I live in the “nice” part of St Louis. This week, it isn’t my neighborhood on fire. But there is a pall over things here, and rightly so. You pass fully-armed HUM-Vs painted in desert colors on the way to the grocery, so it’s little wonder that when you get to your destination, everybody stares nervously down at their shoes while mumbling through a pale attempt to pretend life is normal here. You can segregate a city in terms of money and infrastructure, but anxiety tends to spread without regard to the gates of our communities, like the pungent smell of hops when they are brewing downtown.
I have already written voluminously on the developments in this city since the killing of Michael Brown in August. I should rather have been discussing solar power, radical economic development in Haiti, or the fact that AirBnB has made billions without reducing rates of hotel occupancy. The world remains full of wonder and great changes. Yet fate placed me in a corner of America where this nation’s worst problems could no longer stay contained. The chain of normalcy breaks at its weakest link, and that link is apparently seventeen minutes drive from our house.
People have asked me what I think about the last few days’ events. Let us start with the St Louis County prosecutor, a disgrace from start to finish. When Governor Nixon relieved the St Louis County Police from their duties after their incompetent, militarized failures in August, Bob McCullough gave a press conference to say the Governor was wrong and the whole tanks ‘n’ sniper rifle thing was really great. When asked to step aside for a special prosecutor by the DOJ, McCullough did what the entire St Louis power structure does when threatened – close ranks and keep matters in the hands of the Yokelocracy, where they can be “dealt with” in a very special way, assured to keep the corrupt status quo going the way it has here for 140 years.
McCullough’s actions look about as legitimate as the ninety different kangaroo courts in his district that throw people in debtor’s prison for a burned out tail light. The weeks of militarized preparations, the specially timed leaks, the warning letters to schools and businesses, and the 8pm announcement were all a carefully designed recipe for the maximum anger and distrust. The crescendo finally arrived with the prosecutor making the closing speech of the defense attorney who would never be needed, because there was never going to be a prosecution anyhow. The fix was in from the get go. Now, against the judge’s wishes, McCullough’s office released thousands of documents to keep everybody busy debating whether Michael Brown was really a demon instead of a dead teenager left in the sun for four hours. The Yokelocracy showed the world how Justice in St Louis goes down, and what should really shock you is that it’s more the rule than the exception.
For the riots, police confrontation, and national guard deployments, the theatre is being performed as scripted, with great gusto on all sides. Everyone believes their actions are justified, from the guys burning AutoZone to the police teargassing Amnesty International, to the still-numerous peaceful protestors. This violence is like the potential energy of a senseless American narrative converted into the kinetic energy of buildings on fire. I have no idea when it will stop. When you tell people that the rules of Justice bend for some and are ramrod-straight for others, the response will be predictable and terrible. And when you burn police cars and smash up small businesses in the name of freedom, the response will be predictable and terrible.
Scientists discovered that merely observing a phenomenon causes it to change. Now that the entire world has its eyes on St Louis, it is safe to say that this place will never be the same again. Will that be a good thing or a bad thing? We may need to ask future generations.