Some history is needed to understand why Ferguson happened. The first totally nuts thing about St. Louis is that the city limits were set in stone in 1863. Right in the middle of the Civil War, Union Army General Grant dictated that boundaries be set. Union troops, including enlisted freed slaves, would be out of reach for the rest of the State of Missouri, which, while it never seceded, remained a slave state. The Union let the state keep their slaves so long as they didn’t secede. So a very diverse population resided within the St. Louis city limits, while a white, slave-owning society flourished everywhere else in the state. St. Louis County surrounds the city, but is not a part of it. (See images below.) This concrete division was expanded with an inner-city division along DelMar Boulevard, which runs east to west, starkly dividing the haves from the have-nots. This divide even segregates the cemeteries.
When the “DelMar Divide” failed to keep people of color “in their place,” there was an attempt to re-concentrate black people to the city center by building public housing units. This effort eventually failed. And when this failed, whites fled to the county. (Read the The Pruitt-Igo Myth for more information on this.)
There are 90 municipalities within the 524 square miles that comprise St. Louis County, and more in the surrounding counties. This translates into almost one “city” per square mile. All but a few cities have their own police force, mayor, city manager and town council. Eighty one cities have their own municipal court, while the rest contract out to other police departments, jails and court facilities. Some cities have as few as 700 residents, and Ferguson is one of them. While Ferguson is a fairly diverse community for this region, it too has gone through a “race change.” Ten years ago, the demographics were two-thirds white and one-third black or “other.” Now, it’s 79 percent black and 11 percent white. This type of demographic shift is, unfortunately, not uncommon in the area; white people have been moving further and further to the west of the county to avoid communities of color.
So, what occurred in Ferguson and why was white flight the straw that broke the camel’s back?
Unfortunately, what happened was all too normal. A young black man was stopped by a police officer, something happened, and the young man ended up dead on a St. Louis street. The incident occurred on the weekend, on a really nice afternoon, in the middle of an apartment complex with people of all ages out and about. This means there were people watching as the tragedy played out in the middle of the road.
Even before I got home, texts and pictures showed that Michael Brown lay in the street uncovered for 47 minutes. After someone finally covered his body, he laid there for four more hours. Inexplicably, no one called 911, so no one came to pick up his body. Finally, police stuffed him into the back of a SUV and drove away. I don’t know about you, but this offends me on the most basic human level.
After the police left at about 7:00 p.m., Michael’s mother, with help from her local state legislature representative, scattered rose petals over the blood on the street and placed a candle there. This evolved quickly into an impromptu memorial space. A short time after this, at least two police units returned to the scene. A K-9 officer let his dog out and allowed it to urinate on the memorial. Then they drove off, over the candles and flowers.
How would you feel if someone in your family was subjected to such disrespect in full view of friends and neighbors? I can tell you that Mike’s neighbors were very upset. They had noticed that traffic into and out of the apartment complex area had stopped since the initial police response. Perhaps that was why more people coming to witness the tragedy, or growing upset within the neighborhood. Eventually, neighbors decided to walk a block to the main street of West Florissant, where they started to protest. And so “Ferguson” began.
Much of it was televised, internetized, vined, Facebooked and Tweeted. However, you may not have seen that the initially peaceful crowd of about 100 people prompted the M-Raps, assault rifles, rubber bullets, tear gas and flash bangs prior to looting or arson. Although the media tried desperately to explain events with reference to “a militarized police force,” the incidents in Ferguson were first and foremost about racism.
In Ferguson, racism means that the youth suffer under a 50 percent unemployment rate. Most of the jobs available are not “good jobs.” In Ferguson, flipping burgers isn’t even an option. It means the schools there are so severely underfunded that some become unaccredited. A high school diploma from an unaccredited school is not valid for college admission. Racism means being stopped for your “manner of walking.” (Yes, a real charge!) It means being picked up, detained and questioned for hours by the police, who hope you’ll turn in a friend or two. It means being stopped for minor traffic infractions so often that you don’t even bother to show up to court. It means you don’t have money to pay the ticket, which results in a Failure to Appear ticket (more money), along with a Failure to Pay (even more money) ticket, and a warrant. Racism means that you are so ground down by the system that you don’t even bother to vote because you’ve seen too much corruption in the politics around you.
Too Tired to Care is Not an Option
I am not a fully-funded organizer or activist. I spend almost no time at conferences, conventions or trainings. As an independent paralegal and legal observer, I spend time on the streets of North St. Louis. I help people access the system; getting it to work for them, instead of against them. I do this because social justice advocacy is my passion, and I was raised to give back to my community the best way I can. Being “too tired to care” is not an option.
Now that the major press presence is gone, our neighborhoods are overrun by droves of “poverty pimps” and “iPhone activists.” These folks did not come with me four years ago, when I was introduced to the area and told by the residents what they needed. Also, there are now hordes of different organizations forming, putting up websites and launching fundraisers to help the people of Ferguson. A $100,000 grant was given to one of these local organizations by a national one, but no one knows where the money is now. Hopefully, at least some of the funding and the projects will actually get to the people in Ferguson. There are at least 50 more little St. Louis County towns, as well as North St. Louis, that are bombs waiting to explode.
The people of Ferguson want peace, but they also want justice. They are still protesting, disrupting city and county council meetings, and planning next steps. This is occurring just as the term for the grand jury is extended to January 2015. Perhaps the powers that be don’t expect people to march or sleep out in the cold. I bet they are wrong, and I’ll be in my usual place: out in the streets with the people.