“I am Darren Wilson”: St. Louis and the geography of fear

Who are the Wilson supporters?
Who are the Wilson supporters?
Image: Reuters/Adrees Latif
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ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—“I am Darren Wilson.”

The slogan is all over the St. Louis metropolitan area: on T-shirts worn by soccer moms, on rubber bracelets worn by police officers, on signs held by their wives. “I am Darren Wilson,” they proclaim, in a show of affinity with the white police officer who  shot black teenager Michael Brown to death in the street in Ferguson, Missouri on Aug. 9. “I am Darren Wilson,” they affirm, as St. Louis waits for a grand jury to rule whether the most infamous police officer in America will be indicted.

Everyone in St. Louis is afraid. The discrepancy in what they fear is tearing the region apart. Ferguson protesters—and much of black St. Louis—fear the police. They fear officers like Wilson, whom they believe view black men as inherently threatening and deserving of lethal force. Since Aug. 9, protesters have proclaimed “I am Michael Brown” and mimicked the “hands up” gesture he allegedly made before he died. “I am Michael Brown” is the grim corollary to their other rallying cry: “Black lives matter.”

Protester car with slogan “I am Mike Brown.” Ferguson, Missouri, Sept. 30.
Protester car with slogan “I am Mike Brown.” Ferguson, Missouri, Sept. 30.
Image: Sarah Kendzior

Those who claim “I am Darren Wilson” say they stand in solidarity not just Wilson, but also with law enforcement. To support Darren Wilson, the refrain goes, is to support law, order and due process. But underlying the phrase “I am Darren Wilson” is a different kind of fear. It is fear of disenfranchisement, chaos, and criminality. It is a fear of black youth and black self-determination. This fear structures not only the geography of St. Louis, but also the regions beyond.

Today the base of Wilson support comes not from St. Louis, but rather neighboring St. Charles County, where white St. Louisans began to migrate en masse at the turn of the 21st century following the arrival of blacks in suburban St. Louis. The Wilson case is the culmination of decades of the racial politics of fear, which dictate everything from where people live and how they treat each other to whom they view as the antagonist in the Ferguson events. While the grand jury has until mid-November to rule on an indictment, rumor is that it will happen soon. St. Louis is a region on edge, united only in anticipation that the worst is still to come.

Social media and segregation

On Oct. 10-13, St. Louis hosted a “Weekend of Resistance,” during which thousands of activists descended upon the city in support of Michael Brown and his family. That same weekend in St. Charles, supporters of Darren Wilson held a bowling night to support Wilson’s defense fund. They announced the event on a Darren Wilson Facebook support group with over 80,000 members. It is one of many Wilson support groups with membership in the tens of thousands.

Social media is one of the few spaces in St. Louis not subject to segregation. This raucous online debate often stands in contrast to what area residents are unwilling to say to each other in public.

Die-hard Wilson supporters share a specific terminology. The protesters are called “terrorists,” sometimes “treasonous terrorists.” Groups of black protesters are described as a “lynch mob” targeting whites. Looting, which has been rare during the months of protest, is emphasized. The characterization of the protesters by Wilson supporters reflects both whites’ rationale for fleeing St. Louis and Wilson’s for killing Michael Brown: fear of black crime.

Graphic found on a “Support Darren Wilson” Facebook page
Graphic found on a “Support Darren Wilson” Facebook page

One Wilson supporter, a lifelong North County resident who is white and asked to remain anonymous, explained his perspective in an email:

“Demanding Wilson’s arrest before that process is completed is akin to a lynch mob and would circumvent our sacred process of actual justice. All the racist chants, death threats, harassment, interruption of travel and commerce and general terror have become an insurrection and must be stopped… Interrupting commerce and disrupting normal working citizen’s lives is not what the founders had in mind when our right to protest was protected. They also didn’t envision mobs of people screaming racist vile [sic] and chanting death threats against our police.”

Geography of fear

The geography of St. Louis is carved by racial politics. Many of the residents of St. Charles County—where Wilson claims his base of support—grew up in St. Louis’s North County, the series of suburbs north of the city, which includes Ferguson. Once a white, blue-collar hub, North County underwent a dramatic demographic shift in the 1980s and 1990s as black St. Louis families fled the decay of the inner city.

As St. Louis County became more black and saw its population stagnate, the white population of St. Charles County surged, from 144,107 in 1980 to 360,485 in 2013. The population of O’Fallon, Missouri rose from 8,677 in 1980 to 82,209 in 2010. Nearby Wentzville rose from 3,193 in 1980 to 29,070 in 2013. Wentzville is now home to a General Motors plant that created hundreds of jobs in 2014, in contrast to the closed-down factories whose rusting skeletons loom over St. Louis’s majority black neighborhoods.

As St. Louis endures a seemingly eternal recession, St. Charles County is booming. Drive down its main roads and you see open farmland on one side and construction sites on the other, with far fewer of the payday loan stores and pawn shops that line St. Louis’s streets. To many, St. Charles County, located across the Missouri River, looks like the promised land.

St. Charles County is almost entirely white.

A subdivision under construction in booming St. Charles County.
A subdivision under construction in booming St. Charles County.
Image: Sarah Kendzior

“I felt I made the right decision as soon as I came out here,” says Carmen Mannino, owner of Mannino’s Market in Cottleville, MO. “People came in the store and welcomed me with open arms. I came here in 1998. When I moved, people said, ‘Why do you want to move to Cottleville? There’s nothing out there.’ There were no businesses out here. And now look at it.”

In 1939, Mannino’s grandfather made the journey from Palermo, Italy, to Ferguson, Missouri. He remembers fondly the store’s North County heyday and says the family had good relationships with black employees and customers.

“We had old-timers who respected my dad so much,” Mannino recalls. “They had respect for people. The people were just amazing back then. But I saw a lot of the change when I was there. I started being afraid to leave my mom or my wife outside the door. There were drug deals and fights and we looked at each other and said, ‘We have to get out of here.’”

Mannino’s is one of many North County businesses that fled to St. Charles County following the demographic shift in the 1980s. Others include Faraci Pizza—whose owners at the remaining Ferguson branch have clashed with protesters—Old Town Donuts, Pironnes Pizza, and Fritz’s Frozen Custard. Families who grew up in a white North County are reliving their childhood memories in a white St. Charles.

Darren Wilson, the victim

Fear of black crime goes hand in hand with assertions of white victimhood, and there is no greater victim, in the view of Darren Wilson supporters, than the police.

“We support Darren, a law enforcement officer,” explains Tiffany (who asked to be identified by her first name only out of fear for her personal safety), the organizer of the Facebook page “I Support Darren Wilson,” which has over 76,000 followers. “We support the men and women, of all ethnic backgrounds, that have worked countless hours to keep the peace as much as possible in and around Ferguson and St. Louis.

“I would argue that calling me racist because I support law enforcement is a racial slur itself,” she continues. “How do you lump me and our supporters on this page into one giant ‘racial pool’ yet be mad that you think people are calling you a thug because your skin color is darker than mine? Yes, we have had struggles in the past with racism. But it is 2014. Why are people so hell-bent on staying in the past? Let’s move forward. Let’s educate each other.”

Tiffany, like many Wilson supporters, lives not in St. Louis but “a couple hours out.” She says the Facebook group consists of “all races” and believes that the media, led astray by Reverend Al Sharpton, has unfairly characterized Wilson supporters: “[The media made] this a racial issue of a ‘white officer shooting an unarmed black teenager.’ This all could have gone a completely different direction had the media portrayed it as a ‘police officer involved shooting of a robbery suspect.’”

Some Wilson supporters believe there is a hidden narrative of events. Tiffany believes the media “refuse to show the videos of the protesters/domestic terrorists pointing guns at police officers and threatening them.” (No such videos are known to exist.) Other Wilson supporters cite the protesters’ own materials—the livestream of demonstrations or signs calling to end police brutality—as evidence of wrong-doing.

St. Charles County residents frequently name crime as the reason for their flight from North County and other majority black areas of St. Louis. But according to many residents, crime in St. Charles County is significant. Only the suspects look different.

“We moved out here to get away from crime, but crime out here is just as bad,” says Dave Patek, an office worker who grew up in North County but now works in St. Charles County. “There are still break-ins, domestic violence, robberies. We have a meth problem. Everything is the same, our Walmarts look the same.”

Many middle-aged St. Charles residents grew up in integrated North County towns, like Ferguson, that also experienced rapid economic decline. Avoiding the fate of North County is the goal—but the past travels with them.

The side of the law

Many local whites prefer not to identify themselves as Wilson supporters, but as supporters of law and order. But supporting the rule of law, in a region like St. Louis, is racially loaded. Ferguson protesters’ central complaint is that rule of law is selectively applied and ruthlessly abused.

Faith in law enforcement has migrated to St. Charles County along with the people it protects.

Unsurprisingly, law enforcement officials are among the most loyal Wilson supporters. As with other supporters, there is a wide range in their rationales. Many echo the sentiment of the Wilson fan pages, that framing this as a race issue is itself racist. One officer who grew up in St. Louis County but now lives in St. Charles County, and asked to remain anonymous says: “Police officers have a very difficult time no matter what city.  This case would never be an issue if Darren Wilson were a black male. The African-Americans in Ferguson chose to make this a racial issue.”

But Mark Whitson, a former police officer recently retired from 35 years in the St. Louis County Police Department, believes officer education on racial politics is itself a problem. He recalls a class he taught on law enforcement: “I pointed out the socio-historical environment where all contacts with the public take place. A major on the department pointed out the advancements and changes that have occurred since slavery ended, through the 1950s and ’60s. I agreed with him, but believe that is no reason to stop.”

When asked whether Wilson should be indicted, this officer replied he should not be and will not be. Legal analysts share the view that a non-indictment is likely, particularly given that the prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, failed to bring about an indictment in prior officer-involved shootings.

Region on the run

Every Tuesday night since Sept. 23, dozens of protesters, nearly all black, have shared their concerns with the St. Louis County Council, most of whom are white. They speak, tearfully, of the death of Brown and police violence against the citizens who protest it. Older black St. Louisans note the racism their families have experienced for generations, while younger St. Louisans decry their lack of opportunity. Few see a future in a city where the past is always present.

A packed Sept. 23 meeting of the St. Louis County Council. Speaker had asked everyone who had been tear-gassed to stand. This is a fraction of the standing crowd.
A packed Sept. 23 meeting of the St. Louis County Council. Speaker had asked everyone who had been tear-gassed to stand. This is a fraction of the standing crowd.
Image: Sarah Kendzior
Police officer stands outside Faraci Pizza in Ferguson, Missouri, as white residents feud with black protesters. Sept. 30, 2014.
Police officer stands outside Faraci Pizza in Ferguson, Missouri, as white residents feud with black protesters. Sept. 30, 2014.
Image: Sarah Kendzior

Halfway through the Oct. 7 meeting, a white St. Louis resident shouted “We support Darren Wilson!” At previous meetings, this resident had called protesters “crazies” and Captain Ron Johnson, the officer overseeing Ferguson policing until recently, “Mr. Hug-a-Thug.” The protesters in the audience shouted back, clapping and stomping: “If we don’t get it, shut it down!”—a common refrain indicating protesters’ refusal to accept a non-indictment in the Wilson case and police brutality toward blacks in general.

Police guarding the meeting asked the predominantly black protesters to leave, then followed them down the escalator and locked them out of the building. The white Wilson supporter was allowed to stay.

One of the protesters escorted out of the building was Molly Greider. She is one of few white protesters who regularly attend Ferguson demonstrations. She has tried to explain to other white people in her office, some of whom support Wilson, why they should join the protests.

Protesters ask an officer why they were locked out of the St. Louis County Council meeting. Oct. 7, 2014.
Protesters ask an officer why they were locked out of the St. Louis County Council meeting. Oct. 7, 2014.
Image: Sarah Kendzior

“They told me ‘You might get killed or looted.’ I was like, can you loot a person?” she recalls. “It was almost like they never met a black person, even though they had. They might know black people but they’ve never discussed these issues with them. One person listed the cleaning people in the building as their black friends. But they were nice, there was not a lot of angry pushback. It was good that they wanted to talk about it.”

When asked why they support Darren Wilson, each supporter gives an answer rooted in fear. Police officers discuss the fear they feel with a potentially dangerous suspect. White citizens are afraid of protesters, whom they view as an unruly, angry mob ready to strike. St. Charles residents describe their fear of Ferguson and the surrounding North County area, which they had left due to fear of crime.

Asked why more white people do not support the protests, Greider gives the same answer: fear.

“It stems from the fear that they will become oppressed,” she says. “Most people think they have to give something up for somebody else to have something. I think that white people have a problem with the idea of black people demanding anything.”

St. Louis is a city long on the run from itself. White flight has spread from suburbia to exurbia, while decades of black demands—for better jobs, better schools, better treatment—go unheeded. This is a region deprived of resources, forcing residents to scrounge for more fertile terrain.

Fear keeps people on the run. But they can only keep moving for so long.