The story of North County: How America is in a perpetual state of reconstruction

The back story of Michael Brown’s death.
The back story of Michael Brown’s death.
Image: Reuters/Adrees Latif
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If you’re white, you’re from North St. Louis County (or anywhere, really), and you’re not having an agonized moment of self-reflection in the wake of events in Ferguson, thinking back over all the moments in your life where you could’ve done better, and how you can do better in the future, I’m not sure what to say. But I can tell you what I’ve seen and hope you understand.

I grew up in Florissant, Missouri. I moved to University City for college and stayed, but I still have family, friends, and property up north, and I consider Ferguson part of my hometown—it’s half of my school district, after all, and it figured large in my childhood. I was pulling out of my father’s driveway, just two miles north of where Darren Wilson shot and killed Mike Brown, when I got the first email alert from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

My heart dropped. It felt like another punch to the gut. In November 2012, my friends had all begun talking about radioactive contamination in North County. In June 2013, my father had had his third stroke, forcing him to move out of the house he’d loved and the North County streets he’d walked, from Black Jack to Ferguson, every day. Every time I went to Florissant in the past year—nearly every weekend—I felt like pieces of me were breaking off. I was already in mourning. Now I mourn for Mike Brown, too.

I don’t want to be yet another white girl who manages to make this about herself—and some would say I should stop right there. But there aren’t a lot of us in the media from North County. As Janee Woods noted, this is the time for white people to step up and make a purposeful choice to be better allies, to say black lives matter. There are so many stories that need to be told.

The reason we need to have this conversation now is not only because Mike Brown was shot, but also because we’ve ducked it so many times before. On my desk, I have a note to self from a year ago: “North gets ignored.” Until now, no one wanted to talk about it.

Why it happened where it did

Let’s start with North County as a whole. If St. Louis residents in general have a chip on their shoulder about their place in the world, I’m not sure how to describe the feeling of telling people you’re from North County and seeing their smiles curdle, their brow furrow. It’s long been this way—and it goes back to how race and class intertwine.

Many of the people saying “This could’ve happened anywhere” are turning a blind eye to what has gone on in North County for decades. Yes, some are saying this to broaden the message, to raise awareness of the racism and classism that surround all of us, and that’s important. FBI stats show that across the country, an average of two black people are killed by white police officers each week. But Ferguson has its own back story—and issues of class and upward mobility are inextricable parts of it.

The New York Times’ coverage of this tragedy’s historical roots backs this up. Black city residents moved to Ferguson starting in the 1970s because it had been built before restrictive zoning made it hard to build apartments. But people also moved there because at that time, you could get a job in industry nearby—you could work at the Ford plant in Hazelwood or for McDonnell Douglas (later Boeing) in Berkeley. You could be a union machinist and make a decent wage. When my father went to McCluer High School in the ’60s, there were so many students, the school had classes in shifts.

Many of those baby boomers, black and white alike, some Vietnam War veterans, are the parents of the current generation of youth you see in Ferguson. These millennials came of age in an era during which unions declined; these huge auto plants in St. Louis closed; and news of radioactive environmental contamination (from government-funded industry) and white flight led property values (and subsequently, school funding) to decline. In North County, the class and race issues intertwine, but it’s class that’s brought the race issues to a boil.

As one commenter discussing Ferguson on MetaFilter pointed out, “In the U.S., we’re trained to separate race and class, as if racism were purely driven by misguided emotions and not by greed and the hunger for power… Keeping black people down is part of keeping working people down. Black people may be at the bottom of the heap, but if the bottom of the heap gets pushed down, everyone else goes down too.”

Or as Frederick Douglass once said: “The hostility between the whites and blacks of the South is easily explained. It has its root and sap in the relation of slavery, and was incited on both sides by the cunning of the slave masters. Those masters secured their ascendancy over both the poor whites and blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each.”

Basic psychology bears this out. Discussing police actions during the protests in Ferguson, many have mentioned Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, in which students given roles as “guards” rapidly became abusive. Friends have also posted links to videos from Jane Elliott’s blue eyes/brown eyes exercise. At Cross Keys Middle School growing up, we did the latter experiment for a week or so, the brown-eyed privileged over the blue-eyed. The results were revealing: Trust breaks down when one race or group has every advantage, especially when resources and jobs are increasingly scarce.

You get a bunch of working-class people in one place, all scrabbling for resources and influence, and you disproportionately put people of one color in positions of power over people of another color. You contaminate the environment there to an unknown extent by leaching radioactive waste into Coldwater Creek, but don’t tell anyone about it right away. Wait a few decades, and see how that turns out, as residents start comparing notes on friends’ seemingly disproportionate cancer rates, which you repeatedly deny and explain away. The people of North County have been have been affected by forces beyond their control—beyond a vote—for decades.

As Charles Marohn wrote in an analysis for Minneapolis nonprofit Strong Towns, “Ferguson is a suburb deep into the decline phase of the Suburban Ponzi Scheme,” in which revenue collected can’t cover maintenance costs. As he notes, in 2013, Ferguson’s interest payments alone came to nearly $800,000. Declining infrastructure has led to declines in other areas. If you want to see a movie up north, now that Wehrenberg’s Halls Ferry 14 Cine, Jamestown 14 Cine, and Cross Keys Cinema are gone, you have to drive 20 minutes on two highways to St. Louis Outlet Mall.

Many North County residents work jobs where they barely make enough to pay for the gas to get to and from work—and then they get ticketed en route. Two tornadoes hit Ferguson in recent years, and there are still tarps on roofs. Others have documented the racial profiling, the lack of representation… North County’s decline goes back to economics—but many white residents have long blamed it on race, even as the brunt of these disparities falls disproportionately on North County’s black communities.

Understanding Ferguson

Former St. Louis politician Jeff Smith’s piece for The New Republic on the three things you need to understand to understand Ferguson mentions Kinloch Airfield, the land that eventually became Lambert–St. Louis International Airport. Kinloch—that’s a name that arouses feelings in people in North County, though no one wants to talk about it. It brings to mind the desegregation program, and busing, and migration out of failing school districts. So many people seem to want to forget it exists, along with places like Wellston, where my great-grandfather once drove a bus route.

And that brings to mind Interstate 170. After Shelley v. Kraemer, the US Supreme Court decision striking down racial covenants on real estate, black city residents began to move to inner-ring suburbs like Ferguson. But soon, airport expansion and Interstate 170 construction both displaced people, cutting through nearby neighborhoods up until about 10 years ago. Yet again, people found a potentially good place to live, only to be confined by construction. (Note that construction on I-170 ceased at Interstate 64 due to public outcry in South County—residents didn’t want it disrupting their neighborhoods the way it had the ones farther north.)

Strangely, St. Louis County has claimed updates to I-170 will be “a critical element to revitalizing the inner-ring suburbs.” As civic blogger Alex Ihnen wryly wrote on nextSTL in June, “Somehow the building on I-170 didn’t contribute to the revitalizing of inner ring communities it traverses, such as [Kinloch], St. John, [Vinita] Park, and Charlack.”

Once more, the county has used rhetoric about inner-ring revitalization to get what it wants—without taking serious steps to improve the well-being of those who live there.

The growing divide

When Ferguson Mayor James Knowles told MSNBC that “there’s not a racial divide in the city of Ferguson,” he immediately painted himself as out of touch. But one could almost—if not forgive him, then pity him for failing to see the (at times literal) writing on the wall. At 35, Knowles isn’t much older than I am, and things have changed since our youth.

But they’ve been changing for a long time, and you’d expect a mayor to know that. My friends and I grew up in a North County that was, as a whole, maybe fifty-fifty black and white, and looking back, there didn’t seem to be much overt racial tension. We were raised to celebrate the community’s diversity and come together through local events. (Brown and his parents were among those who did so—my mother had met him and his mom before at local events.) But clearly racism persisted beneath the surface, and as the area declined and people looked for someone to blame, racial tensions grew.

Since then, many have opted out of that community. In 2002, I graduated from McCluer North High School in a class of about 375, in an area of the district that back then was about 80% white. Two years ago, when it came time for our first class reunion, a group of largely African-American alums took the initiative to get it organized. Nearly 175 people joined the class-reunion group on Facebook. Ultimately, however, many classmates quietly made their excuses, and only about two dozen of us showed up. Three-quarters of our party were African-American. I remember feeling dazed at the time, as salad and dessert plates sat uneaten before empty chairs—and it occupied my thoughts for months afterward. A few friends couldn’t afford it, but I don’t know why the rest of our white friends didn’t show up…and all the conclusions I could draw were uncomfortable ones.

This past spring, an older white man told me that if he were my age, he wouldn’t want to live up north, citing vague “concerns” with the area. I’ve been in groups whose members wouldn’t meet north of Delmar Boulevard—even if that meant making North County–based members drive farther.

After Brown was killed, as police rolled into Ferguson with dogs and guns, many of us had friends and family members across the country calling to check in. What many missed is that even in Ferguson, a lot of areas were deemed uninvolved to the point that curfew wasn’t applied there, and no roadblocks went up. The wounds—and the damage—were concentrated.

But what we’ve seen in recent weeks affects all of us. Clearly, the North County of our childhood was no utopia of togetherness, but those of us who grew up there shared a lot in common. That’s one thing that’s bothered me as I’ve followed the coverage of events in North County, this notion of Florissant as merely “nearby.” I’ve long viewed Ferguson and Florissant as two sides of the same coin. Their major north-south streets share the same names, and they’re the two named halves of Ferguson-Florissant School District. In 2013, ArchCity Defenders reports, the cities netted a combined $3.5 million from their municipal courts, raising revenue on the backs of the working class. When looting began late on the night of Aug. 10, it followed West Florissant Avenue from Ferguson to Florissant.

Ferguson is the yin to Florissant’s yang. Ferguson is about two-thirds black; Florissant, about two-thirds white. And while Florissant has annexed and raised taxes on almost every adjacent part of unincorporated St. Louis County it could, Ferguson has systematically had neighbors pushed into it, construction project by construction project. The two cities are halves of the same whole, and like yin and yang, they’re integrated, shared spaces.

But as many have pointed out, the local police forces, government, and school board aren’t. My classmates may remember one of our high-school math teachers, Paul Schroeder. What they might not know is that he’s now a member of the Ferguson-Florissant Board of Education.

Interestingly, last year, Schroeder, supported by no one, was the lone dissenting vote—twice—when the school board sought to oust then-superintendent Art McCoy, the sole African-American member of the board.

It’s perhaps telling that the board sought to push out McCoy (without making any of its charges public) not long after McCoy had actively recruited transfer students from the nearby Riverview Gardens and Normandy school districts.

This spring, one of my neighbors growing up, Donna Thurman, was voted in as the board’s sole black member. I’m proud of her—but her presence doesn’t fix the board’s pervasive, unrepresentative whiteness. And while four of seven board members do live in Ferguson, the acting superintendent, Lawrence W. Larrew, doesn’t even appear to live in the district.

Still, while the board may not reflect the district’s composition, the area has long had smart, compassionate teachers who taught students about far more than the basics. My classmates may remember our fourth-grade teacher, Viola Murphy. What they might not know is that she’s now the mayor of another North County suburb in the district, Cool Valley.

Interestingly, last year, Murphy, supported by a unanimous vote of her aldermen, and with little fuss from her police chief, dissolved Cool Valley’s police force, and sought to contract out its services.

It’s perhaps telling that when the time came to make a choice between the services of Ferguson’s police force and Normandy’s police force, Cool Valley chose Normandy. Even in their second careers, our teachers have tried to show us more than we probably even realize.

 If we don’t stand up, we’re part of the problem

The police, of course, are at the center of this story. The weeks following Brown’s death have seen them at the intersection of issues including press freedom, net neutrality, police militarization, and institutionalized racism.

I have good friends who are police officers—people who I absolutely trust with my life and trust to do the right thing. If I see them on the scene, I’m comforted. But you know the situation in your hometown is bad when members of the military are saying, “Don’t call the police militarized—the actual military is both more professional and more compassionate, and has less firepower and body armor.”

When looting went up West Florissant Avenue, I was concerned for the safety of those I knew in Ferguson and Florissant. Yet the lack of concern for the protesters reminded me of pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem “First they came…”: If we don’t stand with our neighbors of color, we’re part of the problem. The officers who told protesters “All you f—king animals, bring it” or “We’re dealing with 4,000 animals in there, and you want to give me attitude?” weren’t helping one bit to combat the perception that they believe black people are less than human.

Whatever the provocation—and the jury is still out on whether more than one or two Molotov cocktails, maybe, were ever thrown in Ferguson—many of the police on duty there behaved like the textbook definition of fascists. In the weeks after Brown’s death, several of the more egregious offenders were outed and disciplined. Yet so many people I’ve spoken with seem to believe that the rights of those protesting don’t matter, or that it was inconvenient to insist on their rights being observed when our friends, family, and property were potentially in danger. But that’s exactly when it matters. If we don’t uphold citizens’ most basic rights in troubled times, nothing our nation is built upon can continue to stand.

Our rights include the freedom of the press. The Freedom of the Press Foundation documented 17 journalists’ arrests in the two weeks following Brown’s death, including an instance in which journalists were shot in the back with rubber bullets after they were arrested. People must understand: If they’ll do it to the press, they’ll do it to you. I have friends on the force, I’m a journalist, I have basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution—oh, and I’m white—and none of that would’ve helped me.

I’ve also seen concerns about open access to information. My mother and multiple friends in North County reported that Charter cable cut out local news stations during the initial protests, and some (including Ferguson Committeewoman Patricia Bynes) expressed fears at the time that it was deliberate, like when San Francisco cut cellphone access on BART during protests there in 2011. (It’s perhaps of note that those protests followed another police shooting.) That cuts to the heart of these issues: People are protesting not just for justice in court, but for justice through transparency.

You may have heard about the $40 million federal lawsuit filed against Ferguson police in the wake of the protests. More are surely in the works. We can’t forget what we saw there: pregnant women pushed to the ground, 8-year-old kids and women in wheelchairs tear-gassed. Some said those people shouldn’t have been protesting. That ignorance aside, what do you do if you aren’t protesting, but you’re pregnant, you live in Ferguson, and you have nowhere else to go? People reported tear gas being fired into their backyards. Others reported it seeping in through their air-conditioning units.

In Ferguson, going home has been no guarantee police would leave you be. Just ask Mike Brown’s parents—Brown was walking to his grandmother’s home when he was shot. And at least one of the shots Wilson fired that day went straight through a witness’s window. That’s what this is about, and why people are protesting to begin with: that some people’s lives and perspectives are so clearly valued over others’.

Who doesn’t care?

Someone online asked, “Who doesn’t care about what’s happening in Ferguson?” I can think of a few answers: People who have a vested interest in not examining their own racism and privilege, who go beyond not caring to aiding racists in propagating lies. People who aren’t self-reflective enough to get what specific feelings they’re having, but just want to make them go away. And so many of the people who picked up and moved to St. Charles County to “escape.”

Then there are the people who have recognized their white privilege, but don’t know how to move from discomfort to deconstruction. While I’ve seen a lot of misinformation and outright hate propagated in the wake of Brown’s death—including countless friends of friends who have liked the “I Support Officer Wilson” page on Facebook—I’ve also seen white friends from North County genuinely stepping out of their comfort zones to attend protests, get involved, and learn from their experiences. There is some hope in that. This work has to continue—it can’t end when the cameras finally all drift away.

Woods’ piece has encouraging words for those of us who want to be allies but are still working through feelings of awkwardness and discomfort, especially as awareness bubbles up regarding our own issues with race. The first part is consciousness, but that’s the part that really hangs many of us up and stops us from contributing, when we realize we have our own weird feelings or behaviors around our friends of color. This process of reflection isn’t necessarily comfortable—but it’s necessary.

As Woods notes:

There’s a real fear of saying the wrong thing even if the intention is pure, of being alienated socially and economically from other white people for standing in solidarity with black people, or of putting one’s self in harm’s way, whether the harm be physical or psychological. I’m not saying those aren’t valid fears, but I am challenging white people to consider carefully whether failing to speak out or act because of those fears is justified when white silence and inaction mean the oppression and death of black people…

If you don’t make a purposeful choice to become a white ally and actively work to dismantle the racist system running America for the benefit of white people, then it becomes your shame because you are white and black lives matter. And if you live your whole life and then die without making a purposeful choice to become a white ally, then American racism becomes your legacy.

I think—I hope—this is a moment that can lead a lot of our friends and neighbors to consciousness and action. I think it has to. Or we are lost.