It’s a weird time to be living in St. Louis. It’s weird to see North St. Louis county, a place where members of both sides of my family have lived and worked since the 1930s and where I lived for eight years (Florissant), prominently displayed on national and international news outlets. It’s weird to read what seems like a lifetime of online punditry and thinkpiece material about your hometown from people who have spent little if any time there. And it’s definitely weird to see protests taking place in New York City, Boston, Oakland, and a number of other prominent U.S. cities in response to an event that occurred at a place within an easy driving distance of your house.
Since August I have wrestled with whether or not I should share my thoughts and perspective on Ferguson online. Part of me feels like I shouldn’t because I might offend someone or my words might be misinterpreted. And who the hell cares what I think anyway? At the same time, however, I feel like the topic is unavoidable and that I cannot write about other topics in good conscience without addressing it. No matter what any reader may think about my perspective, I owe it to myself to outline my thoughts and try to come to a better personal understanding through writing.
As with most political topics of discussion within society today, “mainstream” news media, social media, political pundits, and online writers have created false dichotomies framing the events in Ferguson in black and white terms (literally). Any sort of middle ground perspective–or at least a perspective that allows for nuanced thinking about protesters, police officers, and the United States criminal justice system–has been lost. It was probably never there in the first place. Countless online and face-to-face interactions with friends and family in St. Louis follow predictable lines: are you “for or against the protesters?” Do you support law enforcement and law and order? Who’s “side” do you support? Too often I feel like I must choose between a vision of society that either embraces a strong police state or a state of total anarchy. Like the nationalist who argues “my country: right or wrong,” I feel like I must either embrace “my police: right or wrong” or “my protest: right or wrong.”
On the one hand, some critics of the Ferguson Police Department and the U.S. criminal justice system have clearly gone too far in generalizing all police officers as bloodthirsty pigs. Some protesters have compared the Ferguson PD to ISIS, which is simply ridiculous. The St. Louis rapper and activist Tef Poe recently released a song called “War Cry” that seems to contradict the message of peace other protesters have attempted to convey to society and, in a way, dehumanizes Missouri political and law enforcement leaders in the process of demanding their own acknowledgement of black humanity. In the song description Poe argues that the Ferguson PD is an “uncontrollable force of wild cowboys,” and in an article for Time magazine he asserts that in the initial aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting “the police launched a preemptive and massively militarized offensive” against the protesters. While I agree with Poe that the initial police response in August was heavy-handed, it is disingenuous to criticize the police’s reaction without acknowledging the looting and property damage that precipitated most of those police actions.
I also agree with Jamelle Bouie that riots are not necessarily incomprehensible acts of violence, that we should work to understand the driving motivations behind rioting beyond simple moral condemnation, and that white supremacy reigned in the U.S. during the nineteenth and early twentieth century due in large part to white riots. And I can understand the perspective of a young Ferguson resident like Victor Mooring who considers the recent looting and arson along West Florissant street “a small price to pay for treating Brown’s life as worthless.” But the acknowledgement of a nation’s white supremacist history or a “means justify the ends” logic to violence will do little to comfort the numerous business owners and employees of all colors who are now out of work and a community whose local infrastructure and resources are literally crumbling. And if we were to embrace a “means justify the ends” logic towards arson and looting in Ferguson, then what stops a status quo advocate of the criminal justice system from embracing a “means justify the ends” logic towards the killing of perceived black criminals as a small price to pay for social order and state hegemony? We must also condemn state violence if we want to condemn riots.
St. Louis Alderman Antonio French recently lamented on Twitter that TV media failed to properly distinguish between the goals and intentions of peaceful protesters, looters, and arsonists. I share these sentiments, but unfortunately many people hostile to the protests have made these terms synonymous in their imaginations. Whereas some critics have generalized all police officers as racist, corrupt pigs, other critics have unfairly generalized all protesters as violent, police-hating rabble-rousers without any credible justification for protesting in Ferguson. A perspective that completely dismisses the complaints of most peaceful protesters is equally harmful, if not more harmful, to understanding where we are right now. To simply wish that “all of this would just go away” is a fool’s dream. To wish that everything would go back to “normal” is to conveniently forget that “normal” is the cause of events in Ferguson in the first place. St. Louis has a troubling history of slavery, racist government actions in criminal justice, housing, and redlining policies, and de facto segregation readily embraced by many white St. Louisians in practice if not by law. This troubling history is embedded within the very core of St. Louis society whether or not St. Louisans choose to acknowledge it.
The Missouri criminal justice system needs reforming, although the extent of that reform remains an open question. Municipal police departments in St. Louis County have profited off the backs of its most impoverished residents, as Radley Balko detailed in-depth for the Washington Post in September. The criminal justice system in Ferguson punishes its residents to such a point that last year each household possessed three warrants on average; 25,000 warrants in a city of 21,000 people. The Ferguson PD remains under federal investigation for several allegations that include excessive force against suspects, unwarranted traffic citations issued in a quest for money, and disproportionate traffic stops in black neighborhoods. And St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullouch’s operating procedures during the grand jury’s indictment hearing for Officer Darren Wilson were far from legally sound, engendering a wide range of criticisms from writers, legal experts, and the National Bar Association. Finally, Princeton University professor and sociologist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor reminds us that “Racist policing isn’t happening in a vacuum — it has to be seen, at least in part, as the flip side of the economic gutting of those communities. The local, state, and federal governments have slowly eroded black neighborhoods by shuttering public schools and public housing, closing public clinics and hospitals, and slashing funding for social programs.”
Once we acknowledge that those protesting in Ferguson and around the United States are doing so for myriad reasons–racist policing, police militarization, an unfair criminal justice system, economic inequality, racism within government and society, and many other reasons–we can acknowledge that peaceful protesters have many legitimate reasons for protesting, even if we were to give Darren Wilson’s explanation for his interactions with and killing of Michael Brown the complete benefit of the doubt.
For all of its bitter political, social, and economic divisiveness, the St. Louis region finds itself, as Sarah Kendzior argues, united only in fear. A geography of fear, a fear of what’s happening, and a fear of what might soon come. Governor Jay Nixon recently argued that Michael Brown’s death prompted these bitter divisions, but he is wrong. They have been here for a long, long time, and to think that we are somehow living in an unprecedented time in our city’s history is to downplay just how long these sorts of questions and disagreements have lingered under the surface.
By pure coincidence I am currently reading the late Tony Judt’s 2008 publication Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. Although the book largely revolves around European twentieth century history, Judt’s impassioned pleas for the importance of historical thinking are relevant for all space and time. Through a stronger historical consciousness we can escape the politics of fear and use our critical faculties to better understand how the complex questions we face as a society are perennial in nature.
Of all our contemporary illusions, the most dangerous is the one that underpins and accounts for all the others. And that is the idea that we live in a time without precedent: that what is happening to us is new and irreversible and that the past has nothing to teach us . . . except when it comes to ransacking it for serviceable precedents.
Fear is reemerging as an active ingredient of political life in Western democracies. Fear of terrorism, of course; but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of the uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of circumstances and routines of one’s daily life. And, perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach. Few democracies can resist the temptation to turn this sentiment of fear to political advantage . . . we should not be surprised to see the revival of pressure groups, political parties, and political programs based upon fear: fear of foreigners, fear of change, fear of open frontiers and open communications; fear of the free exchange of unwelcome opinions (19-20).
Much of the substance within the perspectives I’ve shared above stems from the politics of fear. Fear of the Other, fear of the future, fear that listening to others and acknowledging the legitimacy of their arguments means taking away our personal dignity and compromising our values. It remains to be seen if Ferguson can help lead St. Louis beyond the politics of fear.