as well as I.
I wasn’t the worst exploiter of this, however. Since I wasn’t represented by counsel, I had to wait in line, often for hours; attorneys automatically cut straight to the front of the line, since judges sought to accommodate lawyers with multiple appearances scheduled on the same evening. Lawyers cut “no-points” deals or got cases dismissed for prominent clients while unrepresented black defendants stood idly by in three-hour lines (before smartphones!) that snaked around buildings. I remember thinking to myself that the justice system in these towns didn’t seem far from a segregated bus in Montgomery or Selma.
When national reporters descended on Ferguson, many seemed shocked at the byzantine, inefficient, and discriminatory court system that residents took as a given. The data in a recent Better Together study paint a disturbing picture:
• St. Louis County’s presiding judge oversees 81 municipal courts, more than 10 times as many as the statewide average, rendering sound oversight impossible.30
• St. Louis County comprises 11 percent of Missouri’s population but 34 percent of its municipal court fines and fees. In one swath of northeast St. Louis County, many municipalities garner more than one-third of their operating revenue from these payments, in violation of the state statute capping the amount of fines and fees that a municipality can collect at 30 percent of general revenue. And 73 of the 81 municipal courts make money, averaging a nearly $500,000 annual profit.31
• Twenty of the 21 municipalities for whom these payments comprise at least 20 percent of their budget, and 13 of the 14 for whom they comprise the largest individual source of revenue, are located in northeast St. Louis County. These towns are, on average, 62 percent black, approximately three times the proportion of the rest of St. Louis County, and they have twice as high a percentage of people in poverty. The attorney general’s recent finding that black motorists were 66 percent more likely than white drivers to be stopped32 suggests that municipalities are preying on black citizens to fund their budgets.33
In light of the above, no one should be surprised that many black citizens view the courts not as institutions of justice but as profit centers. That many towns actually budgeted for increases in fines and fees betrayed their intent to use municipal courts in precisely this way. Given the substantial declines in property values and therefore in property-tax revenue since the 2008 housing collapse—a crisis that has hit North County particularly hard, as one in 21 dwellings were recently in foreclosure34—municipalities have foraged for a way to offset revenue declines. It seems evident that, in an attempt to maintain the same level of service provision or, viewed more cynically, to preserve municipal jobs amid plummeting property values, towns turned to the “hidden tax” of law enforcement in their search for revenue.
Municipal reliance on revenue generated from traffic stops adds pressure to make more of them. One village with zero commercial businesses, Sycamore Hills (population 667), has stationed a radar-gun-wielding police officer on its 250-foot northbound stretch of Interstate 170; a tiny neighboring town has embarked on a similar strategy.35 These speed traps go against fundamental tenets of democracy: Instead of seeking the consent of and serving residents, these towns are subsisting only by relying on their citizens’ expected lawbreaking.
Throughout North County, primarily white police forces are pulling over, ticketing, and arresting blacks in numbers far exceeding their population share. In 2013, Ferguson (population 21,135) issued 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses, mostly driving violations.36 Tellingly, 86 percent of stops, 92 percent of searches, and 93 percent of arrests were of black people—despite the fact that police officers were far less likely to find contraband on black drivers (22 percent, versus 34 percent of whites). So, while blacks make up 67 percent of Ferguson’s population, they comprise 86 percent of traffic stops. Whites, who are 29 percent of the population, comprise just 12.7 percent of stops. Notably, however, blacks make up less than six percent of Ferguson’s police force.
The fact that public-sector workers aren’t required to live within town limits significantly worsens the problem and fuels community resentment; residents see police, prosecutors, and judges as mercenaries brought in to harass them. Adding insult to injury, all of these law-enforcement officials—as well as the town clerks and assessors that literally take their money—are paid with the fruits of that harassment. When a Ferguson policeman was caught on tape during one of the protest’s first nights referring to the protesters as “fucking animals,” it was not shocking; since most white North County police live far away from the jurisdictions they patrol and have little in common with residents, some view it more as zookeeping than protecting their neighbors. Blacks in North County, while not as poor, on balance, as blacks in North City, almost completely lack autonomy within their jurisdictions.
By contrast, consider the city: After decades of methodically building political power, blacks in St. Louis City elected a black mayor in 1993 and black aldermen or alderwomen in nearly half the city’s wards, and hold two of three seats on the powerful Board of Estimate and Apportionment, which must approve all city contracts. Well-established churches, Democratic ward organizations, and other civic institutions mobilize voters in black wards. But because blacks have reached the suburbs in significant numbers only in the past 15 years or so, fewer suburban black communities have deeply ingrained civic organizations.
That helps explain why majority-black Ferguson has a virtually all-white power structure: a white mayor; a school board with six white members and one Hispanic, which recently suspended a highly regarded young black superintendent who then resigned; a city council with just one black member; and a six percent black police force.
Many North County towns—and inner-ring suburbs nationally—resemble Ferguson. Longtime white residents have consolidated power, continuing to dominate city councils and school boards despite sweeping demographic change. They have retained control of patronage jobs and municipal contracts awarded to allies. The North County Labor Club, whose overwhelmingly white constituent unions (plumbers, pipe fitters, electrical workers, sprinkler fitters) have benefited from these arrangements, operates a potent voter-turnout operation that backs white candidates over black upstarts. The more municipal contracts an organization receives, the more generously it can fund reelection campaigns. Construction, waste, and other long-term contracts with private firms have traditionally excluded blacks from the ownership side and, usually, the work force as well.37
This has created massive tension between increasingly black suburban electorates and white leaders whose stranglehold on municipal political power is total. The North County white power structure supplies jobs in public-safety departments and lucrative construction and service contracts to white allies, cementing their status as political and economic elites—and the status of blacks as disempowered outsiders.
Chapter 4: The Best Laid Plans
An understanding of St. Louis’ present racial tension, and of why so many largely segregated municipalities exist, also requires examination of the many urban redevelopment schemes that shaped the St. Louis region. All are bound by one common element: white people—sometimes maliciously, sometimes not—imposing their will on black people’s lives.
One of these plans during the middle of the 20th century involved Mill Creek, a working-class neighborhood just west of downtown, situated in between a swath of affluent St. Louis known as the Golden Corridor. According to local lore, turn-of-the-century St. Louis had more bars and churches per capita than any city in the country: We were a people who sought solace in one establishment or the other. In this way, Mill Creek was a microcosm of the city. As the century dawned, Mill Creek was a densely populated and mostly black neighborhood with small homes, mom-and-pop restaurants and taverns, factories, and churches. Redevelopment began in the 1920s, when Kiel Auditorium (now Scottrade Center), a venue for major sporting and concert events, was built in the neighborhood’s southeast section; most of the neighborhood continued to thrive. One researcher found that a hundred businesses operated on a single neighborhood block;38 the diversity of merchants helped make Mill Creek a self-sustaining community.
It is difficult to overestimate the cultural significance of Mill Creek to black St. Louis. The neighborhood’s Chestnut Valley district, which ran along Chestnut and Market Streets west of the new auditorium, housed a thriving entertainment district in which Scott Joplin and other internationally famous musicians played ragtime and jazz music. Nearby were an array of successful community institutions such as the Pine Street YMCA and the Wheatley YWCA, along with several schools and churches, including First Baptist, St. Louis’ oldest black church, whose first pastor, John Berry Meachum, opened a clandestine school for blacks and later educated slaves on a riverboat, slyly skirting state law.39 The neighborhood had, with precious little external support, created the kind of social capital that modern urban planners strive to nurture.
In part due to this vibrancy, Mill Creek Valley was the primary neighborhood into which blacks were routed as they entered the city.40 The Great Migration of Southern blacks to Rust Belt cities such as Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis—more than six million migrated from the South to the North and Midwest between 1915 and the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act—added thousands of rural Southern blacks to Mill Creek, and its population reached 20,000. The small neighborhood, which occupied a bit more than 10 square blocks of low-rise buildings, was unable to comfortably house so many newcomers. But they settled there anyway, because it was one of the only neighborhoods in St. Louis where they were allowed to live.
These migrants left to escape the brutality that shaped Southern life, an existence in which routine lynchings of black men who dared to challenge white supremacy were merely the most vicious component. They hoped to arrive in a land of milk and honey—they had read bootleg copies of the Chicago Defender detailing the relative virtues of Northern life or heard tales from friends and relatives—and they embarked on their journey with visions of decent-paying factory jobs and some semblance of social equality and dignity. Still, given the stark racial caste system that governed life in the only regime they had ever known, it’s hard to imagine many were shocked to encounter the severe constraints on their housing choices they found in St. Louis, which in fact had pioneered the use of racially restrictive housing covenants.
The nation’s first known restrictive covenant was consummated in St. Louis in 1911, and it inspired municipal proposals to legally prohibit blacks and whites from living on the same block. But in 1917, the Supreme Court struck down a Louisville, Kentucky, residential segregation ordinance similar to municipal legislation in St. Louis.41 Though the Court did not overturn its 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, in which the Court stated that Louisiana’s exclusion of blacks from whites-only railcars constituted a “valid use of state police power,” it decreed that de jure residential segregation was no longer acceptable. St. Louis whites, ever parochial, were not deterred: They returned to voluntary restrictive covenants as the vehicle through which they would propagate residential segregation.
But after decades of successfully quarantining all of St. Louis’ blacks into a few small neighborhoods, some of the neighborhoods were fairly bursting at the seams. Mill Creek Valley’s aging homes—some subdivided to accommodate the incoming masses, many lacking indoor plumbing—badly needed maintenance and upkeep or replacement. But Federal Housing Administration program managers typically refused to offer loans to anyone seeking to buy or rehabilitate housing in black neighborhoods.42 Indeed, the FHA “practically refused to insure any mortgage loans throughout the City of St. Louis, while insuring a steady stream of speculative building development in suburban areas;”43 FHA officials later conceded that the reach of restrictive covenants had largely determined lending patterns.44 The few loans that were made in the City went to neighborhoods due west of Mill Creek, in today’s fashionable Central West End.
Private banks and government were locked in a vicious cycle: Banks avoided the risk of lending in less stable, lower income neighborhoods, which blacks generally inhabited given their newness to St. Louis, their inability to pay higher rents because of the low-paying jobs available to them, and strict residential covenants; the FHA took its cues from banks and loaned to neighborhoods characterized by “stability” and “homogeneity,” steering clear of neighborhoods that were “experiencing Negro infiltration”; and on the back end of the cycle, banks could easily justify avoiding neighborhoods lacking any backstop of federal support.45 One City official summed it up in court testimony years later: “The segregated black community was left to fester while developers aided by the federal government rushed out to build new white enclaves on the city’s edge.”46 The only thing he overlooked was the City’s own complicity in this; city planners and local housing authorities were key actors in steering federal money, which they used to reinforce extant racial patterns.
Without private capital or federal support available, city leaders were left to decide how best to bring investment to the neighborhood. And, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Dan O’Neil would later write, their answer was to fire up the bulldozers. They paid little heed to the architecturally significant buildings in the area—not to mention 5,600 black families.
On August 7, 1954, Mayor Raymond Tucker announced what was then the nation’s largest urban renewal project: a plan to raze commercial and residential buildings across 465 acres of Mill Creek Valley. Three days of front-page headlines praised Tucker’s bold vision.47 Instead of spending money to upgrade the neighborhood’s infrastructure, city leaders destroyed a lively community and pushed thousands of blacks into social and economic isolation by merely relocating poverty to housing projects like Pruitt-Igoe instead of addressing it.48 And because it was impossible, as FHA official Raymond Poley said in the late 1940s, to house blacks outside of “the areas to which they are restricted,” housing projects for blacks were built “within these inordinately crowded areas.”49 Today’s urban researchers recognize the intentionality behind these development patterns. “St. Louis has spent enormous sums of public money to spatially reinforce human segregation patterns,” preservationist Michael Allen said. “We tore out the core of the city around downtown, just north and south and west, and fortified downtown as an island, by removing so-called slum neighborhoods. Then we demolished…historic black neighborhoods. These were not accidents. These were inflicted wounds.”
St. Louis architectural blogger Robert Powers notes that if Mill Creek Valley were standing today, property there would likely be among the most valuable in the city, given its proximity to the central business district.50 Also notable is its location in the middle of a nearly unbroken line of wealth extending from downtown out to the silk-stocking suburbs of Frontenac and Town & Country.
But Mill Creek rudely interrupted the continuous westward march of wealth. And so it had to be annihilated. Today, the area that was Mill Creek now consists of the sprawling Wachovia Bank campus and St. Louis University ball fields. The block that once housed more than 100 businesses now contains one Wachovia building and several parking lots. As Powers notes, no one lives, shops, or enjoys recreation there, rendering it a monoculture—the antithesis of the flourishing neighborhood it once was.
This sudden and traumatic upheaval helps explain black grassroots resistance to more recent redevelopment schemes.51 Hopeful black people had come north in search of a land of jobs, opportunity, and social openness but instead found themselves herded into overcrowded dwellings in unsanitary neighborhoods. Soon thereafter, they were uprooted en masse once city planners identified a “higher use” for their neighborhood.
Deep in this world of constricted opportunities and nonexistent agency lived a black construction worker named J.D. Shelley. Like so many other African-Americans who came due north from their former southern homes—Georgia to Cincinnati and Cleveland, Virginia and the Carolinas to New York City, and Mississippi to St. Louis and Chicago—Shelley found that it was not quite the promised land, to paraphrase Nicholas Lemann’s superb chronicle of the Great Migration. When Shelley first arrived in St. Louis in 1930, he found that blacks were prohibited from entering the city’s major entertainment venues, such as the Fox Theater and Sportsman Park. “When they did open up Sportsman’s Park for colored,” he later said, “the onliest place they could sit was in the bleachers.”52 In February 1915, a letter went out to area white homeowners: “Dear Neighbor: DO YOU REALIZE that at any time you are liable to suffer an irreparable loss, due to the coming of NEGROES into the block in which you live or in which you own property?”53
After settling in St. Louis, Shelley eventually found a job at an army plant on the northwestern edge of the city, just before the St. Louis County border. Shelley and his family, however, lived miles away in an apartment just east of the Mill Creek neighborhood. Soon, he and his wife were able to save enough money to purchase a home. In 1946, they visited her pastor, who doubled as a real estate agent, and he suggested a duplex at 4610 Labadie in North St. Louis’ previously all-white Marcus Avenue neighborhood, located inside of St. Louis City limits a few miles east of Ferguson.
Marcus Avenue was one of the streets that bound the densely populated black neighborhoods near the City’s central business district from outlying, all-white areas of northwest St. Louis that had larger homes and yards. Thanks to the Marcus Avenue Improvement Association, which encompassed the neighborhood bounded by Labadie Avenue on the north, Euclid on the West, Taylor on the east, and Martin Luther King Blvd. on the south, Marcus Avenue constituted the divide between white and black neighborhoods for more than three decades. In 1911, the Association had adopted a restrictive covenant that barred housing sales to blacks, which read:
No part of said property or any portion thereof shall be for said term of Fifty years, occupied by any person not of the Caucasian race, it being intended hereby to restrict the use of said property for said period of time against the occupancy as owners or tenants of any portion of said property for resident or other purpose by people of the Negro or Mongolian Race.
Notably, the Association’s activity was not limited to the housing covenant; it also worked to keep the area elementary school all-white, to prevent unfamiliar and affiliated real estate brokers from operating in the neighborhood and to ensure that the local postmaster did not assign a black letter carrier to the area.54
From 1921 to 1928, association leaders checked the neighborhood thoroughly in an attempt to ensure that the covenant covered all property; by the time Shelley purchased the home, 30 of the 39 property owners representing 47 of the 57 parcels along Labadie between Taylor and Clara—the block of Shelley’s home—had signed a restrictive covenant, and none of those yet to sign had attempted any breach of the agreement. The home itself was covered by the covenant due to the 1911 signature of its original owners, William I. and Emma Thompson.
In 1945, Shelley’s real estate agent attempted to circumvent the restrictive covenant by using a straw party, a white woman named Geraldine Fitzgerald, to make the purchase. This accomplished two goals, according to court testimony that the agent would later offer. First, it allowed for Fitzgerald, who was not a signer of the restrictive covenant, to sell the home to Shelley. Second, the existence of a white buyer helped the agent negotiate more favorable financing terms from a lender.
Louis Kraemer, a white man who lived nearby, was incensed when he discovered the transaction and decided to sue, contending that the state should use its power to uphold the Marcus Avenue Improvement Association’s covenant and thereby void the transaction. In 1945, the trial judge pragmatically decided that the covenant could be effective only if signed by all homeowners; since several owners had not signed, he ruled in favor of the Shelleys. In 1946, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the trial judge and determined that the restrictive covenant was legally enforceable. But in 1948, the United States Supreme Court reversed that decision and forbade states from enforcing such private agreements. The combination of the Shelley v. Kraemer decision and the annihilation of densely populated Mill Creek Valley had set the stage for St Louis’s own mini Great Migration of blacks from overcrowded St. Louis City, where many had been packed into tenements and housing projects, to sprawling St. Louis County.
But just as many of Mississippi’s migratory blacks had been rudely awakened to find the harsh discrimination that awaited them in the promised land of St. Louis, many City blacks who were relieved to decamp the squalid tenements for greener pastures of suburban St. Louis County would also find that a new town didn’t mean a new regime. As historical preservationist Allen concluded, “The same relationships tended to reconstitute themselves across a wide swath of geography. The city’s tensions very quickly reemerged in North County.… The flashpoint keeps moving further from the center of the city, but it’s still the same flashpoint.”55
Indeed, nearly two decades after the U.S. Supreme Court decided Shelley v. Kraemer, future St. Louis police chief and mayor Clarence Harmon tried to move into a new suburban development in Florissant, a town abutting Ferguson. He was told politely, “Well, sir, we are not selling homes to Negroes up here.”56 Harmon was part of an early wave of North St. Louis County blacks who tried to follow the white path of prosperity into the county, only to encounter a painfully familiar set of obstacles—obstacles that would, decades later, sow the seeds of Ferguson’s rage.
Chapter 5: The Great Migration to North County
Kinloch, the oldest black town in Missouri, is now essentially a ghost town,57 but it wasn’t always that way—and understanding its history is another key to understanding Ferguson. Kinloch and Ferguson are two of St. Louis County’s older suburbs, and while their roots are quite different, they are inextricably intertwined. In the 1850s, a farmer named William B. Ferguson donated land for a train-station platform that would eventually serve as a stop between St. Louis and what was then a small farming village to the west called Florissant. When incorporated in 1894, about 1,000 people lived in Ferguson, a quiet town from which wealthy white families commuted to rapidly industrializing St. Louis for work.58 Modern-day parts of Ferguson such as Old Ferguson West still retain aspects of this affluent, small-town character. Kinloch, on the other hand, thrived as a sort of black oasis in mostly white St. Louis County for many decades in the early and mid-1900s. Soon after the turn of the century, when restrictive housing covenants remained legal, a white real estate firm purchased parcels of land, marked them up, and sold them to whites who marked them up again and resold them to blacks from North St. Louis City. By the time blacks got their hands on a deed, they were paying double the price quoted to whites. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Olive Street Terrace Realty Company sold 25-foot lots in South Kinloch Park at an average of $150 to white people and resold them at an average of $300 to black people.59
The Post-Dispatch also discovered testimonials the Olive Street Terrace Company employed as part of their effort to attract white investors. Two examples are below:
Olive Street Terrace Realty Co.
February 23, 1917.
1403 Boatmen’s Bank Bldg.,
I have just received check for the first payment made to me by the negro who bought two of my lots. These lots cost me $325.00 and were sold inside of ninety days at a price that will net me over $600.00.
I am well pleased with the investment.
[Signed] W. B. CRAWFORD,
1601 Locust St.
W. B. Crawford, 1917
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
February 23rd, 1917.
Fortunately for me, I was given the opportunity to buy some lots in the negro subdivision of South Kinloch. Looked like would surely make money, if I had to hold them indefinitely.
Two of my lots were sold for me last week at double the price I paid.
[Signed] M. M. SEUFERT,
810 N. Fourth St.
M. M. Seufert, 191760
This was the genesis of Missouri’s first all-black town: a real estate scam that enriched affluent white investors at the expense of aspiring black homeowners trying to escape overcrowded slum areas—families seeking the suburban American Dream exactly as white families had and would for decades to come.
And yet, it was a heady time for bustling little Kinloch. The Wright Brothers visited Kinloch Airfield in one of their earliest tours, and the airfield hosted an event at which Theodore Roosevelt took the maiden presidential airplane flight, which lasted approximately three minutes. Kinloch Airfield was also where the first airmail was shipped in 1911 and later flown by a young pilot named Charles Lindbergh as he prepared for his transatlantic flight. A streetcar line ran through neighboring Ferguson, helping Kinloch residents travel to jobs throughout the region and exposing many whites to Kinloch as they passed through. Despite the region’s decidedly Southern folkways and segregated housing arrangements, blacks and whites rode the streetcars as equals. Kinloch itself was also notable for its relative enlightenment; despite school segregation, it became the first Missouri community to elect a black man to its school board, and the first seven black superintendents in Missouri all served in Kinloch.61 But even then, Ferguson had a very different orientation. It was a “sundown town” from which blacks were supposed to disappear after dusk. Ferguson blocked the main road from Kinloch, though it allowed passage during the day so domestic workers serving Ferguson could travel back and forth.
Kinloch’s relative internal tranquility began to change in 1938. A second black man sought election to the school board in the district that had a narrow black majority—whites inhabited the north, and blacks the south—and whites responded by attempting to split the school district. It failed: 415 blacks in the south voted unanimously against the effort, while all 215 whites in the north supported it. So to get around the small problem of losing democratically, whites in the northern half of Kinloch immediately formed a new municipality called Berkeley to ensure that their schools would remain separate and lily-white, and a rare Missouri effort at integrated governance ended. Kinloch continued to thrive for the next several decades as a small nearly all-black town of churches, small shops and restaurants, community centers, and tidy homes. Lacking much of a tax base, Kinloch’s schools suffered. Still, the tiny town also raised some outsize figures, including comedian Dick Gregory and U.S. Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA).
But in the 1980s, the St. Louis airport (which had long since been renamed Lambert International Airport) began snatching up property in Kinloch and other surrounding neighborhoods for noise abatement and construction of an additional runway. From 1990 to 2000, Kinloch shed more than 80 percent of its population, and as the community fabric frayed, it was increasingly plagued by crime and disorder.
Construction on airport expansion, which cost well over a billion dollars and involved 550 companies, began in 2001. But 2001 also brought American Airlines’ acquisition of TWA and the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Which means that the airport is dramatically underutilized now; a senior airport official told me Lambert could easily handle twice the traffic it currently gets. Meanwhile, many of the displaced residents from Kinloch have ended up in Ferguson—specifically, in Canfield Green, the apartment complex on whose grounds Michael Brown tragically died.62
Transient black St. Louisans, often uprooted by massive urban renewal schemes that would not live up to their grandiose visions and then resegregated into undesirable areas, struggle to build home equity or any intergenerational wealth—something many whites take as a given. This lack of wealth leads to black communities with poorly funded schools and poorly maintained infrastructure. And residents’ lack of disposable income discourages businesses from setting up shop in black communities, exacerbating the spatial mismatch between job opportunities and black citizens. Formerly all-white North County neighborhoods are now a mix of older white homeowners and striving young black families; the small bungalows and ranch houses once occupied by factory workers are pockmarked with vacant houses, dollar stores, and downscale strip malls.63 Unlike Wall Street banks, these areas received no bailout and are still reeling from the subprime mortgage crisis. A collapse in demand for North County homes brought so-called “vulture capital” to town—bargain-hunting out-of-state institutional investors buying up distressed homes that they subsequently rented out and often failed to properly maintain.64 Other macroeconomic factors, most notably deindustrialization and the erosion of organized labor, have played major roles in North St. Louis County’s decline. As local activist and taxi driver Umar Lee asks: “What happens to neighborhoods built for factory workers when the factories close? What happens to homes built for union tradesmen when their livelihoods are undercut by non-union (and sometimes foreign) labor?”65
And though white flight has been a consistent theme of St. Louis development and sprawl, not all white people left as soon as blacks arrived, for a variety of reasons. A few stayed to raise their kids in integrated environments. Others waited too long and couldn’t afford to get out.66 Still others enjoy life in beautiful, isolated North County enclaves such as Bellerive, a small community just blocks from Ferguson that stands in stark contrast to its struggling neighboring towns.
Bellerive was once the site of the Bellerive Country Club, the region’s most affluent club, home to the 1992 PGA Championship, and future host of the hundredth PGA Championship in 2018. In 1957, as black migration to St. Louis began in earnest, Bellerive Country Club decided to move to the posh West St. Louis County suburb of Town & Country, home to multimillion-dollar homes and gleaming corporate office parks. But the subdivision that originally surrounded the club remains a leafy enclave of affluence with a median family income of around $100,000. Its residents today pride themselves on their enlightened progressivism; after all, they stayed and suffered as property values eroded, while others moved west and accumulated great wealth in the land underneath them.
To many of the blacks I interviewed, the presence of Bellerive and Old Ferguson West’s affluence so close to the poverty and distress of places like Kinloch and southeast Ferguson merely served as a daily reminder of the stark divides that so many politicians promised to close and so many invisible forces seem to buttress. It reminded them of the privilege that so many whites enjoy, while blacks are apprehended, fined, arrested, and imprisoned at astronomical rates, crippling their ability to enter the region’s economic mainstream.
As Ferguson rapidly transitioned from white to black in the 1990s and 2000s, neighborhoods changed, crime increased, and tensions rose. Ferguson police soon used concrete barriers and fencing to close off most access points to a group of increasingly troubled apartment complexes on the southeast corner of the city, including Canfield Green, the development where Michael Brown was shot, and Northwinds, the adjacent apartment complex where Brown lived with his grandmother.67 Soon thereafter, they shut off a main artery to the complexes, leaving hundreds of residents to have just one way in and out. Though the developer told a reporter that the city had requested the gate to enhance public safety, one resident questioned that claim. “I am wondering if it is for safety or just to cage us in,” said Rochele Jackson.68
Nearly a century after Ferguson had blocked the main road from Kinloch, it was now blocking the main road to one of its own predominantly black neighborhoods. It was a metaphor for the region’s broader sentiment, one that had endured for more than a century and helped produce an unimaginably disjointed municipal patchwork: If we just build a big enough moat, we can keep their problems out.
Chapter 7: Elbert Walton and the Racial Politics of North County
During the funeral in Ferguson for Michael Brown, speaker after speaker exhorted attendees that the burial was not an end but a beginning—the start of a new era of black civic engagement. Their call to action resonated nationally, as have analyses of the sundry reasons Ferguson’s black supermajority has proven unable to gain political power. But one impediment has yet to make national headlines. His name is Elbert Walton, Jr.
Walton is an unlikely obstacle for politically ambitious North St. Louis County blacks. As a seven-term state legislator who served from 1978 to 1992 before losing his seat after the 1990 round of redistricting, he was a pioneering figure in North St. Louis County black politics. Walton watched North County undergo sweeping demographic change similar to that of Ferguson—whose population went from 25 percent black in 1990 to nearly 70 percent black today—and he imagined a future in which blacks wielded political power equal to their numbers. That would require building a political infrastructure—winning positions in the Democratic Party apparatus and on city councils, school boards, and fire boards. To this end, Walton started a political action committee (PAC) called Unity and preached the gospel of black community uplift.
Politically speaking, the North County Walton surveyed two decades ago looked much like Ferguson today—a lot of black residents but precious few black elected officials—and Walton understood the obstacles in his path. The Ferguson we’ve rarely seen on television—a leafy neighborhood of Victorian homes owned by middle-class whites—votes in municipal elections at three to four times the rate of blacks living in the town’s poorer areas, a disparity rooted in demographic, income, and housing patterns. Ferguson’s black population is young and poor; many blacks are either too young to vote or unlikely to do so in local elections, since both age and income are correlated with voting rates.
As one former North County state legislator noted, “A lot of blacks who are transient don’t register to vote because they have debt; they don’t want people knowing where they’re at if they got someone chasing them for bills.”69 And Ferguson’s blacks are more likely to rent than own homes and are thus less likely to vote since frequent moves can complicate maintenance of current voting registration70 and hinder formation of community ties. Springtime elections—held when poorer voters are least likely to vote71—are another factor.72 November elections have the heaviest turnout among low-income people; it is probably not an accident that St. Louis County municipal elections are held in March and April.73
State laws prohibiting recent ex-offenders from voting also negatively affect turnout rates, given the fact that nearly 25 percent of Missouri blacks—and likely an even higher percentage in Ferguson74—have felony convictions.
All these factors inhibit potential for black political power, exacerbating the divide between government, the residents of Ferguson, and other inner-ring suburbs around the country.
But for Elbert Walton, Jr., black political power was not a means to the end of improved public schools, or job opportunities, or equal treatment by law enforcement. His goal was ultimately revealed to be personal enrichment. As soon as Walton’s allies gained positions of power, he monetized his connections.
Once Unity candidates were elected to the governing board of the small Northeast Ambulance and Fire Protection District, which covered a swath of North County including majority-black, economically pressed towns such as Velda Village, Vinita Park, Vinita Terrace, and Hillsdale, Walton wasted little time. He soon signed a contract for a $120,000 annual retainer75 for legal counsel, which, combined with his law partner’s $60,000 retainer,76 was 15 times the average billed by the district’s previous lawyer and five times more than the next highest retainer in any surrounding district. He also engineered the board’s hiring of a close ally as fire chief, as well as a healthy retainer for his law partner and a consulting contract for his political consigliere. As one former North County state legislator noted in 2009: “State Auditor [Susan] Montee was very clear that $3.5 to $3.7 Million is missing, misspent, and misappropriated. Elbert’s RICO [Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization] criminal enterprise, having gone unchecked, would have unquestionably resulted in the largely poor, largely black Fire District being literally unable to deliver fire and ambulance services to thousands of poor black people…[who were] stolen from, and ultimately left without, or scrambling to contract piecemeal with neighbors for life-saving services.”
When residents balked, Walton stifled criticism of his sweetheart deal by denying opponents the right to speak at public meetings without submitting written questions in advance. He banned three residents77 who had objected to his contract from attending board meetings. In July 2009, the state auditor and attorney general filed Sunshine Law suits78 against the board for ignoring a subpoena demanding financial records. Of course, the suits only provided more billing opportunities for Walton’s firm.
Soon, community leaders joined residents in pressing the board to fire Walton’s law firm. But in doing so, the board authorized severance packages totaling over $800,00079. At the climactic meeting, a crusading state representative was arrested by literally grabbing the district checkbook to prevent the severance payments.80 As a result of the imbroglio, Walton was soon banned from practicing in the Eastern District of Missouri.
When asked about Walton’s reign, the former state representative who had opposed him expressed sadness. “Perhaps this is the greatest contradiction in the tale of the cowardly life of Elbert Walton,” he said. “Elbert consistently, and exclusively, perpetrates his criminal activities on the backs of poor black people.” And yet this legislator who had once despised Walton for perpetrating fraud on poor black communities, and had condemned the local black media for ignoring that fraud, was now ambivalent about Walton’s legacy: “Sure, he looted the Northeast Fire District, and he tried to loot even more. But his greatest impact was being the actual physical manifestation of the possibility that there could be black political power in the municipal context, power that could present a real threat to homogenous white rule.”
Whatever Walton’s original goals, he and Unity PAC had added a new, unseemly wrinkle to the cronyism mastered by the North County white power structure:81 siphoning off huge sums of taxpayer money for personal benefit. Black North Countians who deserved and demanded representation had finally achieved it by mobilizing for Unity candidates—only to see Walton and his inner circle reap the spoils of victory.
When the Walton mess came to a head in the summer of 2009, I was a Missouri state senator who was also derailed by legal problems when I pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice charges stemming from a minor campaign finance violation during my 2004 congressional campaign. Walton and I both squandered the trust of many constituents, but one major difference between our cases was color: I’m white and he’s black. Many of my black constituents in the racially mixed district were disappointed with me, but I suspect that few thought, “There go those damn crooked white politicians again.” Conversely, Walton’s legal predicament seemed to confirm white North Countians’ worldview: “That’s what happens when they get power,” many told me, and I knew what “they” meant.
Unlike white politicians’, black politicians’ failures often represent something larger than themselves. Elbert Walton represented some of the worst stereotypes whites believe about blacks and impaired the ability of honorable young black politicians in his wake to garner the type of crossover support necessary to prevail in places like Ferguson. I saw this firsthand canvassing North County, as white voters grilled me on whether the black candidate for whom I advocated was affiliated with Walton. Patricia Bynes, a young African-American woman serving her first term as Ferguson Township Democratic Committeewoman, confirmed this: “When I first starting getting involved with my Democratic Club, the first thing everybody wanted to know [was], ‘Are you with Elbert Walton?’ The white people up here will not trust you if they even smell Walton’s scent.” Just as with the ambivalent state legislator, though, Bynes refused to dismiss Unity PAC completely. She was very sympathetic to its stated goals, even if they conflicted with what she construed as its actual goals. “The sad thing is that what Unity PAC is about, I’m not against,” she said. “There should be—there must be representation by people who live in a place; when you exclude everyone from a majority race from government, you’re gonna have issues.”
In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing, the legacy of Unity PAC’s mistakes leaves a challenging political landscape for black civil leaders. Some veteran black civic leaders used the Ferguson unrest as an opportunity for frank self-assessment. Mike Jones, a former City alderman and then top official in both City and County governments, was especially candid. In a column for the St. Louis American, he wrote:
My view is the circumstances that created the events that resulted in tragedy of Michael Brown’s much too early death can be placed squarely at the feet of black leadership, or I should have said at the failure of black leadership to fulfill the only moral imperative of leadership—protecting and advancing the interest of the people you lead. Competent public leadership is not showing up in church praying and giving speeches for the benefit of TV cameras. It requires showing up every day, educating and organizing the community to protect and advance its interest. It means when you’re in the room you represent the interests of the people who sent you, not acquiescing to the wishes of those you are negotiating with.
Jones was criticized by other black politicos for his candor but refused to back down. “Ultimately, people didn’t show up for the game,” he said. Indeed, it took two months for those traditionally seen as the black community’s leaders—the NAACP, the Black Clergy Coalition, the Urban League—to visit ground zero of the protests to make themselves heard. And of course, the nation’s preeminent black leader, President Barack Obama, seemed aloof as ever as the protests continued. “You’ll see Allen West, Herman Cain, and the other favorite black flunkies of the right wing in St. Louis before you see President Obama,” offered activist Umar Lee.82
But the disconnect between the old guard of black leadership and the young street protesters on the front lines was never more stark than during Jesse Jackson Jr.’s visit to St. Louis. At one point, Jackson asked a Ferguson audience to donate generously to a church’s collection plate. “We were like, ‘What? People here are poor. And angry!’” said Jonathan Butler, a 24-year-old activist. The moment crystallized one of the enduring questions surrounding the protests: Who will lead this new movement?
By the beginning of November, nearly three months into the protests, much of the media and many white St. Louisans appeared to have turned against the protesters. When the protests had been mostly confined to Ferguson throughout August and September—and when law enforcement had responded with overwhelming force, eliciting sympathy for protesters—several whites from mid-County, West County, and South City who I interviewed expressed positive sentiments about the activism and its potential to “open people’s eyes,” in the words of one. But new police-involved shootings in two City neighborhoods south and east of Ferguson—one occurring three blocks from the home I’d owned for four years and sold in 2012, and both in my former state Senate district—helped ignite a new wave of protests in early October. The activists’ strategy evolved; protests began to spread across the metropolitan area, disrupting everything from traffic to mall shopping to the symphony—most in predominantly white spaces. This brought predictable censure from conservative suburban whites but also genuine confusion from some whites who had been sympathetic to the protests. “I’m just not sure what they’re trying to accomplish at this point,” offered my own mother, who had originally been appalled by the shooting but now seemed exhausted with the protests. It seemed that way with many whites I interviewed; their focus had shifted almost entirely from the underlying issues to the unrest. And so, not unlike white liberals who advocate affordable housing until it is proposed down the street, many whites supported the protests until the protests reached their own communities. Protester leaders, though, were unapologetic; one explained that the whole point was to “afflict the comfortable.”83
It wasn’t just the shifting geography of the protests that presaged the loss of some white support. It also seemed related to activism surrounding one of the later police-involved shootings. VonDerrit Myers was an 18-year-old black man shot in early October 2014 by an off-duty cop working for the Flora Place Community Improvement District—an organization started by my former neighbors on Flora Place, a street full of large historic homes in the City’s Shaw neighborhood. Though Myers’ family and friends said that he was unarmed, holding only the sandwich he had purchased just minutes before the incident, the officer alleged that Myers not only had a gun but also shot at him multiple times before the officer returned fire. The subsequent police investigation generally comported with the officer’s account; detectives found bullet casings behind where the officer crouched to avoid fire which appeared to come from a gun of the same make, caliber, and model as the one Myers had brandished in a picture posted to social media.84 Detectives also found gunshot residue on Myers’ hands, shirt, and jeans at levels consistent with Myers being the shooter, given the distance from which the officer shot.85
Area activists took up Myers’ cause, gathering at the site of his killing and casting doubt upon the police department’s account of events. But some whites who had instinctively come to Michael Brown’s side were troubled by the protesters’ embrace of a police-shooting victim who appeared, at least according to police, to have been armed and aggressive. My own parents, who lived in the relatively integrated inner-ring suburb of Olivette (approximately 60 percent white, 25 percent black, and 10 percent Asian) and whose commitment to racial equality had helped inspire me to study African-American history, were two of many who referenced the Myers shooting in explaining their evolving feelings about the protest. “I just don’t see how this incident fits with the Mike Brown deal if this kid had a gun,” offered my dad. “They’re two totally different episodes and shouldn’t be conflated,” said one local white elected official. This was indicative of the sentiments of many whites interviewed, but protesters could not have disagreed more; in their eyes, the whole point was that all black lives had value, and that even if the young man had been carrying a gun, he should not have been pursued and confronted by an off-duty cop merely for carrying a concealed weapon* when he hadn’t been bothering anyone.
As St. Louis’ fall foliage turned to resplendent reds and oranges, various leaks dripped out from the county and federal investigations into the Michael Brown case. All the leaks were favorable to Officer Wilson’s account of the case, and may have been intended to tamp down black-community anger in the case of a non-indictment. But as when law enforcement first spread word that Brown had, just before his death, strong-armed a convenience-store clerk as he swiped some cigarillos, the leaks elicited the opposite response. White law enforcement—and many white observers of the case—had a very linear pattern of reasoning: Brown robbed a store; ergo, he was a thug willing to physically intimidate others; ergo, he lunged at Officer Wilson and tried to grab his gun; ergo, he constituted a mortal threat to the lives of Wilson and others and thus was ultimately responsible for his own death, regardless of the timing of the gunshots or distance from which they were fired. Forensics evidence indicating a struggle inside the car tended to buttress Wilson’s account and not that of Dorian Johnson, Brown’s friend and a key eyewitness. But most of the protesters saw a very different chain of events, in which Wilson disrespected Brown and then forced him into a struggle, which ended only when the officer shot multiple times at a surrendering Brown 30 feet away. Even if there were a struggle in the car, they ask, how can that possibly justify six subsequent shots fired at an unarmed man 30 feet away with his hands raised in surrender? Most notably, white eyewitnesses—two construction workers who don’t live in the area and would seem to have no dog in the fight—have supported that claim; “He had his fuckin’ hands up,” said one of them on videotape just seconds after the shooting occurred. “The cop didn’t say get on the ground—he just kept shooting.”86)
Based on the diverging accounts and ambiguous forensic evidence, and the usual leeway that majority-white juries grant law enforcement, most doubt that Darren Wilson will be indicted. In the black community, few trust County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch to present the case to the grand jury in a form favoring an indictment; McCulloch has a disturbing record of standing up for cops (especially white ones) against suspects (especially black ones) in cases of alleged police misconduct.87 That McCulloch’s own father was a policeman killed in the line of duty by a black man, and that several other close relatives of his also serve as police, only increases skepticism. And given the difficulty of proving “willful” intent to deprive the victim of his civil rights—which would require the finding of race-based motivation on Wilson’s part—the federal government’s parallel investigation also seems unlikely to produce federal charges against Wilson. The likely outcome may be a broader U.S. Department of Justice finding of systemic discrimination in North St. Louis County law enforcement, which could entail a wide-ranging set of reforms under federal oversight. Such a comprehensive intervention is likely the only mechanism to ensure durable changes in the many North County police departments that have helped create siege-like conditions for thousands of black St. Louisans.
But of course, that wouldn’t bring back Michael Brown. And it would not achieve justice for him, according to most of the black St. Louisans with whom I spoke. The city could very well burn with riots, even if the federal government announces a wholesale takeover of the Ferguson and other North County police departments. For most black St. Louisans, the question of Darren Wilson’s legal culpability isn’t a panacea. From their standpoint, the Brown tragedy is an opportunity to begin righting decades of accumulated wrongs.
The most common lament of people critical of the anger and riots in the black community has been, “I just wish people would allow the legal process to work before getting so angry.” And yet. “The process” forced blacks into overcrowded ghettoes; charged them extra for dilapidated real estate in proscribed areas until the federal government prohibited de jure housing segregation; abandoned neighborhoods once a handful of blacks moved in and incorporated town after town to exclude them; relegated most blacks into segregated and inferior schools decades after legal segregation ended; painstakingly assembled elaborate law-enforcement regimes to extract wealth from black residents that supported white-dominated public-safety apparatuses; and built governmental structures that resist change and entrench the status quo.
Decades of supposedly color-blind processes have produced profoundly color-coded results: Any map of home foreclosures, health maladies, failing schools, unemployment, arrest warrants, and other indicators of misery tells an unequivocal story. That has left a black community prepared, possibly in the face of contradictory evidence, to believe the worst: The prosecutor was in cahoots with the police all along and “threw” the Brown case; the police planted a gun on VonDerrit Myers; the leaks about less virtuous elements of Brown’s and Myers’ background were part of a larger strategy to poison jury pools. This is part of a larger suspicion that a grand bargain among whites operates without anyone ever having to utter a word: White citizens (acting as jurors) allow white cops to act without restraint so long as the cops effectively protect white residents from the menace of black crime. If you’re wronged nine times, and the tenth time, well, maybe it’s ambiguous, but people are finally paying attention, then the tenth time is the rallying cry that illuminates the other nine times.
Conclusion: Is There a Way Forward?
Nearly every one of the dozens of people I interviewed—black and white—agreed that if the grand jury decides not to charge Officer Darren Wilson, there will be an explosion. “People are planning attacks. First the fire stations, to cut the lines, then the police stations,” one activist told The Guardian.88 Protest leader DeRay McKesson echoed that sentiment. “Nobody’s gonna be able to control it—even if we wanted to,” he told my class of graduate students at The New School in New York City. Activist Umar Lee, who has been ubiquitous on the front lines recording events and helping lead actions, agreed. “There will be blood,” he offered grimly. “Everyone knows it’s coming. Not what I want. Not what excites me. It’s just unavoidable at this point.”89
Whites are befuddled by this talk. Several maintained that the protests were not the way to achieve progress. They are “only going to anger people and make people less receptive to whatever they’re demanding,” one local elected official told me.90
The protestors disagreed. They weren’t particularly concerned about irritating white people. They pointed to the yawning chasm between white and black incomes in St. Louis. Things ain’t any better than they was in the ’60s,” one activist told me. “Hell, they probably worse. White people may dress it up prettier than they used to, but they don’t really feel any different.”
At first the claim seemed outlandish—clearly things had improved since the civil rights movement. But then earlier this year, when the overwhelmingly black Normandy school district lost its state accreditation, and the suburban Francis Howell district was named as the one to which Normandy students could legally transfer until the district regained accreditation, many Francis Howell parents were up in arms. A woman named Beth Cirami took the microphone at a town hall meeting and vocalized the fears of many of the nearly 3,000 people. “I deserve to not have to worry about my children getting stabbed, or taking a drug, or getting robbed,” she said. Demands included metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs, and armed guards. Another woman said the reason they’re fearful of the Normandy children is the same reason that mass-transit expansions into St. Charles County have been rejected: a certain population “coming across on our side of the bridge, bringing with it everything that we’re fighting today against.”
How far have we really come?
And yet, on the other hand, this seems to be a golden opportunity—a moment to broach solutions to many of the problems that had long plagued the region.
The first and most obvious is municipal and regional consolidation. Consolidation with several other towns could help Ferguson reinvest in itself and also help African-Americans compete for a bigger share of the pie. The St. Louis region has seen some preliminary support for the idea, with resistance concentrated in smaller political units whose leaders are loath to surrender control.
Consolidation would help strapped North County communities avoid using such a high percentage of their resources for expensive public-safety overhead, such as fire trucks. If that duplication could be reduced, it would be possible to shore up the finances of consolidated towns and mitigate their dependence on traffic stops to generate revenue and meet budget needs. It could also empower the black citizens of Ferguson. Blacks incrementally gained power in St. Louis City in part because its size facilitates broader coalitions and alliances. Another benefit of consolidation is the increased political talent pool. Many leaders just aren’t interested in running a tiny municipality.
In shrinking cities, politics is often a nasty, zero-sum game. But consolidation could create economies of scale, increase borrowing capacity to expand economic opportunity, reduce economic pressures that inflame racial tension, and smash up the old boys’ network that has long ruled much of North County.
Consolidation must occur on several fronts—in the municipalities and St. Louis City. The 90 municipalities should become 10. A reassimilated City should be number 11, although any type of combination with the City may be a tough sell to voters: In a November 2014 poll, 64 percent of County residents opposed a merger with the City. However, pro-consolidation group Better Together has been building support through a series of reports highlighting the inefficiencies of municipal fragmentation, and a steady stream of news about the Ferguson Police Department’s incompetence has shined a light of the impracticality of having 59 police departments in a single county. Now may be the best opportunity in decades to make meaningful progress on merging municipal services and, eventually, entire towns.
Other possible solutions involve law enforcement. The region must overhaul a municipal police and court system that preys on the poor, treating them as chickens to be plucked rather than citizens to be served and protected. While the 90 municipalities in St. Louis County make up 11 percent of the state’s population, the courts from those municipalities bring in a whopping 34 percent of all municipal court revenue statewide. Twenty of the 21 cities in the county that derive at least 20 percent of their revenue from courts are in areas that are predominantly African-American. It was difficult enough for black St. Louisans to accumulate intergenerational wealth for the past two centuries because of slavery, Jim Crow, forced residential segregation and disinvestment in black communities, price gouging, and restricted employment opportunities. To continue systematically extracting scarce wealth from struggling black citizens largely in order to preserve salaried public-sector jobs for predominantly white employees is unconscionable, and it must change. “Recent state legislation reduced the maximum percentage of overall municipal revenue derived from courts to 30 percent from 35 percent; that number should be further reduced to 20 percent. This should substantially reduce the pressure on police to cite struggling residents for petty offenses.” Also, forgiveness should be offered those who have outstanding warrants for petty offenses; St. Louis City has already taken the lead in doing this by forgiving more than 220,000 warrants, and hopefully municipalities throughout North County will follow their example.91
Moreover, a police force that looks like the community it serves will be much better able to reestablish trust with residents and implement any policy changes. There are already preliminary efforts afoot—both by policymakers and philanthropists—to ensure a broader pool of minority applicants for St. Louis County municipal police forces. If these efforts are to have the desired effect, they must create sustainable pipelines through which young black citizens can become policemen—as well as prosecutors and judges. Only then will the system be broadly seen as legitimate by those ensnared in it.
A third solution must come in the realm of education. The St. Louis region has some of the finest public schools in the state and some of the worst, and the former must do more to help the latter, instead of avoiding them. The ongoing tragedy of the transfer crisis at the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts makes that abundantly clear. There are examples of excellence and dramatic academic improvement among some of the region’s poorest students, such as Cardinal Ritter Preparatory Academy, a highly regarded all-black private high school with a near 100 percent college-attendance rate; the KIPP charter schools; and traditional public schools in poor areas, such as the Jennings School District, in which some Ferguson children reside.92 We must find the resources and the talent to replicate them immediately, not just in Ferguson-Florissant but in the Normandy, Riverview Gardens, and St. Louis public schools as well. And while we wait for the ramp-up, students in unaccredited districts must have the option to matriculate at the school district of their choice. If all of the other things suggested here are accomplished but the education of the region’s black youth does not improve, any broader progress will be ephemeral.
A fourth key component of any long-term solution to the problems plaguing North St. Louis County is simple: jobs. Estimates of unemployment among young area males varies, but some are as high as 40 percent. As long as a significant chunk of the youth graduate from subpar high schools—or, all too frequently, fail to graduate—they will mostly lack desirable job skills and the social networks that lead to employment. That will leave them both financially strapped and idle, a problematic combination in any situation but especially so in a time of civil unrest.
To help address this, every major company in the St. Louis area—but especially those based in and around Ferguson, including global multinationals such as Boeing, Express Scripts, and Emerson Electric, which sport market capitalizations ranging from $45 billion to $90 billion—should immediately hire at least 100 young people from North County in entry- or midlevel positions, and also work to create broader employment pipelines for local youth. Several area companies have more than 100,000 employees worldwide; they can surely find room for another few hundred who live near their headquarters.
Emerson Electric has provided an excellent model for local firms wanting to help by creating a multimillion-dollar program called Ferguson Forward, a wide-ranging education and employment program to support the community with four focus areas: early childhood education, youth jobs, scholarships for college as well as for technical and trade careers, and business-development training. As part of a program called Ferguson Forward, Emerson is partnering with local institutions to develop an early childhood learning resource center to support area preschool programs; supply 100 jobs for area youth; fund scholarship opportunities for training in business and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) disciplines as well as technical and trade jobs, and provide peer mentors, tutors, and other retention services for students; provide scholarships to the prestigious Cardinal Ritter Academy; and provide employees to train men and women who are starting, growing, or strengthening local small businesses, offering assistance in accounting, finance, legal, logistics, IT, human resources, marketing, and more. Every one of these areas is critical to achieving true economic inclusion for black St. Louisans, and other local firms should follow Emerson’s lead.
A fifth component of any solution to racial and class inequality is an indirect one: increased immigration. Immigration can be important on at least three levels. First, entrepreneurial immigrants can add tremendous economic vitality to the city and help create jobs for those now struggling—and can bolster a stagnant tax base and take pressure off of police departments to fill depleted revenue lines. Second, immigrants can help revitalize neighborhoods; we have already seen formerly decaying South St. Louis neighborhoods such as Bevo and Dutchtown transformed by waves of immigration from Bosnia, Mexico, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Immigrants are rehabilitating homes, opening up storefronts and food trucks, and rebuilding once-dormant houses of worship. The next wave of immigrants could be encouraged to resettle in North St. Louis City and County. Finally, immigrants may be able to help mitigate the racial divisions in a town whose fights have almost always been black-versus-white. The presence of a kaleidoscope of groups could go a long way toward defusing the deep binary conflicts that have long plagued the region.
A sixth piece of the puzzle involves the media. So much of any oppressed people’s quest for autonomy hinges upon their ability to find their voice and articulate their plight to the broader community in a compelling way. But for decades, many black St. Louisans have felt that the city’s mainstream media tells their story without hearing their voices, instead covering black people mostly for murders, scandals, indictments, and now, rioting—although Chris King, editor of the city’s leading black newspaper, observed that Ferguson’s turmoil may have inadvertently helped address this problem. During the first weeks of unrest, he told me, “I was always looking up at CNN or MSNBC or even FOX and seeing one of our regular sources—somebody who would only ever be interviewed by The St. Louis American—on TV, talking to the nation.” Ferguson had “flushed out” community sources, removing the local mainstream media’s excuse for not knowing good, positive, credible black sources. Sure, local outlets occasionally interviewed the usual co-opted suspects who ran the Urban League or other organizations that relied upon corporate goodwill; now the national media were lifting up sharp young voices who knew the word on the street. “It makes me think of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man,” said King. “Ferguson made the everyday good people in the black community visible in St. Louis in a way they always should have been but in fact were not.” The city’s mainstream media must not discard these sources when civil unrest subsides. The media must cultivate them as bridges to a world that few of their white readers know or will ever experience, a world comprised not of criminals and welfare cheats but predominantly of hardworking people fighting for safe neighborhoods, decent jobs, and good schools—in other words, people just like them.
Last but not least comes politics. There are some obvious and other subtler ways for black North Countians to increase their political efficacy and ultimately, wield more influence over the policy decisions that structure their lives. The most obvious is, of course, to register to vote, and then do it. As long as whites continue voting at much higher rates in municipal elections—nearly four times the rate of blacks in Ferguson—disparities are likely to continue. That means a concerted effort to register young voters, since almost all 18- to 29-year-olds in Ferguson are black, is a critical first step, which must go hand-in-hand with civic education efforts to actually demonstrate the importance of engagement. Early efforts have been led by Alderman Antonio French’s nonprofit Heal St. Louis, and state Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who represents the Ferguson area, has helped play a key role in the civic engagement piece.
Activists should also seek changes to the rules governing elections. First, they should work to move elections to the fall, away from the spring when poorer citizens are least likely to vote. Second, they should attempt to reform state laws prohibiting recent ex-offenders from voting, which disproportionately affect North County blacks, and should work to eliminate other obstacles ex-offenders face when trying to vote, such as the ability for local registrars to require certain documents from parole officers before regaining the franchise. Finally, they should work to pass statewide same-day voter registration, which has been linked with higher turnout, especially among younger voters.
Many local black elected officials and activists took another step in their quest for autonomy this election cycle: They formed a new group called the Fannie Lou Hamer Democrats, which had the unusual approach of uniting behind Republican county executive candidate Rick Stream over Democrat Steve Stenger, whose most prominent supporter was distrusted County prosecutor McCulloch. Despite Stream’s opposition as a state legislator to many progressive priorities, the new group’s strategy was clear. A Stream victory would have given them a spot at the front of the line in a Stream administration by bucking the party line in an era when over 90 percent of black voters typically support Democrats. As Mike Jones, top aide to current St. Louis County executive Charlie Dooley, noted, white County Democrats have seized and consolidated power only because of the presence of a quarter-million reliably Democratic black citizens who migrated from the City. In fall 2014, many black leaders took their cue from Jones, who has defined power as “the will and capacity to punish those forces or people that oppose you,” and seized the opportunity to punish unresponsive Democrats such as Stenger.
As it turned out, Democrat Stenger narrowly survived in an overwhelmingly Democratic county. But black leaders sent an unmistakable message to the state and county Democratic Party that their votes could not be taken for granted. Regardless of one’s assessment of the wisdom of their strategy, one point seems beyond dispute: North County black leaders asserted agency over their fate in a robust and consequential way.
Of course, all of this—politics, demography, economics, education, law enforcement—is intricately entwined. Untying these knots will be neither quick nor easy. Modes of interaction in a parochial place—a big small town, as many St. Louisans call it—are entrenched; to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a white city manager or police chief in a mostly black town whose budget relies on fines for petty offenses but is coming up short, it is only natural that your department increases its citations of poor, (mostly) black people. But when they can’t pay the fines and are hassled, jailed, and besieged upon release, they are essentially living as fugitives.93 They cannot escape the cycle of poverty, or even hope to, because they are scared that the slightest infraction will return them to jail. The most basic errand becomes a cat and mouse game to avoid one’s tormentors. After enough years of this exhausting game, many simply capitulate. They no longer have agency over their lives. That’s the nihilism we’ve seen on the streets of Ferguson—and may continue to see if fundamental changes are not made in a hurry.
A television anchor asked me recently how I thought this event would change St. Louis. “Can we watch this international event and possibly come away the same?” she wondered. My answer is no, St. Louis cannot remain the same. The problem is that some people will come out more enlightened and open-minded, and others, improbably, even less so.
That is not to say that I am emerging from all of this in a more enlightened, open-minded place. I am still grappling with the complexities of the city I love and miss so much. My own grasp of what’s happening, of why it has happened only in St. Louis and not any of the other locales that have experienced similar tragedies, and of how we might move forward, comes mostly through experience accumulated during my childhood and my years campaigning in North St. Louis City. My understanding, if it may generously be called that, was hard-earned—mostly from my many mistakes.
The North St. Louis that I represented in the state Senate is a community fighting to regain its lost glory, the days when black doctors, lawyers, teachers, principals, and morticians lived among the laborers and housekeepers, in larger homes but in close proximity. One reminder of that proud history was the famed Annie Malone Parade—Missouri’s largest, attended by approximately a quarter-million African-Americans from throughout the region. During my first campaign, in 2004, I arrived to find myself badly unprepared. Candidates for alderman, seeking to serve 12,000 people instead of the 750,000 I aspired to represent, had far more impressive operations than I did. They had fleets of SUVs or pickup trucks with pulsing sound systems and oversized banners, their flatbeds overflowing with supporters. My entourage consisted of two 60-year-old volunteers. We raised a small, tattered campaign banner, but we had no stickers, no car, no megaphone. Also, I was in the only white person in sight, and my paltry cheering section didn’t exactly suggest a groundswell of grassroots support. It was an advance man’s nightmare.
Desperately seeking a way to avoid embarrassment, I approached a group of kids tossing a basketball around. “Yo, lemme borrow that ball for an hour,” I said. “I’ll give you five bucks.” Silence.
“Ten bucks,” I said.
“Bet,” said one of the kids. He tossed me the ball in exchange for a $10 bill. Dressed in a blue shirt and tie, I started dribbling the ball as the parade began.
Some context: My dad dreamed that I’d play in the NBA. That he was five feet six and my mom five feet two did not deter him. Starting when I was about nine, he would take me to gyms or playgrounds in dilapidated parts of the city where dusk heralded the sounds of gunfire, and tell my mom that he took me to play golf. By my senior year of high school, I became a pretty good point guard and, at five feet three, was the only white starter on a team of mostly inner-city kids bused out via a special inter-district program. My senior year, we were ranked number one in the region, and my teammates became my closest friends. Basketball was my lingua franca, my bridge to their world, and thanks to my experiences in this world, I decided to major in African-American Studies at the University of North Carolina.
About a mile into the parade, a teenager hollered at me, ribbing me about my ball-handling skills. “Yo, white bread, you ain’t got no handles. You ain’t shit.”
“Wanna come out here and see?” I asked.
He jogged out of the crowd and crouched in a defensive position. I quickly dribbled the ball through my legs, behind my back in the opposite direction, feigned a forward movement, rocked back on my heels, and performed a crossover dribble that left him lunging in the wrong direction. The crowd howled. Kids of all ages started streaming out from the crowd to play one-on-one with me. By the end of the parade, there were dozens of kids jogging along with me, dribbling balls. My dress shirt was soaked through with sweat, but it was worth it.
Weeks later, I was out shaking hands in a busy shopping district, when a young black woman approached me. “You’re Jeff Smith, right?”
“I am. Great to meet you. What’s your name? Appreciate your support!”
“Oh, I’m not supporting you,” she said tartly. “In fact, I plan to spend every day between now and Election Day telling everyone I know not to vote for you.”
“Can I ask why?”
“Because you think I’m a monkey.”
I was perplexed. “What are you talking about?”
“Yeah, you think we’re just a bunch of stupid monkeys who will vote for you because you dribble a basketball fancy in our parades. Yeah, I saw you. It was the most insulting, offensive thing I’ve ever seen a politician do.”
I flashed back to that day. I’d been so caught up in the cheering I never even considered how others might have perceived me.
“But—it was a parade!” I told the woman. “I couldn’t give a speech! I was just trying to communicate in the only way I knew how, in the moment…”
“Well, I got the message. And you need to hear my message: I couldn’t care less who wins, as long as you lose.”
This week, that sentiment seems to describe the feelings of many of those massed in Ferguson. They want white St. Louis to quit it with the knee-jerk paternalism and actually hear their message. They want white St. Louis to finally make an effort to grapple with its shameful racial history, a history in which a complex alchemy of private decisions and public policies conspired to leave North St. Louis County divided by race and class. They want to win some agency of their own lives instead of being at the mercy of forces that have so often let them down—or actively impeded them.
But will white St. Louis listen?
* Since Myers faced pending charges for unlawful use of a weapon, his bail conditions forbade him from carrying a weapon.