I live within ten miles of Ferguson, Missouri.
I’ve driven down W. Florissant Rd. where the unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, was killed by a police officer on August 9th, 2014. I’ve never thought about Ferguson as a suburb. Rather, it’s just “North St. Louis”, a disregarded place where you lock your doors when driving through. The part of town where you can drive down Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and lament his legacy and where a re-named Barack Obama Elementary School is located. The school system is notoriously awful and resources are scarce. People hang out on their porches attached to dilapidated houses, and it seems their lawn and gardening budgets aren’t big enough. It’s a place my white, middle-class children are starting to notice “isn’t nearly as nice as where we live.”
We live in a predominately white neighboring “suburb” of St. Louis. I am not originally from St. Louis. I grew up on army forts, so when I say that I have never lived in a place that felt so much like a series of fortresses as St. Louis, that is coming from someone who literally lived within guarded fortresses. There are nearly five hundred private gated communities in St. Louis. Gates, dead ends and one-way streets are ubiquitous to life here. The gates are frequently eloquent, sometimes as large as a small house, and serve to keep the riffraff at bay and make (mostly) rich people feel a sense of security. Certainly, they convey an “us” versus “them” mentality endemic to life here. The dead-ends deter roving traffic, “undesirables” and the one-way streets are there just to mess with my terrible sense of direction and make me late for appointments.
What High School did you attend?
One thing that struck me about St. Louis when I moved here in 2008 is the palpable class structure. The tired joke you hear within an hour of being here is that St. Louis natives are only interested in what high school you attended. This need to categorize people is unmistakable. You will hear that this obsession with, at its worst, status, or at its best, definition, is just a form of being “clicky”. In other words, it is as innocuous a weapon as a remote control. Yet it seems to feed from a darker place, a distrust of anyone St. Louis natives can’t immediately identify with. As a transplant to St. Louis, the prestige of certain high schools is lost on me. The people who ask you about your high school affiliation don’t always seem to be making polite conversation. They seem to want to categorize you, to put you in a box so you make sense to them. You don’t really have to get to know someone if you know what label to attach to them.
I’ve been devouring the news of Michael Brown’s death trying to wrap my head around it. I keep waiting for the outrage to pour into my suburb of St. Louis. So far, it’s just an alarming increase of helicopter presence. I’d like to drive over there in support of the Ferguson community but I don’t want to add to the chaos. Why here? Why now? Poor race and class relations in St. Louis have been omnipresent for forever and have been on a low simmer for decades, if not centuries. The truth is, I don’t care why. As saddened as I am that yet another black teenager was killed by a police officer, it may as well be here in St. Louis that residents take a stand. The continual harassment of black people and minorities and the distrust of people that aren’t like you should be unacceptable in every community.
As disturbing as the rioting and looting has been, I fear it is not the death of an unarmed black teenager that may propel change so much as the community’s reaction. Of course no one condones looting and rioting. That’s like saying you are in favor of not bludgeoning puppies. Rightfully so, we all wonder why anyone would react by vandalizing innocent shopkeepers. Um, probably because they are disenfranchised? As it turns out, anger and violence are perfectly reasonable responses to violence, albeit not productive or preferable. Why should we expect a grieving community to act with grace in the face of overwhelming inequity in the midst of raw grief? Why do we compare them to animals and taunt them to “bring it”? Mostly because we don’t understand each other. Why do the police keep treating the community like they would react to a terrorist threat? Sorry, I forgot. The residents of Ferguson are mostly black.
I don’t know whether the officer in question acted reasonably or not. We don’t have enough information yet. As a jurist, I firmly believe in innocent until proven guilty. Still, I don’t understand why some want to castigate a community in crisis for acting out. Isn’t asking questions what we do after a tragedy? If the parents of the slain children at Sandy Hook started a riot, would we question their motives or call them animals? Of course not. They were white. Where is the solidarity of parents of all ethnicities and economic status? Can we all not relate to being angry at the as yet unexplained death of a child? Regardless of whether it was justified, it is nevertheless tragic.