Friday, November 28, 2014

Ferguson from a little closer in

It's so easy, from afar, to observe the killing of Michael Brown and the exoneration of the white cop who shot him as just another episode in the long story of black lives being treated as disposable by a white supremacist system. I've done that. And I certainly think that generalization is irrefutable.

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:

Whites were leaving in droves , moving to St. Louis County and forming new municipalities without considering the long-term inefficiencies inherent to tiny towns; some of the new villages contained fewer than 100 people. These villages embodied St. Louis parochialism; every neighborhood seemed to want to carve out its own niche, its own identity, and anyone who didn’t fit was simply drawn out of a town as boundaries were determined. ...

And it carved St. Louis County into 90 separate towns with 60 police departments and more than 60 municipal courts, many of which have been accused of being incompetent and racist. Within the county but outside of those 90 municipalities are another 300,000 people who live in unincorporated areas governed by the county, leading to scenarios in which county police sometimes must drive several miles to patrol areas not more than a few square blocks. One of the only threads uniting nearly all of these tiny unincorporated areas and municipalities is the fact that they steadfastly refuse to merge with one another, or with St. Louis City.

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.

“You just know when you go through [Ferguson], you better be right. Otherwise , they’ll get you on a taillight or a seat belt or a rolling stop, and once they get you, it just multiplies: Your plate expired, your insurance late, your registration old… it’s always something. All of a sudden, you got five tickets, man. And that’s if you don’t got warrants! ’Cause if you didn’t pay every cent on all the tickets the last time the shit happened, then you goin ’ to jail. Look, man, I got a good gig now; I can pay a fine. But a lotta these people ’round here… a lotta my friends, man… well, I mean, you can end up owing $ 1,000 from a single stop the way they pile it on .… Then if you can’t pay that, you’re on the installment plan, and then one day you choosing between food and keeping up, so you let it slide, then you drive to work to get the money to get back right on your plan, but they get you for the taillight that you couldn’t afford to fix ’cause you didn’t have no money to pay the ticket in the first place! Or what about when they get you for expired license, and you suspended, but then you supposed to do what , fly to court on a damn magic carpet? You scared to get another ticket, so you stay home… or if you try to go and they stop you, now you really fucked ’cause you goin’ to jail ..."

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.

Today’s urban researchers recognize the intentionality behind these development patterns. “St. Louis has spent enormous sums of public money to spatially reinforce human segregation patterns,” preservationist Michael Allen said. “We tore out the core of the city around downtown, just north and south and west, and fortified downtown as an island, by removing so-called slum neighborhoods. Then we demolished… historic black neighborhoods. These were not accidents. These were inflicted wounds.”

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.

Mike Jones, a former City alderman and then top official in both City and County governments, was especially candid. In a column for the St. Louis American, he wrote: "My view is the circumstances that created the events that resulted in tragedy of Michael Brown’s much too early death can be placed squarely at the feet of black leadership, or I should have said at the failure of black leadership to fulfill the only moral imperative of leadership— protecting and advancing the interest of the people you lead. Competent public leadership is not showing up in church praying and giving speeches for the benefit of TV cameras. It requires showing up every day, educating and organizing the community to protect and advance its interest. It means when you’re in the room you represent the interests of the people who sent you, not acquiescing to the wishes of those you are negotiating with."

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?


Rain Trueax said...
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Rain Trueax said...

I have read a lot about this. I wish the community had reacted on the wrongs against them with someone besides Michael Brown. From all I can tell, he could have gone either way with his life, but he wasn't innocent in what transpired so tragically. There are so many other cases where the person shot was totally innocent.

Ferguson, I think, wanted to indict Wilson for all those other wrongs. That's what the left wing wanted also. I just feel that given this situation and what we know-- through all the mixed testimony-- Brown was not the right one to be picked as the martyr. It's hard to say what went wrong with him that day, but he stepped over a line that can get white men or women killed also. My concern is by picking the wrong one to get all riled about, the whole thing will vanish into the ether, not be taken as seriously as it should, and nothing will be done about the possibly badly out of whack police system when they are so afraid that they shoot a child with a toy gun.

We know how lately there have been shootings of police and other law officers by ambushers, which often isn't based on race or ethnicity but just out of hatred for law and order.

Incidentally a few years ago my husband and I had a brief run-in with a policeman over a possible traffic infraction; so I know they can be belligerent even with old whites. Just not as far over the top but that is also because whites like us generally are conditioned to trust them, don't reach into patrol cars for guns or react aggressively-- generally.

It is sad how much our race relationships have again seemed to deteriorate into mutual mistrust of each other. We thought we were making progress but today it doesn't look like it :(.

Hattie said...

You know, I think a big problem is that it's hard to feel at ease around uniformed cops carrying guns, especially if they don't look you in the eye and act like robots. They really need some instruction in how to come on to the public. I would like to see plainclothes cops on the street, carrying non-lethal weapons, instead of cops in paramilitary gear acting like an occupying force. I would like much more stringent gun controls.
Yesterday down in Puna a friend of mine's son was attacked with a knife in a "domestic" and I'm hoping he survives. He has a better chance, anyway, than if his attacker had had a gun.