Ferguson’s Fifty-Year Fire

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A protester throws back a smoke canister in a protest spurred by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson Lucas Jackson/Reuters

On August 5, 1966, Martin Luther King Jr., and about 700 protesters marched through an outer Chicago neighborhood called Marquette Park to protest housing segregation, an ignominious endeavor in which the Second City may well have earned first place. The ethnic whites who lived in Marquette Park had no patience for King or his message. One of them, according to the Chicago Tribune, proudly displayed a sign that said, “King would look good with a knife in his back.” The sentiment was shared by many of his fellow citizens, and King was dead less than two years later. But blacks moved into Marquette Park anyway, though it was never truly integrated: unable to stop the influx, the whites simply left. Today, the neighborhood is only about 5% white, the Eastern Europeans having long decamped deeper into the suburban mosaic, ever farther from the lakefront city with its restive dark masses.

Ferguson, Missouri, is about a five-hour drive south from Chicago. The muddled legacy of King’s last campaign—not only to end institutional discrimination, but to persuade the races to live together in comity—is apparent as you travel through North County, the suburbs to the northwest of St. Louis that, like Marquette Park, were once white but are now largely black: Florissant (which the locals pronounce fluorescent, only with the accent on the first syllable), Jennings, Berkeley, Dellwood. The people here are not exactly poor, but many fear they will be. And so they seek salvation from churches and payday loan windows, both of which are numerous, as are fast-food places that give no sense of regional flavor. You could be in central California, western Pennsylvania.

But you are in Ferguson, where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson, in a high-noon confrontation on what should have been just another languid summer day. The details of the incident remain maddeningly unclear, and the reluctant revelations by the police only obfuscate further: Was Brown a robbery suspect? Were his hands up when he was shot? Did he receive appropriate emergency care? Nobody seems to know, so long-standing fears and suspicions bubble to the surface. The kindest thing you will hear about Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson is that he is a fool; the more cruel speculation accuses him of conspiracy and cover-up.

The shooting happened on a rivery curve of Canfield Drive lined with low apartment buildings that have external wooden stairs. Suburban comforts visible elsewhere in Ferguson are less apparent here. It is hard to imagine someone moving to this place and thinking they have achieved the American Dream. The two memorials to Brown, one beneath a utility pole and one in the center of the road, where his body fell, are morbid evidence of a fundamental failure no one can deny. In the evening, when the humidity finally drops, people venture outside and look at the memorials, as if hoping Brown might rise like Lazarus. A few teenagers smoke a blunt; some elderly folks drink from a 30-pack of Natty Ice. They are waiting to see if the nightly protests stay peaceful, or if the anger prevails. With the curfew instituted on Saturday night, the latter has prevailed for now.

During the day, there are two centers of protest: the burned-out QuikTrip gas station on West Florissant Avenue and a parking lot across from the police department on South Florissant Road, where someone presumably knows what really happened between Wilson and Brown on August 9. The protesters want two things: truth and justice, in speedy succession. Cars honk in a show of support that continues all day, a furious and persistent bleating.

Ferguson (pop.: 21,000) is mostly black, and about one-third white. But in a weird vestige of antebellum dynamics, the whites hold all the power: they run city hall and dominate the police force. Some ascribe it to conspiracy, others to apathy. Whatever the case, the blacks of Ferguson were powerless and invisible to the rest of us. How much power they have gained since Brown’s death is impossible to say. As for visibility, you couldn’t ask for more. There are news teams on the ground from Europe and Asia, not to mention all of the United States. The journalists are largely welcomed. “Thank you all for giving a fuck,” one protester said.

When the blacks arrived in the St. Louis en masse in the 1970s, the whites fled to the south or to the west, to the outer-ring suburbs where they figured (and still do) themselves to be safe. It is the same strategy that propelled residents of Los Angeles into Orange County, the residents of New York City to Long Island. No law, no moral appeal, not even from Dr. King, can make someone live in an integrated neighborhood.

But some stayed, even in Ferguson. Two of the city’s white residents, sisters who looked to be in their early twenties, stood on the town’s main drag, holding signs that said “I [heart] Ferg.” One of the sisters, wearing a green t-shirt with the name of Knox College (a small school in Illinois where a year of study costs almost $49,000) said she wanted to remind people that this was not the place they’d been seeing on television, the place that looked like Birmingham under Bull Connor. They received honks of support, just like the protesters close to the main police station, the ones who have little love for Ferguson left.

Many whites are confused by the violence. Marilyn Crider is the manager of a dental practice near the center of town. Her manner is placid but unnerving. She understands the “peaceful” protests, but not the rioting. “I’ve been here for thirty years. I never knew there was a race issue,” Crider says. In her mind, the outrage has to do with Brown’s killing and nothing more: “The explosion happened because of what happened.”

She points out that the rioting was in the northeast section of town, but the center of Ferguson remained peaceful. She is right about this. The low brick buildings there, old but not ancient, bear little resemblance to the stretch of liquor shops, convenience stores and auto repair garages of West Florissant. Here, on the main drag, there is a brewery, an Irish pub, a wine bar, a Mexican restaurant, an Italian restaurant, a coffee house. Here, you could lead a comfortably boring life. And some probably do.

“There are two Fergusons. They are separate,” says Tony Rothert, the legal director of the Missouri chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Rothert, who grew up in Iowa, says that when he first came to St. Louis in the late 1980s for college, he was shocked by the casual segregation in the area. In the same bar, blacks and whites would drink at the opposite sides of the room, as if Jim Crow still ruled. “People go where they’re supposed to go,” he tells me of the St. Louis suburbs. “It happens.”

Rachel Treppler, 22, is from South County, the southwestern swath of St. Louis County. She graduated from Missouri State in the spring, and was traveling through Europe on a sort of Grand Tour when Brown was killed. She first learned about the riots on Twitter, but she doesn’t remember where she was, probably in one of the mannered European capitals where ethnic hatreds are so ossified that they rarely spring into public view, except maybe when some Muslim youth rise up in a remote Paris banlieue.

“They want justice,” says Treppler. “I understand that.” What she doesn’t understand is how that yearning for justice has been expressed by some black residents of the North County. “Looting and burning down buildings has nothing to do with the police.”

An exceptionally friendly family of four, also from the South County, wanted to talk as soon as they discovered that a journalist was sharing their cramped Bombardier CRJ700 quarters. They had been in Los Angeles, where earlier that week the police had shot and killed a black man, Ezell Ford, who was reportedly complying with their orders. And in New York City, there was the unremitting furor over Eric Garner, a Staten Island man choked to death by officers of the NYPD in late July. The clever and hateful New York Post christened the furor over Garner’s homicide “The War on Cops.” Who was waging that war, the tabloid did not need to say: blacks and their liberal friends.

Now the family was returning home to St. Louis. To the good parts, but still. The wife told me she was worried about a “national civil war” ignited by the killings of black men by white police officers. Her husband grimly pointed to his daughter, who was watching a movie on her iPad. “She’s scared to go back,” he told me.

Missouri was divided in its sympathies during the Civil War and has remained so ever since. In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain won the state by .13% of the popular vote. “Those lines persist,” says Inda Schaenen, an educator who works in the Normandy School District, from whose schools Michael Brown graduated. That district, Schaenen estimates, is 98% black. “Students are very aware of what they have available to them,” she says. They are aware, too, how much more is available to students in wealthier, whiter districts.

Most everyone agrees that the dividing line between white and black St. Louis is Delmar Boulevard, which shoots westward from the center of the city. The whites to the south hope that the trouble to the north doesn’t make its way down to them. The chants of “Fuck the police” and the graffiti that proclaims “the only good cop is a dead cop” are as incomprehensible to them as they are obscene. The police, to residents of South County, are keepers of order. They willfully ignore the fact that traffic stops and marijuana busts, which target mostly blacks, at once enforce that order and make that order unbearable.

That order did not come about by accident, and has much to do with Dr. King’s crusade to end housing discrimination. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was a moral victory, but not a practical one. Movement has always been endemic to American life, whether you call it Manifest Destiny or a yearning for “better schools” somewhere out beyond the city lines. The one thing the law could not do was make the whites stay. So when hopeful blacks moved into white enclaves (which they had been doing for some decades already, though in smaller numbers), the whites promptly fled, taking with them every aspect of civic life that could reasonably be uprooted.

Some saw this coming. In 1963, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (soon to become a U.S. Senator from New York) and the sociologist Nathan Glazer published Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City. “No one has thought very seriously about what truly integrated communities would be like,” they wrote. “What would be the basis for common action, for social activities bringing together people of different groups?” They were not asking the question rhetorically, but nobody has answered it in the 50 years since.

And so the rioting on West Florissant is about Michael Brown, and so much more: it’s about the schools they don’t have, the police departments they do. Many were unhappy with President Obama, vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard while Ferguson smoldered. One sign raised along West Florissant Avenue urged him to stop being so “distracted” and finally fix Ferguson.

Obama has urged, many times, a “national conversation on race,” but all we have is a shouting match: whites shouting “nigger,” blacks shouting “fuck the police.” Whites thinking that maybe Brown deserved it; blacks thinking every cop is Darren Wilson, trigger finger ready to squeeze. It is like W.B. Yeats once wrote: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” The broken windows on West Florissant, the tear gas that follows, these are but damning proof that the reasonable middle has ceded the stage to the furious extremes

“This is gonna keep happening,” says Rabbi Susan Talve, a prominent St. Louis political activist who wonders how her fellow whites can simply wish Ferguson away. “People who are turning away are really mistaken.” But the turning away did not start in August 2014. It happened when King ventured into the suburbs of Chicago, though probably even earlier than that. The turning away may be called nothing more than an expression of good ol’ American individualism. But when individualism takes primacy over all else (and not only in Missouri; think of Cliven Bundy, touting his freedom in Nevada), it lays waste to e pluribus unum, because if I don’t have to make your Ferguson my Ferguson, I don’t have to worry about the ills with which your Ferguson is beset.

Outside the public library in Ferguson sat a young man named Treyvo. “People lost,” he told me, “they don’t know what to believe.” This sounded vague, and vaguely Biblical, and true. As we were talking, an elderly white woman came out of the library. She quickly discerned the presence of a journalist.

“People in Ferguson are good people,” she said in what sounded like a complaint. She listed several cities notorious for their racial tensions — Detroit, Los Angeles — and incredulously wondered if the national media was really going to cast Ferguson into that pit of infamy. To her, it was a ridiculous suggestion. This was not the Ferguson she knew. The Ferguson she loves believes in the words written on the town seal: “Proud Past, Promising Future.” And that does have a pleasant ring, even if it entirely ignores the present. 

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