St. Louisans Know the Ferguson You Just Met

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From Beverly Isom

This week the country converged on Ferguson, Missouri. I am visiting my hometown of St. Louis and I am very familiar with Ferguson which is a mere four miles from my mother’s home and the burned down Quick Trip is literally across the street from my brother’s house. For many people from St. Louis, there has long been a quite acceptance of the racial disparity and unsettling tension between residents and law enforcement in Ferguson and surrounding counties like Jennings and Florissant and even across the Mississippi River in Illinois. My brothers like other men of color are accustomed to unwarranted and frequent police stops that typically included reluctant conversations with police officers about where they were driving to and from.

The death of teenager Michael Brown simply highlighted for the nation a racial divide that is all too familiar. I was at the protest site and about five blocks along West Florissant have been transformed to a Beirut-like war zone. Hordes of protestors in gas masks, bouncing signs that proclaim “no justice, no peace”, curious onlookers, media satellite trucks, journalists, smart phones, video cameras, and of course police and more police with guns and gear in the ready position. But most interesting to me is the ever-changing national narrative and the media coverage.

It is difficult to miss the every-second up-to-the-minute breaking news that has taken place over the past 10 days. Race has a rich and storied history in St. Louis and St. Louis County. The history of race in St. Louis is complicated however you need look no further than a few miles away from the protest to Calvary cemetery where Dred Scott is buried to know how deep-rooted it has been. Dred Scott was a slave who had lived with his owner in a free state before coming back to the slave state of Missouri. But Scott argued that because he had lived in free states that he should be free. The Supreme Court disagreed and it resulted in an 1857 landmark decision that stated African Americans were not citizens of the United States and therefore had no rights to sue in federal courts. As a young student in the St. Louis School System the Dred Scott case was required reading.

Some national media commentaries have eluded to the notion that the Civil Rights Movement bypassed St. Louis. For many St. Louisans we might argue that the Civil Rights Movement didn’t miss St. Louis but the racial justice movement has definitely struggled to call St. Louis home. St. Louis is a story of two unequal societies that have coexisted since the 1800’s. For the first three days of this protest in Ferguson, neither politicians nor police recognized the imagery of militarization in national news stories and social media posts that shocked people everywhere……………except here. The police protocols failed, they employed strategies of power and force because community policing is not exercised in communities like Ferguson. The persistent presence of police, armored trucks and M-16s are not likely to quell the systemic tension in Ferguson that has been swelling for years. It has been ineffective to date.

I will return to Atlanta soon but this is a trip I will not soon forget and I will stay glued to the 24-hour up-to-the-minute news coverage until there is resolution. In between the political maneuvering and the legal posturing disguised as news coverage, I pray for peace in Ferguson and for the family of Michael Brown.