Ferguson, MO

By L. Randall Wray

This article rings true.

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.

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.”

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.

6 responses to “Ferguson, MO

  1. Beautifully written. Quite a perspective, nuanced and deep.

    I recall the 538 article about the protests and issues in general being in the “poorest corner of town” the lack of opportunity, and hope, for so many people…how lack of revenue underfunds police departments, and the hostility created with all these dividing factors.
    You could be a great fiction writer Professor Wray.

  2. It may take only a few seconds for a police officer to make a decision to shoot. However, in many of the videos we have seen the officers deployed police tactics that put them in a position to make a decision within a few seconds.
    Why did they not reply tactics which gave them more time. For example, the shooting of the kid in Cleveland who had a toy gun, the police drove up on him just a few feet away. Why could they not stop, park, and get out of the care to asses the situation from say 50 or 100 yards away? I don’t think police are trained to drive up on someone, pull their gun and shoot. It seems to me police too often are not employing the tactics they were trained to use.

  3. http://m.slashdot.org/story/212819
    Wow cool. Valve game economist working with Greece…there is wisdom to analysis of in game economies.

  4. I view the problem as the result of making policing like a corporate business, professionalized and now militarized. Policing should be and used to be a community affair and it still is in many parts of the world. I think we need to return to community policing and dump the professionals. NYC has 30,000 or so police and that is small for the population of the city. They could have 10x that many with community policing.

  5. Thanks for writing this sincere journal entry, Dr. Wray. Discussing recent cases of police terrorism against society with family members who are cops has helped me have a little bit more of a sympathetic perspective towards cops and their real challenges on the job. As a youth, I used to get pulled over, searched, detained, and harassed by cops almost daily in my 1963 Chevy Impala. It is not cool. Feeling that constant hatred, racism, messes with your head no matter how much one tries to play it off. It can embitter, arrest development.

    ‘Racial’/ethnic profiling, discrimination, and segregation was bad enough back in the day; those accumulated indignities catalysed the 1965 Watts Riots. But now it’s like the Inquisition, where we’re past any notions of police abuses being perceived as aberrant cases of misconduct. They used to burn us at the stake. Now, they open fire with impunity. Cops now seem to be engaging in mass social conditioning of the public, getting everyone used to cops killing at will.

    We know not all cops are scumbags. But we also know they close ranks tightly when they do dirt, which seems to render any ‘good cops’ complicit with the status quo. It seems cops are like the Praetorian Guard for the vilest aspects of the capitalist mode of production. They seem to be devoid of sincerity or humanity. http://www.copwatch.org/

  6. The role of the police has always been to control poor people. Surprised that Wray doesn’t mention the armed servants who showed up at each foreclosure in the city. of course, white privedge never experienced “bank displacement” quite like they did in the housing bubble.