But each such outrage takes place in a particular place and time and those circumstances also bear exploring. Over the last day, I've sought to do that by reading a short e-book by Jeff Smith, Ferguson in Black and White. Smith is a white guy, a Missouri politician whose career was cut short when he ran afoul of campaign finance law. But before his fall, he represented suburban areas north of St. Louis, the kind of towns that Ferguson is. His account of the particular economic history, political structures and culture of these inner ring suburbs is enlightening.
The secession of the City of St. Louis from surrounding St. Louis County by voter referendum in 1877 set the region up for fragmentation driven by white flight as the central city's river economy lost its vitality. From early in the 20th century:
These mini-communities had no way to pay their bills; many of them, including Ferguson, turned themselves into speed traps, dependent for more than 30 percent of their budgets on the take from ticketing minor traffic offenses. Black citizens were the prime target for hyper-enforcement. Local courts turned this extortion racket into an efficient business rivaling the practices of gangland loan sharks.
By the middle of the 20th century, segregated areas of St. Louis proper became too valuable to allow them to be occupied by their Black inhabitants; urban renewal broke up established communities.
Like whites before them, Blacks who could moved to close-in suburbs for bigger houses and a better life. But their arrival did not displace the existing white power structure. Schools in the county were re-segregated after the newcomers entered them. Property values plummeted. Within the City, African Americans had enough numbers to organize themselves and attain a substantial measure of political power. The tiny municipalities of the inner ring might seem to offer prime targets for take over by their residents, but in fact their small size and poverty failed to attract ambitious Black politicians to the task (except for a few con men profiting from government contracts.)
Consequently, poor and young people in Ferguson had little legitimate community leadership to turn to when Mike Brown's killing thrust them into the media spotlight. Most office holders and the police department remained white in two-thirds Black Ferguson. Some Black leaders were self-critical.
Well maybe. I hope Mike Jones is right. But early reports of surging Black voter registration proved to be mistaken. Organizing is slow work and needs money and leadership to succeed. People who've just been knocked down, again, by the County prosector tuning the police shooter's fate over to a grand jury proceeding that was always sure not to result in a real trial aren't likely to be eager to do the boring work of getting folks ready to vote. But unless the people at the bottom manage to take some measure of power in Ferguson and surroundings, Black lives will continue not to matter.
Municipal elections will take place in April 2015. Will we still be paying attention to Ferguson?