Despite living less than 18 miles from Ferguson, MO, I didn’t hear about the events that unfolded last weekend (and continue to unfold) until more than forty-eight hours later. In a small cabin south of Crater Lake in Oregon, I received a garbled second-hand account of the rioting and looting from my MIL, who had just spoken to her brother.
I turned to the internet, where I learned about Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer, and I watched with a breaking heart from hundreds of miles away: loss, hate, hope, anger, love, grief.
After nine years in St. Louis, I’m no stranger to the fact that the region has race issues.
I’m often struck by the make-up of crowds that I’m in, how in a city that is split almost exactly fifty-fifty between white and black, that racial mix is rarely represented at a given place or event.
In May, I took G to be tested to see if he would qualify for speech services through St. Louis Public Schools. Our assigned testing site was Gateway Elementary and Middle School in north St. Louis City. As we were leaving, we were caught in the halls during a class change at the middle school, and I was struck by the fact that I did not see a single white student in that hallway. I wasn’t surprised, exactly, but all I could think was, “It’s the year 2014, and segregation is alive and well.”
This is not an accident, but rather the result of concerted historical efforts in St. Louis (as well as other cities), to separate white people and black people, and “protect property values,” through the use of [racially] restrictive covenants in real estate, which created white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods.
The effects of these covenants are still apparent in St. Louis City and the surrounding suburbs today. For a closer look at how this played out in and near Ferguson, check out Jeff Smith’s excellent post, “You Can’t Understand Ferguson without First Understanding these Three Things.”
I’ve been in Kinloch and other parts of north county. I vividly remember an assignment in grad school, which involved visiting a number of parks in the metro area, assessing them from a usability perspective (okay, we say people should just get out and exercise — what are the sidewalks and the parks near their houses like — is that really feasible???). For the exercise, we were assigned partners and a list of parks to assess, ranging from nice to not-so-nice.
My [white, female] partner and I were in a large, but clearly under-resourced, park in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in north St. Louis County (we may have actually been IN Kinloch, or not far from) when a couple of police officers approached and asked what we were doing there.
I don’t remember exactly what was said, but it was clear to my partner and I that the officers assumed that only thing white people could be doing in that park was buying or selling drugs. We explained our assignment and showed them our park inventory sheet, and they let us continue.
I was fairly new to St. Louis at the time, and the encounter was both surprising and saddening. Despite being across the street from a decent-sized apartment complex, we were the only people out in the park on a Saturday morning. Was drug-dealing really the only thing that happened in that park? Was the perceived (and perhaps real) danger just too high for residents to use the park for recreational purposes?
I know people who live in Ferguson, including our real estate agent and a fellow CyclingSavvy instructor, who is also a small business (a bike shop, of course) owner there. There is a great organic farm and farmer training program within the city limits, and a Saturday Farmers’ Market. This is also Ferguson, MO.
But as the events of the past week demonstrate, there are some very real issues that we must face, not just in Ferguson, but in the entire St. Louis metro area (and in other parts of the country as well), issues stemming from a long history of racial injustice and disparities in education, healthcare, and economic opportunity.
At the same time as my heart breaks at the continued violence and unrest, there are many more heartening stories, and images, of a community and region pulling together. My hope and prayer is that this won’t just “go away,” but will lead to real, honest dialogue; enlightenment; and then action to change things. This process won’t be easy or painless, and change won’t happen overnight, but we can, and must, do better.