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Around St. Louis, a Circle of Rage
AUG. 16, 2014
The New York Times
By TANZINA VEGA
and JOHN ELIGON
FERGUSON, Mo. — Garland Moore, a hospital worker, lived in this
St. Louis suburb for much of his 33 years, a period in which a largely white
community has become a largely black one.
He attended its schools and is raising his family in this place of suburban
homes and apartment buildings on the outskirts of a struggling Midwest city. And
over time, he has felt his life to be circumscribed by Ferguson’s demographics.
Mr. Moore, who is black, talks of how he has felt the wrath of the police here
and in surrounding suburbs for years — roughed up during a minor traffic stop
and prevented from entering a park when he was wearing St. Louis Cardinals red.
And last week, as he stood at a vigil for an unarmed 18-year-old shot dead by
the police — a shooting that provoked renewed street violence and looting early
Saturday — Mr. Moore heard anger welling and listened to a shout of: “We’re
tired of the racist police department.”
“It broke the camel’s back,” Mr. Moore said of the killing of the teenager,
Michael Brown. Referring to the northern part of St. Louis County, he continued,
“The people in North County — not just African-Americans, some of the white
people, too — they are tired of the police harassment.”
The origins of the area’s complex social and racial history date to the 19th
century when the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County went their separate
ways, leading to the formation of dozens of smaller communities outside St.
Louis. Missouri itself has always been a state with roots in both the Midwest
and the South, and racial issues intensified in the 20th century as St. Louis
became a stopping point for the northern migration of Southern blacks seeking
factory jobs in Detroit and Chicago.
As African-Americans moved into the city and whites moved out, real estate
agents and city leaders, in a pattern familiar elsewhere in the country,
conspired to keep blacks out of the suburbs through the use of zoning ordinances
and restrictive covenants. But by the 1970s, some of those barriers had started
to fall, and whites moved even farther away from the city. These days, Ferguson
is like many of the suburbs around St. Louis, inner-ring towns that accommodated
white flight decades ago but that are now largely black. And yet they retain a
white power structure.
Although about two-thirds of Ferguson residents are black, its mayor and five of
its six City Council members are white. Only three of the town’s 53 police
officers are black.
Turnout for local elections in Ferguson has been poor. The mayor, James W.
Knowles III, noted his disappointment with the turnout — about 12 percent — in
the most recent mayoral election during a City Council meeting in April.
Patricia Bynes, a black woman who is the Democratic committeewoman for the
Ferguson area, said the lack of black involvement in local government was partly
the result of the black population’s being more transient in small
municipalities and less attached to them.
There is also some frustration among blacks who say town government is not
attuned to their concerns.
Aliyah Woods, 45, once petitioned Ferguson officials for a sign that would warn
drivers that a deaf family lived on that block. But the sign never came. “You
get tired,” she said. “You keep asking, you keep asking. Nothing gets done.”
Mr. Moore, who recently moved to neighboring Florissant, said he had attended a
couple of Ferguson Council meetings to complain that the police should be
patrolling the residential streets to try to prevent break-ins rather than lying
in wait to catch people for traffic violations.
This year, community members voiced anger after the all-white, seven-member
school board for the Ferguson-Florissant district pushed aside its black
superintendent for unrevealed reasons. That spurred several blacks to run for
three board positions up for election, but only one won a seat.
The St. Louis County Police Department fired a white lieutenant last year for
ordering officers to target blacks in shopping areas. That resulted in the
department’s enlisting researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles,
to study whether the department was engaging in racial profiling.
And in recent years, two school districts in North County lost their
accreditation. One, Normandy, where Mr. Brown graduated this year, serves parts
of Ferguson. When parents in the mostly black district sought to allow their
children to transfer to schools in mostly white districts, they said, they felt
a backlash with racial undertones. Frustration with underfunded and
underperforming schools has long been a problem, and when Gov. Jay Nixon held a
news conference on Friday to discuss safety and security in Ferguson, he was
confronted with angry residents demanding to know what he would do to fix their
Ferguson’s economic shortcomings reflect the struggles of much of the region.
Its median household income of about $37,000 is less than the statewide number,
and its poverty level of 22 percent outpaces the state’s by seven percentage
In Ferguson, residents say most racial tensions have to do with an overzealous
“It is the people in a position of authority in our community that have to come
forward,” said Jerome Jenkins, 47, who, with his wife, Cathy, owns Cathy’s
Kitchen, a downtown Ferguson restaurant.
“What you are witnessing is our little small government has to conform to the
change that we are trying to do,” Mr. Jenkins added. “Sometimes things happen
for a purpose; maybe we can get it right.”
Ferguson’s police chief, Thomas Jackson, has been working with the Justice
Department’s community relations team on improving interaction with residents.
At a news conference here last week, he acknowledged some of the problems.
“I’ve been trying to increase the diversity of the department ever since I got
here,” Chief Jackson said, adding that “race relations is a top priority right
now.” As for working the with Justice Department, he said, “I told them, ‘Tell
me what to do, and I’ll do it.’ ”
Although experience and statistics suggest that Ferguson’s police force
disproportionately targets blacks, it is not as imbalanced as in some
neighboring departments in St. Louis County. While blacks are 37 percent more
likely to be pulled over compared with their proportion of the population in
Ferguson, that is less than the statewide average of 59 percent, according to
Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St.
In fact, Mr. Rosenfeld said, Ferguson did not fit the profile of a community
that would be a spark for civil unrest. The town has “pockets of disadvantage”
and middle and upper-middle income families. He said Ferguson had benefited in
the last five to 10 years from economic growth in the northern part of the
county, such as the expansion of Express Scripts, the Fortune 500 health care
“Ferguson does not stand out as the type of community where you would expect
tensions with the police to boil over into violence and looting,” Mr. Rosenfeld
But the memory of the region’s racial history lingers.
In 1949, a mob of whites showed up to attack blacks who lined up to get into the
pool at Fairground Park in north St. Louis after it had been desegregated.
In the 1970s, a court battle over public school inequality led to a settlement
that created a desegregation busing program that exists to this day.
A Ferguson city councilman caused a stir in 1970 when he used racially charged
language to criticize teenagers from the neighboring town of Kinloch for
throwing rocks and bottles at homes in Ferguson. The councilman, Carl Kersting,
said, “We should call a black a black, and not be afraid to face up to these
people,” according to an article in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
Eventually blacks broke down the barriers in the inner ring of suburbs, and
whites fled farther out. But whites fought hard to protect their turf.
In the mid-1970s, Alyce Herndon, a black woman, moved with her family to what
was then the mostly white town of Jennings in St. Louis County. She said some of
their white neighbors stuck an Afro pick in their front lawn and set it on fire.
Ms. Herndon also recalled tensions flaring between black and white students at
her school after the television mini-series “Roots” first aired in 1977.
For all its segregation and discrimination, St. Louis did not have the major
riots and unrest during the 1960s that was seen across the country.
St. Louis’s black leaders “were able to pressure businesses and schools to open
their doors to black people and employers to hire black workers,” Stefan
Bradley, the director of African-American studies at St. Louis University, wrote
in an email. “These concessions may have been enough to prevent St. Louis from
taking what many believed to be the next step toward redress of injustice:
But the fatal shooting of Mr. Brown has brought submerged tensions to the
“St. Louis never has had its true race moment, where they had to confront this,”
said Ms. Bynes, the Democratic committeewoman. Without that moment, she added,
blacks have been complacent when it comes to local politics. “I’m hoping that
this is what it takes to get the pendulum to swing the other way.”
Ms. Herndon, 49, said she moved her family to Ferguson in 2003 because she felt
it was a good community, safer than the unincorporated portion of the county
where they lived previously and with better schools for her children.
The town, she said, offers everything — places to shop, eat and drink. There is
a farmers market on Saturdays. She frequents a wine bar across from a lot where
a band plays on Fridays. She has white and Asian neighbors on either side of
her, and there are other black families on her block. She has not experienced
the racial tensions of her childhood in St. Louis County, she said, but she
understands that the younger generation is living a different experience than
“I understand the anger because it’s psychological trauma when you see so many
people being shot or people being falsely accused,” said Ms. Herndon, who over
the past week has avoided the streets that have been filled with tear gas and
rubber bullets in clashes between police and protesters.
But now, a population of young black men who often feel forgotten actually feel
that people are finally listening.
“If it wasn’t for the looting,” said one man, who declined to give his name, “we
wouldn’t get the attention.”
Mr. Moore went one step further. He does not condone the violence that erupted
during some of the protests, he said, but he does understand the frustration.
And if he were younger, he said, he probably would have joined them.
Tanzina Vega reported from Ferguson, and John Eligon from Kansas City, Mo. Serge
F. Kovaleski contributed reporting from New York, and John Schwartz from
Ferguson. Alain Delaquérière contributed research.
A version of this article appears in print on August 17, 2014,
on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Deep Tensions Rise to
Surface After Shooting.
Around St. Louis, a Circle of Rage, NYT,
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