Missouri Election Board

St. Louis, corruption, culture, and change: an eyewitness view

Eric Garland Social trends 1 Comment

Due to a long-story, this Vermont-native, francophile, Washington DC-denizen resides half-time in St. Louis, MO. I got here in 2010, stepped out of the car, and while my brain adjusted to a climate that compares unfavorably with the surface of Venus, I recognized right off, holy mother of God, is it 1888 around here? The racism thing was absolutely seething, though the local culture was to pretend that This Was Normal. And then, my early professional interactions indicated that this city has what sociologists would call a high-context culture. Similar to Japanese hierarchies or countries run by strongmen, it was pretty clear that in St. Louis, who you were and what you could do absolutely paled in comparison to which powerful interest you represented. If you did not represent one of the Powerful Interests Already Established, then gigantic favors such as returned phone calls or the ability to set a meeting over professional matters were not likely headed your way.

In addition to not especially enjoying the interactions as I scurried from air conditioned respite to air conditioned respite, I began to hear stories about how the local police and municipal court system treated the African-American population. My forecasting brain took all the data and immediately spit out, “Dude…this 1888 stuff is gonna blow.” I hadn’t even come to know that suburban racially-divided townlets like Ferguson had recently decided to triple the amount of money it took off of its citizens, by which of course I mean (because it’s St. Louis) just the Black ones.

Then, Mike Brown met Darren Wilson.

The turning point for St. Louis society

Since the local power structure turned military hardware out on citizens, operated by completely untrained police officers, a couple things have happened. First, the world decided that this was A Serious Problem. Then, the power structure of St. Louis decided…well, maybe this thing is…well, HEY they were protesting! On the street! A lot!

And then the world sent all of its television cameras.

The people of white, suburban St. Louis mostly just blinked and wondered what the fuss was about.

Ferguson St. Louis MissouriA bit of background is necessary to the local lethargy around, “Holy crap, those are mine-resistant armored personnel carriers in our streets.” There is an incredibly powerful molecular force in St. Louis that broadcasts “This Is Normal and Things Have Always Been This Way” into the heads of much of the population. St. Louis is four hours from the nearest major city. The financial power of the place has been largely in place since the steamboats. There is simply a Way Things Run, and there isn’t a lot of comparison to other, potentially different cultures. What makes this fascinating is that things here change as much as they do in any other part of the world. Populations immigrate and settle, industries come and go, infrastructure is laid down, housing patterns shift. But when you tell, for example, an executive in St. Louis, “Yes, this thing is changing, and thus will have implications,” very often what you get back are stunned blinks. Because This Is Normal, and so if something is changing, then That Is Normal Too. It’s Always Been This Way. Unspoken is the fear that, wait, if I just go around changing and acting differently, I may run afoul of the aforementioned established power players, and make myself Unpopular.

The thing is, change is so insistent now that this social dynamic simply cannot keep up with the pressures from within and without. The African-American population has organized, joining up with other national protest movements to push for change. The governor, Jay Nixon, responded to requests to take a more active role with the call for a Ferguson Commission. (My company Competitive Futures worked with the commission on strategic trend research to look at just what was changing that led to a Major Event.)

The inertia still held strong against any changes to a stolid, even corrupt culture, but nothing could hold back what is coming next.

The dam breaks on institutional change

Corruption happens when there is very little fear of retribution. Why did the St. Louis County police and municipal court dyad feel comfortable shaking down citizens for cash in a lawless manner? Because nobody had ever come along and told them, yo, this isn’t cool. Until they did. (Download that report here.) When there isn’t a concern about future strategic shift, individual action – especially one that admonishes the behavior of established players in a system – is seen as inherently risky.

Today in St. Louis, strategic shift is here. And things are changing.

After attacking it, and complaining about it, and arguing it was too expensive, the Ferguson City Council ultimately accepted the consent decree of the US Department of Justice.

The audits of many of the local micro-municipalities, sliced up by race decades ago, are showing sewer-level incompetence and corruption, such as this one of Wellston, which tellingly, I couldn’t point to on a map. Given the legal authority to throw people in jail, allowed to reach into citizens’ pockets, these fake bureaucracies haven’t even bothered keeping proper records. All of that is being exposed to the disinfectant of sunshine now.

And after a contentious election between Bruce Franks and Penny Hubbard in which there were some major irregularities in absentee ballots, Governor Nixon has purged the Election Board commissioners for not following state laws.

It is slow going and it makes people uncomfortable. But the forces at play are as inevitable as they are inexorable. As I forecast in 2014, St. Louis’ institutional culture would have no choice but to respond to emerging realities. I forecast that, just for one thing, the “city” of Ferguson would collapse under the weight of its DOJ obligations. And the bond price has since responded this year with predictable drops. At some point the legitimacy of slicing this city into so many parts will collapse. I suspect it will be when the massive number of lawsuits stemming from 2014 call into question just who is liable. It will be a big deal, and the city will likely need to reorganize. But that is down the road.

The corruption in St. Louis’ culture is eroding. Racism, too. The forces against those two unfortunate characteristics are simply too great to allow them to keep functioning. Optimist that I am, I believe that when these traits are made less convenient, the resilience and pride of St. Louis’ people – all of its people – will shine through. It will take time though, and tireless effort. Long-term, I’m bullish.

Bonus: the promo film from my 2014 conference Transition Economics, filmed just prior to the events that changed everything.