Why Ferguson has been in a state of emergency for years

For many  St. Louis residents, there hasn’t been peace in a long time.
For many St. Louis residents, there hasn’t been peace in a long time.
Image: Reuters/Adrees Latif
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On Nov. 17, Governor Jay Nixon issued an executive order placing Missouri under a “state of emergency.” The nature of the emergency was unclear. In the order, Nixon cited “the possibility of expanded unrest” and the need to “ensure public safety.” What is less clear is, in Missouri, who is deemed a threat and who in need of protection.

For over 100 days, protesters have assembled throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area to call for the indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Ferguson teenager Michael Brown, and an end to police brutality against black Americans. The overwhelming majority of the protesters have not engaged in violence. Looting and arson—a staple of media claims—were largely limited to a few days in August.

Life has gone on for the people of St. Louis, with one change: the crippling anxiety and panic that proclamations of impending violence have instilled in the population. Every day a different media outlet issues a false alert that the grand jury decision announcement is imminent, leading to panicked reactions from residents and authorities alike.

Here is a typical day for residents of St. Louis: You wake up to a notice—from work, from your children’s school—on “emergency procedures” for the impending but unspecified disaster. Local officials tell you to stock up on bottled water and fill your gas tank. Your child is sent home with extra homework in case school is canceled for “unrest.” In one district, school is canceled out of fear. Nursery schools say your three-year-old is practicing “emergency drills.” No one will say, exactly, for what.

On the highway you pass a convoy of military equipment. You see something that looks like a tank at a Dairy Queen. You spot a fleet of Department of Homeland Security vehicles at a Drury Plaza Hotel, and a camp of National Guard soldiers behind a QuikTrip. Mundane sights are militarized, made threatening by association.

As you pass the boarded buildings and military vehicles and long lines of citizens waiting to buy weaponry, city and county officials have one message: “Keep calm.” At a press conference shortly after Nixon declared the state of emergency, St. Louis city mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley chastised residents for their hysteria. “Take a deep breath, stand back and calm down,” Dooley proclaimed, as 1,000 extra police officers and 100 extra FBI agents descended on St. Louis. Keep calm, they say, while everything around you tells you not to be.

From the very beginning, Ferguson has been a study in paranoia and fear-mongering. The geography of St. Louis is carved by racial politics, and the actions of Wilson are arguably tragic evidence of those politics in action. Brown, unarmed, was perceived as threatening by virtue of being a large, black teenager. There was no rational reason to view him as a deadly threat. There was no need to respond to a grieving community with weaponry, to tears with tear gas. Every move by St. Louis police and officials over the past few months has been rooted in a defensiveness that causes panic in residents, which in turn increases panic among low-level officials, who release panicked warnings to citizens. Ferguson is an ouroboros of irrational incongruity.

While Nixon and other public officials will not identify the nature of the impending threat, they are clear about what is being threatened. The onslaught of police is for “public safety” and to protect “homes and businesses.” It is a difficult claim to swallow given that, in many parts of St. Louis, much of the public struggles to survive in poverty and homes and businesses lay in ruins. Homelessness is a serious problem in St. Louis County, which has no homeless shelter, and in the city, where pressure has mounted to shut a prominent shelter down. These actual threats to citizen safety are ignored. If protecting the vulnerable of St. Louis were a paramount concern, Nixon would have proclaimed a state of emergency long ago.

Missouri’s “state of emergency” is reminiscent of the fear-mongering after 9/11, when Americans were on near-constant “orange alert.” It was an era of hysterical panic about invented catastrophes, like Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” and false reassurances about real catastrophes, like the bubble economy. Americans pay the price today for the Bush administration’s lapsed priorities, and St. Louis will pay the price for its own paranoia in the months to come. While impoverished schools in St Louis’s North County struggle to stay open, the police who tear-gassed North County residents are given hundreds of thousands of dollars for riot gear.

In St. Louis tensions are high, and opportunism, as in any time of crisis, abounds. It would be imprudent to assume that no violence or property damage will occur after the grand jury decision is announced. But the greatest cause of panic in St. Louis is, at this point, panic. Fear has led to an armed and angry populace, disruption of children’s lives, bloated police expenditures, and emotional trauma to citizens.

In Missouri, states of emergency are usually ordered for weather events like tornados. But black citizens demanding justice is not a natural disaster, and St. Louis’s tragedies are man-made. Those wanting protests to stop so St. Louis can go back to “normal” forget that “normal” is what precipitated the protests. “Normal” has meant poverty and brutality disproportionately endured by the black population. In St. Louis, the state of emergency has become the status quo, but the status quo was always a state of emergency, one that remains unaddressed.