There was an eerie flashback to 1965 in parts of the St. Louis region Sunday. Riot gear. Tear gas. German shepherds. Looting. Stores on fire. Dozens arrested.
It was the violent aftermath of a violent encounter the day before between a police officer and teenager Mike Brown, who was killed. On this very same night that Ferguson boiled over, the Watts riots had burned in Los Angeles nearly 50 years prior.
It’s hard to explain race relations within the St. Louis metro area to those who have never lived here. It’s even harder to make sense of it for children being raised in a more diverse and multiracial America than ever before.
It’s important to consider our recent past.
St. Louis, recently ranked as the sixth most racially segregated city in the country, has entrenched polarized attitudes about race and law enforcement.
Ferguson, a community of 21,000, is an inner-ring suburb, a place where it’s easy for the economic recovery to bypass the poor. It’s a city of 6 square miles, about 10 miles north of downtown. About two-thirds of the residents are African-American. The median income is $37,000, roughly $10,000 less than the state average. Nearly a quarter of residents live below the poverty level, compared with 15 percent statewide.
It’s part of north St. Louis county, where whites left en masse beginning over the past few decades. In the ’60s, they began rapidly leaving north city, creating one of one of the most extreme cases of “white flight” in the country. But many who remained in power are still white, including much of the law enforcement. A local lawyer said whenever she goes into courthouses in North County, all the defendants are always black, the cops always white.
The images from the day before were tinder for this fire: A young black man with his hands in the air. The graphic photo, widely circulated, of Brown slain, lying on the street. His stepfather holding a sign saying the police executed his son. Social media ablaze with photos and videos and outrage.
Brown’s own family members have said the destruction in their hometown is salt in their wounds. When peaceful protests turn to a city’s self immolation, there is no justice for anyone. What’s left is a community used to being unheard, roiling in the wake of a deadly police shooting. A powder keg of unemployment and poverty, of neglect and frustration, and those willing to exploit a tragedy for personal gain.
And this sort of reaction is all too familiar: Donna Rose, wrote in a Facebook comment on STLtoday’s public Facebook page, “I think the SWAT teams needs to open fire and kill all that r involved in the looting.” Her profile identifies her as originally from Florissant, also in North County, now in California.
When an 18-year-old, unarmed black teenager is fatally shot, there are questions any mother, any citizen will have:
Why did Brown’s uncovered, slain body lie on the ground for four hours?
Why did an officer, as yet unidentified, repeatedly fire gun shots when Brown was known to be unarmed and running away?
What happened in that police car? Why was Brown there in the first place?
All this transpired in broad daylight, with video footage, now in the hands of the authorities investigating. These answers will take time to uncover.
The explanation offered from police officials thus far, that Brown struggled for the officer’s gun, seems so at odds with the descriptions of a gentle kid, who was relieved to graduate high school and wanted to start a better life.
The circumstance of that interaction, the exchange between a young black man and police officer in that neighborhood, will be understood completely differently, given the individual’s personal life experience.
For those who have been on the receiving end of disrespect, mistrust, suspicion or brutality, the impulse is to believe Brown was brutally gunned down.
For those who are fearful anytime they cross into the city limits, most likely only for a sporting event, the young man must have done something to “deserve” his fate.
These perspectives largely fall along racial lines.
It’s a false dichotomy, a lazy narrative, to see this region as divided among racists whites and angry blacks. That’s not reality in many neighborhoods and families here. But it’s the loudest, most visible part of the discourse. Like much of America, St. Louis has an undeniable problem talking about or dealing with issues involving race.
The most economically depressed and violence-torn parts of the city and county, predominantly black neighborhoods, are largely ignored by the civic establishment, unless to explain why the city’s high rank in violent crime isn’t an accurate depiction of the region.
Until we can tell our children — and ourselves — a more honest story about race in this region, we will be left with far worse tragedies to explain.