Justice

Leaving St. Louis: Why the Situation In Ferguson Wasn't Surprising

I left St. Louis angry in 2000.

I was born there and spent my entire young life in North St. Louis County, mostly growing up outside of Florissant, not far from Ferguson. I’m not surprised by the turmoil or the attention there now, being that what transpired in Ferguson was a long time coming. Decades of tension were already built up in every sleepy suburb of the north.

It’s tough growing up somewhere where you’re routinely treated like a stranger, like you didn’t belong.

I learned I didn’t belong pretty early, around age five or six when I discovered why my parents refused to take us to the city’s Fourth of July celebration.

For most of my youth, the celebration was called the VP Fair, short for Veiled Prophet Fair (it was renamed Fair St. Louis in 1992, but the VP parade still exists). The Veiled Prophet was a business association founded by white city elites in 1878. There is a physical “prophet,” a man in a white hood and veil. The group was founded by a former Confederate and was  meant to bring together the larger St. Louis’ community while reinforcing the status of business owners which had come under threat after a massive worker’s rights strike in 1877. The group is more than a 135 years old and didn’t accept a black member until 1979. And I guess you’re supposed to ignore the part where the original veiled prophet – a drawing of a man in a hood with a shotgun and a pistol – looks a lot like a klansman.

But my family didn’t really ignore that, particularly after the VP Fair organizers closed the Eads Bridge to pedestrian traffic in 1987. The Eads Bridge joins St. Louis with mostly black, neighboring East St. Louis. Organizers denied that the closure was about keeping black people out of the festivities. They said it was meant to bar entry to potential gang bangers … who may happen to be from East St. Louis. A year after the move, fifteen African Americans who were local leaders in business and the community were appointed to the VP Fair Foundation’s board in 1988. No matter the spin, most black people got the point. Or at least my parents did, and we never went to a Fourth of July celebration in the city because of the “But he’s not a Klansman” mascot presiding over a parade that might not want us there.

Being black in St. Louis, just like being black in America, meant putting up with a certain degree of indignities, but sometimes it got pretty exhausting. From how black people received diminishing city services to how the white families who lived in the North suburbs immediately fled from the white collar and working class blacks moving there. My parents’ neighborhood was mostly white when they first moved to it in the 1970s. By the time I started elementary school, it was an all-black neighborhood with an all-black elementary school that was part of a larger, mostly white school district.

Our school was often treated as a “problem” school within the district even though it was fairly benign. Often, in St. Louis, anything that was “all black” was labeled as bad, even if it was in the suburbs and consisted of households with two, married parents who had good jobs. That was my neighborhood, and our elementary school’s student population came from those families. Regardless, ­people would tell me I was from “the hood,” even though the lawns were manicured and the crime was negligible. We were told we were different. That kids fighting at my school weren’t like kids who fought at other schools – our fighting was somehow worse. Suspensions happened often, and you quickly got the message that if you were seen as a “problem,” you wouldn’t get help. You’d be gradually pushed out of the school. Our teaching staff was mostly white, and while for the most part the teachers were good, we had more than a few racially odd moments – like when our white music teacher trying to clumsily bond with us through posters of Ice-T and the film “Colors” or when my third grade teacher telling us all we should be grateful we were brought here as slaves because people were starving in Africa. The teacher ended up apologizing to all of us after my mother spoke to her.

But while I was dealing with the interracial drama of my schooling, other black St. Louisans were having a far worse time, like those living on one of the most segregated streets in America; or those living in a neighborhood the city doomed to fail in a redlining controversy; or this good Samaritan who got 16-years in prison for a murder she didn’t commit; and this 12-year-old who was tased by police.

This was what my normal. What my every day growing up in St. Louis looked like. Racial aggressions both micro and macro, both from white people and black people, and it lasted well into college when I attended neighboring Southern Illinois University, a hotbed of white supremacist activity. The KKK used to write me letters, a lot, when I was editor-in-chief of the college paper, The Alestle. Most of the letters were “harmless,” as harmless as the Klan could possibly be. They didn’t directly threaten me or my staff. They were mostly leaflets arguing for the preservation of white women to stop the biracial “mud people” hordes. Or they were angry rebuttals to my very political columns. But it’s amazing what you can get used to when you’ve been experiencing it most of your life.

So yes, knowing what I knew and living what I lived, I left angry and only go back to visit my family who all still live there and deal with the racism like pragmatic cynics who just accept you don’t go to mostly white South St. Louis “just because.” But I couldn’t take, and still can’t take the soft Apartheid of my hometown. But my St. Louis story could be a Detroit story or a Cleveland story. St. Louis is not the only Midwestern city that suffers from segregation and disenfranchisement, racism and complicated histories. The thing about Ferguson isn’t to be surprised that it happened, it could have happened anywhere in any segregated city. What’s surprising is that it took this long for St. Louis’ racial problems to rise to the forefront. People don’t think of St. Louis and racism. They think of the baseball Cardinals and beer. People don’t think of the racial animus that has been around since the Dred Scott decision. They think of Lewis and Clark.

Ferguson is the first real, sustained protest since the black and white labor movement protests that led the business elite to invent the Veiled Prophet in the first place. Through these protests, I’m hoping to see real change – politically and in public policy. St. Louis needs a shift away from the constant cycle of white flight. We need stronger economic policies.

President Obama recently proposed that more police wear body cameras, something many have suggested for Ferguson. In order to see real change though, we must go further. There should be a citizen review board, with real power, to review police shootings. There needs to be better training and an emphasis on community policing – where officers are part of the community and have fostered trust with the neighborhoods they are policing. And for the entire St. Louis region, there needs to be a real dialog and healing about race. Mike Brown’s story is just one story out of thousands where the system failed African Americans in St. Louis. He wasn’t the first unarmed individual to be shot and killed by police. He wasn’t the first teenager to grow up in one of St. Louis’ many segregated neighborhoods. These stories of unfairness and injustice must turn into proactive works towards equality and healing. An apology would be nice, but policy changes in housing and public education would be better.

And maybe, this time, we’ll get it, thanks to the young people protesting in Ferguson. Maybe, this time, for these St. Louisans it was better to stay and fight than allow for one more day of the status quo.