Three years ago today, I received a message from a friend in St. Louis who told me something was very wrong in Ferguson. The police had shot an eighteen-year old, and he had been lying on the street for hours. Police response was apparently tentative at best.
I looked outside. Clear sunny day. No weather impediments. I quickly surmised that the delay in police response was because somebody did a bad thing, and nobody quite knew what to do.
It wasn’t until weeks later that I learned that Ferguson, like many municipalities in the St. Louis area, had made a conscious decision to ratchet up their collections of revenue from an already repressed African-American population. I didn’t know, on that day, that Ferguson itself had gone from $1 million in fines and fees collected in 2010, to $3 million on the day Darren Wilson shot Mike Brown. It was another couple of days before I realized that this was the last straw for the community, and there would be no going home until they proved that they were braver than the forces of injustice that were beset upon them.
There was much left to learn. The next day, I wrote the following piece on Facebook. It went viral. Many of my African-American neighbors sent heartfelt messages of thanks, merely because I thought that they too were my neighbors. I am a stranger to St. Louis, and it never occurred to me to think of fifteen minutes away as a different world. I was shocked that a simple expression of outrage and solidarity seemed so unexpected. It broke my heart.
St. Louis still has a long way to go. I remain on the side of my true neighbors – the brave ones.
August 10, 2014
Mike Brown was a neighbor of mine here in St. Louis until he was executed in the middle of the street by the police.
The problem in St. Louis is that most people where I live, West County, just a few minutes away, would not say that we are neighbors. “Those people” live in “those neighborhoods,” you see. They are not to be spoken of, unless someone new moves to town, then they are told, “don’t go up there, you know – there’s nothing up there.” They told me that. (I am white, you know.)
So the first thing I did when I heard those racial code words was to drive every street I could find. I drove north and east of the city, every place proscribed by trembling white people, and confirmed that they just meant neighborhoods with black people who didn’t have a lot of money. Oh, and the infrastructure sucks because they broke St Louis into 100 different tax bases. This situation is so disturbing to the locals, that they mention it as infrequently as possible, and refer to parts north of the city as if they were maybe part of Azerbaijan. But it’s pretty ordinary. These are just places that could use a nice coat of paint and some good schools and some public transit – and most of the residents are African-American.
As I was saying, the police killed one of my neighbors yesterday. And the attitude that leads to the police killing young black men with more frequency than, say, old white women, is that somehow living in that neighborhood makes his life strange and alien. You’ve seen Trayvon Martin. You’ve seen Eric Garner. You’ve seen the revolting doubts cast on what is the killing of unarmed citizens. “Well, y’know, maybe he…” That nauseating discount of a citizen’s right to a professional police force is due to this insane pretense that people in these neighborhoods…you know…*aren’t people like you and me.* (WINK. WINK.)
Well, I don’t give a goddamn what anybody else says – that young man was my neighbor. He, and his family, and all my other neighbors deserve equal civil rights under the law, with no regard to class, race, religion or any other fact. And the fact that poverty and race lead to a perverse, secondary class of citizenship in this nation is a disgrace to each of the rest of us unfortunate enough to be looking at Ferguson, Missouri this evening.
Thomas Jefferson, an imperfect vessel for these ideas, once claimed that he found them to be self-evident and endorsed by God – that all men were created equal.
It IS self-evident. It IS a divine concept. And it should be the basis of this nation’s laws.
We are failing that and should be ashamed. And after our shame, we should FIX IT.