EconoMonitor

Great Leap Forward

Ferguson, MO

This article rings true: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/jan/08/in-ferguson/

Since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson by a cop, we’ve seen video after video of cops killing unarmed young men and even boys. The excessive militarization of our domestic police has come into question. The institutionalized racism among our police forces is only part of the problem.

It certainly looks like our police are literally scared to death of the population they are sworn to protect. The operative notion seems to be that our police should not take any risks—they should assume all boys and men—at least if they are black–are armed and dangerous, hence police should shoot first and sort things out later. In any event, prosecutors do not indict police who are doing their job, and juries rarely convict them for bad judgment. Better to err on the side of their own safety. It is indeed hard to second-guess them. I say this sincerely even if I find this unacceptable.

As the article says:

“After the Civil War, thousands of black men were on the roads, looking for new starts, but mostly looking for loved ones sold away. Vagrancy laws were passed that said if you couldn’t say where you lived or worked you could be picked up and put on the chain gang. America has always felt the necessity of keeping its black male population under control. Behind every failure to make the police accountable in such killings is an almost gloating confidence that the majority of white Americans support the idea that the police are the thin blue line between them and social chaos.”

It was the Civil War that not only gave whites the fear that “marauding” black men were out to get revenge, but also put cheap access to guns within the easy reach of fearful whites. The problem is, of course, that easy and cheap access to guns is not easily restricted. Cops must presume that anyone stopped for a traffic violation is heavily armed and dangerous. Even a kid on a playground toying around with a toy gun. A cop has only a few seconds to make the decision to shoot. A few seconds seems to be enough to decide to shoot kids.

I went to graduate school in St. Louis in the early 1980s. I had moved there from California. I felt that not only was the distance from California great in terms of miles, but also in terms of decades. It was like the 1950s all over again. Probably worse.

I happened to live in the Glass Menagerie apartments made famous by Tennessee Williams. The play’s apartment was just up the steel staircase from mine. I moved in during a record heatwave—18 days above 100 degrees. We spent time on that staircase—like Tom Wingfield in the play. It has been substantially upgraded: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/glass-menagerie-apartment-for-sale/.

Our apartment was the dividing line—north of us was nearly 100% black; the trendy Central West End was two blocks south. We were robbed at gunpoint practically on our front yard. When caught, the robbers were accused of dozens of similar crimes in our neighborhood. They were targeting the affluent whites frequenting the bars, but occasionally got a local. We were not affluent. They got my girlfriend’s tips; her wage was 75 cents an hour (if I remember correctly) so she basically worked for tips. They got my driver’s license; I had exactly zip in cash. It was scary because they were scared and waving guns. They had made a mistake—holding up neighbors.

That led to their downfall since it took about 30 seconds to get to a phone if you happened to be robbed in your front yard. A couple of nights after we were robbed, one of our neighbors got a quicker response from the police. When they arrived she told them she had resisted their orders just a bit and one of them fired his gun. She heard a strange “splat”. There was blood on the sidewalk. He had shot his own foot. Cops got them within a few minutes.The lineup was a bit comical—trying to spot the limp.

St. Louis was the strangest place I ever lived. Its grandest event was and is the Veiled Prophet Parade on July 4th. This is when a chosen white man would dress up in a white sheet to hide his face. They’ve been doing this for 132 years. As an outsider, it looked to me like the biggest KKK rally in the USA.

For some inexplicable reason, no one in St. Louis seems to notice that this is not exactly Politically Correct. I’m shocked they are still running the damned thing. And advertising it proudly.

The event was created by white elites who were concerned that white workers had found common interests with black workers in the Antebellum period. The “finest” of St Louis wanted to drive a wedge between the races:

“A year before the founding of the Order of the Veiled Prophet was the Grand Railroad Strike of 1877, in which railroad workers across the country brought cars to halt in protest of abominable pay and working conditions. In St. Louis, nearly 1,500 striking workers, both black and white, brought all rail freight to a standstill for an entire week. The involvement of the St. Louis Workingman’s Party eventually expanded the demands of the protest to include things like a ban on child labor and an eight-hour workday. Of course, this was untenable to the municipal and national powers. The strike ended when 5,000 recently deputized “special police” aided federal troops in forcing the strikers to disperse. Eighteen strikers were killed.  The strike ended nationally within 45 days.

According to historian Thomas Spencer in The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Celebration: Power On Parade 1877-1995, the primary goal of the VP events was to take back the public stage from populist demands for social and economic justice. More than just a series of gaudy floats traversing the city streets, the parade and all its pomp was meant to reinforce the values of the elite on the working class of the city. The symbol of a mystical, benevolent figure whose identity is a mystery—only two Veiled Prophets have ever had their identity revealed—was meant to serve as a sort of empty shell that contained the accumulated privilege and power of the status quo.” http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/09/fair-st-louis-and-the-veiled-prophet/379460/

This is the sort of thing you just cannot make up. Go to that website and take a look at the original get-up of the veiled prophet. In 132 years, only two of these prophets have ever been unveiled. Who knows what secrets lurk behind their veils. Not hard to guess. Burning crosses in the old days.

In the name of reducing crime, the police would close down the bridge from East St. Louis on July 4th to protect the white-sheeted Prophet from harm—at least back in the days when I lived there.

In case you do not know, East St. Louis is largely African American. When I was there it had the best dance scene. But my office mate warned us this was not a place that whites should go unaccompanied.

On the other hand, as a black, he could not walk around Clayton—the all white area next to campus—unless he had a book bag so as to look studious. He said that he had never felt so safe in his life, as a cop car would escort him home every night on his walk from campus to his apartment. Apparently assuring all the nice white folks that a black student meant them no harm—and keeping him to his promise should he feel tempted to abandon his pursuit of a PhD in favor of breaking and entering homes.

Here we are three decades later. I’ve only been back a couple of times. The white suburbs looked nicer, at least before the Global Financial Crisis hit. The rest looked the same; or actually worse. Even after the biggest real estate bubble the US had ever seen, north of Del Mar looked even more abandoned than it had in the early 1980s.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some good things about St Louis. You must get to Blueberry Hill in the Loop at least once in your life. The Arch is one of the wonders of the world. I got to see many of the traveling Broadway shows—for free—in Forest Park. As well as Chuck Berry, REM before anyone had heard of them, and the Clash—with the volume turned way past 11. The view from Busch stadium could not be matched, and neither could the 125 degree heat radiated off the turf.

But there’s Ferguson. I hope that this could be the start of some real change.

 

One Response to “Ferguson, MO”

JohnZelnickerJanuary 26th, 2015 at 3:13 am

Great essay, Professor. The Mardi Gras parading societies here in Mobile serve much the same purpose as the VP parade. However, we do have the "People's Parade" on Joe Cain Day, celebrated on the Sunday before Mardi Gras. Anyone can march along with Chief Slacabamarinico (Joe Cain's alter ego).

I hope you are correct about the start of real change. Since the civil rights movement of the 50's and 60's, we seem to have slowly backtracked on some of the important progress we had made. If this could be the spark, perhaps not unlike Birmingham or Selma, maybe a new potent civil rights movement could be born.