“You and your friends are trying to destroy the town!” She slammed the door in my face. “She” is a woman about my age and white, like me. Now, I live right around the corner from her. This was March, 2015.
At that time I was in the home stretch of my first campaign for city council in Ferguson as a protest candidate. It was four months after St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch decided not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing Mike Brown the previous August, sparking civil unrest the likes of which the St. Louis area hadn’t seen since the race riot in 1917.
Less than a year later, the man who went on to beat me in 2015 died of a heart attack in his sleep. The Ferguson City Council needed to replace Brian Fletcher. I urged the Council in writing to pick me, as a sign of good faith with the people who came to the polls for me in April, 2015.
“Ferguson Truth” was terrified of the notion, or at least it acted like it. The group said the Council should pick someone who “loved Ferguson”. To them, I hated Ferguson. My “hate” was either inert or a toxin in the political bloodstream. My policies, if enacted, could not advance Ferguson in a positive manner or were counterproductive.
Brian Fletcher said “I love Ferguson” as much any person could. He put it on yard signs and posters which he passed out and sold throughout the world. He used the term to deflect criticism of the City, to silence detractors, and to beat the public relations drum. This was civic “love”. I propose that the love was skin-deep. I maintain that it was a blinkered love. I want to interrogate these notions of “love” and “truth”.
The fact is that Brian Fletcher, along with City Manager John Shaw and Police Chief Tom Jackson, were the architects of the revenue scheme cooked up to extract fines from residents for minor infractions that had a disparate impact on the City’s African-American residents. He was one of the key players in instituting the plan that they knew affected blacks more dramatically than it did whites in Ferguson. Police practices hurt all economically disadvantaged people here, and that is most of us, but the majority of our residents are black. In short, Fletcher, Shaw, and Jackson knew they were violating the United States Constitution in St. Louis County in the 21st century.
My opponents in Ferguson are conservative white people. Where do we get our first ideas about government, and governance, from? The family unit. Authoritarian, “strict father” type-families practice “tough love”. They would not consider using “kid gloves” with their children. In their eyes, children need harsh criticism to keep them in line.
Authoritative, nurturing families believe the family is more inter-dependent. People have roles, and modeling citizenship within the family is practiced. Children are not coddled, but encouraged.
My opponents looked down on me as a wayward child. They figuratively patted me on the head, and then shook theirs. They saw me as an unruly reprobate, and treated me like one.
For I criticized Ferguson vehemently and regularly for its criminal activities. We had the Municipal Courts White Paper in 2014. We got the DOJ Report in early 2015. There was universal agreement that the police and courts in Ferguson needed major fixes and that the status quo was no longer acceptable.
There was tumult in the streets. But the conservative people of Ferguson could not be moved to protest the situation themselves. In fact, in their letter to the City Council, “Ferguson Truth” said the City “had to apologize for nothing”. Why didn’t these folks’ strictness with us–those protesting–transfer over to the official misdeeds of the community of Ferguson?
Metaphorically, Ferguson was a bad boy who needed to be punished, but now the establishment was basically saying, “Aw, leave him alone. He’s not so bad. He’ll be a good boy. I’ll have a talk with him and things will be alright.” Huh? When it comes to family, harsh criticism is OK, but when it comes to the community, back off. That’s blatant hypocrisy.
We all are more emotionally invested in our families than in our communities. However, it is our conceptions of family and community that differ in degree and kind. We, meaning the young African-Americans and accomplices like me who protested in the streets know that a troubled community bound up in historical oppression causes major problems for families.
Maybe those against us thought our outrage was fake. They believed it was faux outrage. Boy, I sure wouldn’t want to test that.
Everybody knew that conditions had to change, and fast. That’s what we were saying, vociferously. “Ferguson Truth” seemed to be madder about how we expressed our mad-ness, rather than about the actual conditions!
It follows that if they were not outraged by the reality of Ferguson, then they really didn’t care about that reality as much as we did. They said we have nothing to apologize for, we mustn’t do anything rash, there is no need for wholesale changes, let’s get back to normal as quickly as possible.
Normal is what brought us to this place. Normal may work in the short run, but it can’t for the long haul. Normal is a non-starter.
They appeared to be more concerned with bad public relations. We were already economically depressed, as an inner-ring suburb of a long-declining Midwestern city, but business was hurt, causing a loss of tax revenues. I could see it. Business was down since the troubles of 2014. I empathized, and I had a plan. Instead of bemoaning what we didn’t have, I suggested we focus on the assets we did possess: tons of young, energetic, ingenious people who are underemployed or totally without work. We also have a nascent music scene centered on what I would call “punk rap”, with solid artists such as Tef Poe, T-Dubb-O, and the Knuckles Family. I proposed refurbishing the main artery of the east side of town, W. Florissant Avenue. I said we could make it like a black Delmar Loop. Delmar Boulevard, in University City eight miles south of here, is considered one of the 10 Best Streets in America. It will happen, but how, when, and to what extent, is being battled over right now.
The truth is that most white people in Ferguson have not yet been moved to work seriously on the problems here, problems rooted in institutional racism that they believe they can wash their hands of. They simply don’t care about their neighbors in the way, or as much as, we do. That’s what I’m left to conclude, based on their actions, and words.
We are not yet free.
One of my favorite sayings during #Ferguson was, “Let’s get free!”I can see @brownblaze saying it now in my mind. That’s real. And what I want to say to the woman who slammed the door in my face is what Jack Nicholson’s character said in A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!” Pitifully, the truth doesn’t really matter.
(I took the photo above. It is of a protest at a consent decree meeting at the Ferguson Community Center in February, 2016.)