May 21, 2018

Growing up in Kirkwood after a mass shooting

I remember sitting criss-cross applesauce in Mrs. Salmon’s fifth grade class on the ABC carpet with my friends. Principal Benben came into our class and sat in one of our small chairs in front of us. He explained to us something we could not fully comprehend. He told us a man named Cookie did something terrible to our mayor and other important members of our community, including a police man.

My first thought as a 10-year-old was why a grown man had the name Cookie. I could not comprehend someone shooting seven people leaving six dead in a building my mom drove past almost every day. I could not comprehend someone in my neighborhood, where I walked to school by myself and rode my bike, committing a massacre. I could not even comprehend someone with a gun in my neighborhood.

Kirkwood is a picturesque suburb. It meets all the criteria for a quiet, wholesome and safe to the point of boring community. Growing up as a white, middle-class kid in Kirkwood meant nothing bad ever happened to me.

But Kirkwood, despite its cute downtown plaza and manicured lawns, has a less than perfect history. In 1991, Kirkwood annexed Meacham Park and merged the two towns in St. Louis county. It was met with mixed responses, as Meacham Park needed the financial help of Kirkwood but didn’t necessarily want the gentrification that inevitably came with joining a predominantly white upper-middle-class town.

Not to mention those in Kirkwood who didn’t want Meacham Park residents bringing their crime and lower income homes into the Kirkwood community. According to the 1990 U.S. census, Kirkwood residents were 91 percent white with an average income of $72,000 and Meacham Park was 97 percent African American with an average income of $14,000.

In 2010 while I was in middle school, when the bus drove through the part of town with one-story homes and dehydrated lawns I remember other white kids on the bus telling me to stay away from Meacham Park or I might get shot. This was the stereotype associated with Meacham Park, as unfair and racist as it is. I still see the divide between “white” Kirkwood and “black” Meacham Park today.

In high school, the racial issues facing Kirkwood became increasingly obvious. When predominantly African American students from Riverview Gardens and Normandy school districts came to attend Kirkwood schools when their schools lost accreditation, not all Kirkwood residents welcomed them with open arms. Some parents worried about the “type of student” these school districts would introduce to Kirkwood. Some parents worried that underacheivers and criminals  would infiltrate their perfect public school district.

In my experience, these students were no different from the students already attending Kirkwood. One girl I knew who transferred, juggled AP classes and cheerleading. She wanted all of the opportunities an affluent school district had to offer and more.

Growing up in Kirkwood, whenever the Kirkwood City Council shooting was talked about, race was a part of the discussion. No one will ever know the exact reason that man chose to murder six people, but it is naive to believe race relations in Kirkwood were not a factor in his decision. This does not justify or excuse in any way the incomprehensible crimes he committed. Nor should this man’s actions reflect the community of Meacham Park.

This terrible tragedy does not define the Kirkwood community nor does it define relations between Meacham and Kirkwood. There are many Kirkwood residents who are unhappy with race relations in both Kirkwood and the greater St. Louis area. Kirkwood is full of passionate, driven and open minded people who fight for change and progress. I saw them in my classmates and my teachers at Kirkwood high school. I see them at protests and city hall meetings.

Change is happening. Kirkwood will never forget what happened in city hall and hopefully the memory will spark remembrance of the lives lost and meaningful discussions about how Kirkwood can be better, united together.

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