By Becky Mollenkamp
On Saturday afternoon, 18-year-old Mike Brown was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., less than five miles from my front door. In the last three days, this small community has created a big stir with protests seeking justice for Brown’s death. Like many who grew up in St. Louis, I am both shocked and yet not at all surprised by the last few days’ events, which included both peaceful and violent protests.
Missouri has a long history of tortured race relations, dating back to its days as a slave state. St. Louis has been the epicenter of the state’s racial rift since playing a starring role in the historic Dred Scott case. Following Reconstruction and Jim Crow, tensions deepened and led to segregation ordinances across Missouri (so-called Sundown Towns and even Sundown blocks). Although later deemed illegal, the effects of this racial cleansing remain in full effect in the state and in St. Louis.
As a child in the 1980s, I heard “n-word” jokes at friends’ homes and in school. By my teens, people were telling those jokes in hushed voices, but telling them nonetheless. When I dated a young black man in high school, I got flack from family. As I entered the workforce, I began to see that the famous local question, “where did you go to high school,” is not so much a friendly ice breaker as a surreptitious method for divining a person’s race, class, religion, politics and more.
In 2001, at age 26, I reached the limit of how much racism I could tolerate and fled the city for the greener pastures of Des Moines, Iowa. I had no intention of ever returning to St. Louis, but life happens and I moved back just over a year ago.
Sadly, I’ve discovered that St. Louis hasn’t changed much in the last 13 years. The high school question is still the first thing many locals ask, the city is still a collection of highly segregated communities and I can’t even say how many people I’ve heard say, “I’m not racist, but…” before launching into a story about some bad deed done by a black person (the word black is usually whispered). Even worse, I routinely encounter (either in person or on Facebook) people who have no qualms with making patently racist remarks, such as “isn’t that a dark area of town?” or “these people need to stop having welfare babies.“
Of course, there are clearly more nefarious examples of this city’s race-relations problems and Michael Brown’s death is shining a light on them. He died in Ferguson, a suburb removed by many miles from the city’s gritty urban center. I recently moved to this area and know it to be relatively quiet and safe, with a fairly diverse population that is largely working class.
While Ferguson may be diverse, its leadership is anything but. Although 67 percent of Ferguson residents are black, the mayor, police chief, and five of six city council members are white. Of the 53 officers on the police force, only three are black. Those lopsided numbers have translated into questionable law enforcement here, with blacks being the subjects of 86 percent of vehicle stops and 92 percent of arrests from vehicle stops.
When I learned of Brown’s death late Saturday, August 9, I immediately wondered if I, a white woman, would have met the same fate if all other circumstances were the same. Would I have been shot as many as six times, including a round to the head, in broad daylight? Would I have been stopped to begin with?
It is with that background, then, that I watch the protests in a state of shock but without even a twinge of surprise that it has come to this. St. Louis has been ready to erupt for years (centuries, really) and Mike Brown’s death has pushed it over the edge.
While a violent response to a violent action is rarely the best choice, it’s simplistic and shortsighted to dismiss the riots and looting as nothing more than criminal acts by soulless thugs (yes, I actually saw someone post on Facebook that the looters weren’t human). What is happening in Ferguson is an emotional response to a history of systematic and deep-rooted racism and oppression in this city, state and country. Like most people, I would love for racial unity to happen peacefully, but if it hasn’t been realized in the 157 years since Dred Scott, it likely won’t without a big, dramatic push.
Last night, Monday, August 11, the situation in Ferguson got even more frightening when 200 to 300 police from around the city descended on this small suburb in full riot gear. I watched live video footage of them unleashing rubber bullets and tear gas on peaceful protestors (yes, some people threw rocks and bottles, but I saw actions against people with arms raised in the air). Later, the police ordered members of the press to vacate the area or face arrest. Regardless of the circumstances of Mike Brown’s death, this complete disregard for the First Amendment should concern every U.S. citizen.
I cannot know what it means to be black in America and would never presume to speak firsthand to that experience. I can, however, attest to the thinly veiled, sometimes overt, racism that exists in my hometown. While many of my white peers lecture blacks about the risks of becoming a stereotype by looting, I am instead taking this moment to own up to my piece of the problem. In my life, I have remained quiet while those around me made racist comments. I have locked my car doors when a black man walked by. I have presumed things about strangers based on the color of their skin. I have asked black friends to speak on behalf of their race. I ran away from racism in my hometown rather than try to fix it.
For all that I have done to contribute to the racial divide in St. Louis, I am truly sorry. I am a work in progress and, in that way, I am grateful that this horrible situation has shed a light on ways in which I can improve. My hope is that’s the good that comes from something so bad — people examine their beliefs, own their mistakes and do their part to make this city a welcome home to all of its residents. Perhaps shining the national spotlight on St. Louis and its struggle to find racial harmony will be the impetus for meaningful change here and across the country.