The “Other St. Louis” and the Roots of Ferguson

from health-policy-blog at on August 31, 2014 at 04:48AM

During the turmoil that gripped Ferguson and St. Louis (and
captured the attention of much of the nation) after the tragic shooting of Michael Brown when violence broke out (usually
late at night) many turned to the famous quote of Martin Luther King Jr., who
said: “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

We now know that the looting and violence that took place in
Ferguson was quite limited, and by all means did not broadly characterize the
protests that happened in the wake of Michael Brown’s death.  While we can never justify looting or
violence (and King certainly never did of course, given his emphasis on
nonviolence), the outbreak of it in Ferguson, as in King’s time, could be
understood as a reaction to the events.

So to seek that deeper meaning, I looked for the source of
King’s quote, more than just the short phrase “a riot is the language of the
unheard.”  It turns out there are many lessons to be learned from what King said over 45 years ago in a a very heartfelt speech he
delivered in March of 1968.  The
lessons he articulated in 1968 resonate over 45 years later to Ferguson, St. Louis and the nation as we
struggle to understand the many issues relating to the unfortunate slaying of
Michael Brown in Ferguson, and the aftermath.

In that 1968 speech, King spoke of “two Americas” and how in
one America people have employment opportunities, access to quality education
and housing and health care, food and material goods to satisfy their needs and
desires, and live in safe and healthy environments.

In stark contrast, King told us that in the “other America” people
struggle for any or all of these aspects of life that most of us take for
granted.  At every turn, people living in
this other America are deprived of the opportunity to obtain a decent
education, quality housing, job opportunities, or health care—often simply
because of where they live, discrimination, public policies or circumstance.

We see the parallels to this every day around us, in St.
Louis and the “other St. Louis.”  We see
it in economic opportunity that is defined by where a person grew up.  This is rather infamous characterized by the so-called
“St. Louis question”, in which people are asked “what school did you go to?”
and the answer sought is the high school a person graduated from.  The answer provides a way for some St.
Louisans to implicitly create in their minds a “class structure” for the city, neatly
defining the economic and educational opportunities afforded to new graduates.

Michael Brown faced all this as he fought hard to graduate
from Normandy high school, which was recently found to be the lowest performing high school in the St. Louis region.  Yet, against odds often stacked against young men like him (as his wonderful Mom told us moments after Brown was killed), Michael Brown graduated.   He conquered the odds and was ready to go to college, but then had his life cut short.

In the “other St. Louis” where Michael Brown lived, his
parents and the community suffered the indignity of not being given straight
and transparent answers to what transpired on that day when his life was
taken (and, frankly still don’t have answers).  His neighbors in the apartment
complex suffered the indignity of having to stare at his dead body lying in the
street, in the summer heat, in a pool of blood for more than four hours.  Would this have happened in Ladue or
Clayton?  Certainly if someone were shot
in Clayton or Ladue (a rare event to be sure) an ambulance would have been called
immediately.  And the police departments there would provide answers.  

This was the beginning of the source of anger in Ferguson,
as we now know.  So many terrible
decisions by the police (prematurely using riot gear, attack dogs, billy clubs,
and then massive military force) we now know parallel their transgressions over
the years in Ferguson and in other areas in St. Louis.

As King reminded us in his famous speech those with
economics opportunities, or much at stake in the economic system, are very
unlikely to use rioting and looting as the outlet to have their voices
heard. (How many high-income professionals or college students were arrested in Ferguson?)  But a person without economic
opportunities may not logically see what would be lost is their anger is vented
through a violent riot.

What is tragic of course is that more often than not the
victims of riots and looting are innocent bystanders in a broader conflict, and
the violence is counterproductive to say the least.  As King also said in 1968 one problem with
riots and violence is that it intensifies the fears of the white community,
while assuaging them of guilt.  We cannot let that happen of course.

What is needed now in St. Louis is a frank dialogue, with
real solutions. We first need to let the wheels of justice fairly adjudicate
the case of Michael Brown, and bring justice and answers in a fully transparent
way to his grieving parents.  But we need
not wait for that before we move swiftly on to a respectful way discussion of
the underlying problems that divide our community, and have for decades. 

This means confronting difficult social and economic
problems that plague the region, in other words, to have a discussion about the
divide between St. Louis and the “other St. Louis”.  It also means putting difficult and painful
issues on the table, such as segregation, racism, preconceived biases and injustices of the criminal justice system.  It means facing up to the deep disparities in
access to quality education, housing, health care and jobs. 

It also means putting on the table arcane
political subdivisions that likely hamper our progress – such as the artificial
political divide between the city and county of St. Louis, and the segregation
that accompanies the many small political subdivisions (and lead, for example,
to multiple police departments that lack the skills or fairness to deal with
their populations and social problems).

To honor the memory of Michael Brown (and others like him) we need to work to heel the divide between the "two St. Louises."