Why Ferguson Fails

I am fed up with the simplistic analysis, and concomitant disparagement of the people by commentators from afar peering in on Ferguson, MO. It is my great wish that this post will dispel misinformation about what is going on here, and that it becomes the definitive narrative of where we are now, and where we can go.

In 1970, Ferguson was 97% white. Since then, African-Americans on the North Side of St. Louis began to move west to the suburbs, to enjoy a slightly slower pace, just as whites have done since about the 1950’s. Moving west meant Ferguson. Ferguson is directly to the west of the North Side of St. Louis.

Fletcher House 092215

An address “kept white” at the interface of Wards 1 and 2. It is in Ward 2.

As the pace of blacks moving into Ferguson picked up, the pace of whites moving out of Ferguson accelerated. Where did they go? West, across the Missouri River, into St. Charles County. One of the most notable demographic changes in the last generation or so in St. Louis history was the exodus of whites from North St. Louis County to St. Charles County in the 1980’s and 1990’s. This is a commonly known fact here.

Today, Ferguson is 70% black. That is an almost complete turnover of the white/black populations of the City, and it took place over the course of 47 years. (That is an arbitrary marker).

Ferguson was incorporated in 1894, as an all-white town. Blacks were not allowed to live here. There were racial covenants in place in Ward 2 Ferguson (my ward), as late as 1979. They broke those up, and where the covenants were in place, those neighborhoods are now mostly comprised of black folks.

The town, which was founded by whites, for whites, and with its government emanating from whites, was fundamentally unprepared institutionally to address this turnover of its population when it happened. It had no framework on hand to deal with these changes. It had no way to conceive of how to integrate African-Americans into the mainstream of the life of Ferguson.

This is generally where things stood when Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown to death in Canfield in the late summer of 2014. The city council had one African-American, of six seats. The police chief, and much of his force, were white. The city manager was white. There had never been a black mayor. Not even a woman mayor. White men ran the town from time immemorial.

The whites who are left in Ferguson have deep roots here. They have a history of having, and knowing how to use, the levers of power. They have stayed here, and persisted in the face of the changes. There are some racists, and reactionaries, but they are few, mostly impoverished, and disconnected from the mainstream of public life. The majority of whites remaining in Ferguson are moderate, center- to center-right Democrats, who like diversity, but are unprepared, or not committed, to examining and adjusting how they conduct politics in this new context.

Most of the whites want to make it work with their black neighbors, but they don’t know how. They won’t commit to learning about the realities of black life in North County in the 21st century.

This is due to what I now call “white primacy”. I don’t call it “white supremacy”. I think of white supremacy as the KKK in the 1920’s. White racial domination–its expression–morphs over time. It evolves to suit new circumstances. What white primacy involves in Ferguson today is white privilege. White moderates in Ferguson do not understand their privilege. Despite everything that has happened since 2014, they have yet to interrogate this privilege.

Who can blame them, when you look at how things have gone economically since black folks started moving in in sizable numbers? Most of us here are downwardly mobile–we have lost ground since I was a child. Ferguson is a lower middle-class town. Most of us are far from wealthy, though we do have a small number of rich people.

Look at the Republican and Democratic parties in America. The Republican Party today is a white nationalist party. It is the home for whites. On the ground, it is an unchanging monolith, where race is concerned.

The Democratic Party is a loose coalition of all of the groups and forces that are trying to figure out how to work together in the larger society. What I am saying is, is that the Democratic Party embodies and symbolizes society at large. On the ground, it is very representative of America, and represents this rest of America.

Locally, that means blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, gays, transgenders, upper middle-class, middle class, and poor. Some want pro soccer. Others don’t want pro soccer. We didn’t vote on that in Ferguson. (Again, the racial story here has blacks and whites at its center).

You get the idea. If we are having difficulties in the larger society, those competing interests will be represented within the local, on-the-ground, Democratic Party.

But this is a “non-partisan” election. We, literally, are not supposed to know, or care, what party our prospective politicians belong to. That muddies the waters.

Further, holding elections in April was a conscious, deliberate impediment to participation in the electoral process. Ferguson was founded by those who held the “stake in society” theory, which states that only those with property, and the proper knowledge, should be active in the public life of the City.

America today has two viable political parties: Republican and Democratic. Elections are conducted through these conduits. We may be non-partisan, but everyone knows that sides are picked, and they are funneled into one party or the other.

James Knowles is a Republican. He is one of few Republicans here. He is not a right-wing politician. He is not a social conservative. I suspect that he voted for Trump, but that he is not pleased with what our new president has done so far. That is my best hunch. Recently, he has complimented the protesters on what they have forced him to do, basically.

Ella Jones is what we call “bourgie”. She is from New Orleans. She is 62. She was a Mary Kay cosmetics rep. She has deep ties in the church. She is a centrist Democrat who threw her campaign manager overboard (that manager detailed it yesterday on Twitter), because Ella thought Patricia Bynes was too closely associated with the protesting, and protesters. She told Patricia she didn’t need her help, and that she was going it alone, in 2015. I was sitting right there. I saw, and heard, her say it at a meeting.

Ella won her contest that year. She learned the wrong lesson from it. I don’t see how she could have fixed it for this race.

My sister is a Democrat. She lives down the street from me. She considers herself to be a compassionate person, and she is, to an extent. We are not very close. She was perfectly uninvolved in the events of #Ferguson. Zero participation. I guarantee you that she did not vote for Ella Jones. I have not confirmed it, but my best friend, my campaign consigliere, Tony Rice, saw her at the polls on Tuesday.

We vote at the same place, First Baptist Church, on Florissant Road. It is a historically white congregation. I lived with Chrissy, my sister, for a few years. I now live in my own apartment, three blocks north of her. Our lives could not be more different.

I am a unique duck around here. I was raised in an upper middle-class, all-white, neighborhood 12 miles or so southwest of Ferguson in the 1970’s. The racial makeup of that neighborhood, Berkeley Manor, in Des Peres, has not changed a bit since my parents built their house and moved us in in 1969.

I identify with black people for my own personal reasons, and I have been representing them here for two years. I am their avatar. When I discuss black people in the context of Ferguson politics I say “us”, and “we”; I do not say “them”, or “they”. I am not black. I do not tell people that I am black. The way I move in the world is my own conception of hybridity. I am a hybrid.

I am also highly privileged, highly educated, and came up in a family culture that emphasized voting, and discussed the issues of the day at the dinner table every night. I took to the family culture. My parents were liberal Democrats. I am to the left of them.


Our messages in 2015.

In the aftermath of #Ferguson, it held its first municipal elections in April of 2015. Brian Fletcher was the former two-time mayor, and head of “I Love Ferguson”, the philanthropic organization that became known around the world for passing out yard signs. He wished to win a city council seat representing Ward 2. Brian Fletcher was a white, moderate Democrat with deep roots in the City.

Brian Fletcher was the mayor who instituted the biased, illegal, unconstitutional fines and fees revenue scheme called out in the Department of Justice Report on Ferguson in 2015. He was days away from running unopposed in this ward. He would have run unopposed, if not for me. Patricia Bynes, the Ferguson Township Democratic Committeewoman, through Tony Rice, asked me to run. I said, Let’s do it.

This was a big election. This was the first one after Mike Brown. Ferment was high. Media coverage saturated our little town. Tensions here bubbled over in any public space during this time.

The mayor is a symbol, as Ella liked to say a lot recently, and so is the city council. To us– the protesters, the activists, the rebels–local public officials represented an obsolete, irredeemable, reactionary lot. We must sweep them all away, now, we thought.

Locals got my message, and knew I meant business. The idea of their leaders being swept away was wrenching, and symbolic of what they had maintained for so long. Their symbols would not go down without a fight.

I was new. Nobody knew me. I do not have deep roots in the community. Some even caricatured me as a carpetbagger, horning in where I didn’t need to stick my nose.

I don’t have connections. I don’t have money. But, I have always voted. Most of the people I have voted for in my life have lost. It is very frustrating. Still, I look at voting as the most noble way to express my citizenship, and I consider it a solemn duty. It is important to vote, that’s how I look at it.

I know how the system works. It’s a rotten one, but I understand how local, state, and national systems mesh and interact. I would know how to use the levers of power available to me, were I to win office. So did Patricia Bynes, my campaign manager, who Ella Jones had dismissed.

How’s this election gonna be run? Through the parties. BUT. BUT. BUT. We are talking about City Council, and Brian Fletcher, and Bob Hudgins, and #Ferguson. MAJOR SYMBOLISM, for both sides. MAJOR CHANGES loomed if I won, because two black men with similar positions were running in Ward 3. We would automatically get the change we needed out of Ward 3. (Mostly. Wesley Bell beat my slate mate Lee Smith, and he can be hard to figure).

So, what do we have? On one side is the mayor, the incumbent moderate Republican James Knowles, who puts his imprimatur on Brian Fletcher in Ward 2. He is backing Brian Fletcher, the moderate Democrat, who represents the status quo, and a bulwark against the hordes–us.

In this environment of extreme–even for the United States–racial tension, and with the unknown on the horizon, the whites, regardless of party, and most of whom were Democrats, rushed to support the upholder of the status quo. That was the Democrat Brian Fletcher.

Who was I? A disconnected, inexperienced novice with no organic connections in the community. A rabble rouser. A traitor. A loser.

Remember, I am a Democrat. Most people in Ferguson are Democrats. But what was left to run this election was the rump of the local Democratic Party. We were the leftists, the blacks, the outcasts that were left after most conventional Democrats flooded to Fletcher.

We were ragtag newbies who didn’t know what we were doing, and we wound up getting very little institutional support from the Democratic Party. I will give an example of what I am talking about. I will break it down on the granular level.

We got union money. The union was most interested in blacks winning their elections in Ferguson. To them, I was a good guy, but I was white. When it doled out money for our campaigns, they gave $7,000 to Ella Jones, who was running in a four-way race in Ward 1 against two white men, and another black woman. They handed a check for $5,000 to Lee Smith. (I don’t know why. Again, a black was going to win that seat. Further, Wesley had a serious operation. It was not like money alone would get it done for Lee Smith, who ran a poor campaign). I got $1,000, in late March. It was almost too late anyway. It was worthless.

Mine was the marquee match-up. If I could win, there was a chance that we could have voted on, and enacted, a strict consent decree quickly. It would tip the ideological scales on the council. This contest in Ward 2 really was the whole ball of wax. Nobody was putting this all together like we were, when we sat around and discussed it at the end of each day. This would be me, Tony, and Alicia Street.

I worked my ass off to win that race. I knocked on every door more than once. I reshaped my body, and have kept it that way. I got a reputation for beating the bushes.

Mr. Fletcher did not campaign. He sat at the Corner Coffee House, which he part-owned, kibitzing with friends. He had heart problems. He depended on his good standing in the community to win. He died last year.

I sat at the nexus of all this during this time. After everything that has gone on, I have had a succession of light bulb moments, where all these memories, forces, events, and stages have coalesced in my mind in a way that I could grasp what has happened here.

I lost in 2015, and I lost again in 2016. We were in disarray, in comparison with what we were up against. We had no institutional base. Patricia was gone.

I’m not going to go into what happened in 2016, other than to say that was when I finished canvassing to get signatures on a petition to get a proposition on the ballot in this year’s municipal election. The proposition put before the people last Tuesday was that police must wear body cameras at all times, and that the video would be reviewable by the public. That proposition passed, by a margin of 71 to 29. It took me six months of going to every door in Ferguson, by myself, to get the required names, in order that we could place the proposition on the ballot.

I hope it is clear now, the political dynamics of Ferguson. Most of the politicians, black or white, Democrat or Republican, are centrists under the sway of white primacy, or pay obeisance to it. The people in charge do not address the needs of its mostly black population. The people who run the town are not organically in touch with its residents, even when they are black. 

We have a poor, black town, that needs progressive representation. We, the people, need someone to stick up for us. We look around and see that we are Democrats, and we can’t make any progress. We have a new, conservative governor, Eric Greitens. He is joined by a movement right-winger in the attorney general’s office, Josh Hawley. Missouri is already backward. And then there’s Donald Trump. Who is sticking up for us? Who?

Our people are stressed by racism and discrimination. They feel under siege. They are operating under Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: This theory, well-known and validated in the field of education, says that immediate needs of food and shelter, along with ancillary needs such as health care and jobs, take priority over things like math homework, city council meetings, and even elections.

Need I describe what it is like for black folks in Ferguson these days? Do I really have to go any further in this vein? My people can be desperate. They may be food insecure. They may not know where the rent money is coming from. They have a busted up car that is unreliable. They don’t have the money to fix it, or get a new one. Work is 20 miles away. Bus routes are not good. A child may be sick. Someone they know got shot, or killed. Their hours were cut at work. A mother needs more help in the house.

I forget this sometimes, because of my own privilege. I forget that folks are moving in and out all the time.

I am aware of it. I told somebody on Facebook yesterday that if you go over on Dade Avenue, three blocks from here, to the west, you will find 100 different living arrangements. They jus’ tryna hold it down, knowhumsayin’? They jus’ tryna hold it down.

Newell Looking South 091615

Newell Avenue facing south in 2016.

Who is sticking up for us? Some folks say it wasn’t Obama. We know it’s not Trump. We know it’s not Greitens. We knew it wasn’t Francis Slay, the outgoing mayor of St. Louis. It won’t be Lyda Krewson, his replacement. (The last two are Democrats). It hasn’t been James Knowles. And we weren’t sold on Ella Jones.

If I have to hold my nose to vote for Ella Jones, you know that we are doomed.

The lesser of two evils will not get it done anymore. We need politicians who come from us, are of us, and their campaigns are run by us. We need politicians who are committed to progressive politics that addresses the needs of the people, and they can see what they can actually get. What we see around here–everywhere, for that matter–is that the people who already have, get the stuff. 

There was an enthusiasm gap here. People didn’t see a difference between Knowles and Jones. Sure, there is a symbolic difference, but black folks look around at the world in the context of white primacy. All they see is that white folks get what they want.

We, ourselves, are working with an outdated mindset. We see white primacy, when we could focus on black power. It’s sitting right there waiting for us to take it. Black folks in Ferguson, at the local level–which is where the opposition has been racking it up for 35 years–could have it any way “they” want it. (You get where I’m going :)).

Blacks know they comprise most of the town, but they have not enjoyed a history of getting what they want out of politics. History is active in people’s lives. My life especially. It affects my relationships, or lack thereof. (Some folks might know what I’m talking about!)

We need to inculcate our kids in deep citizenship, so that they know that April 4 is more important in their lives than November 8. I’m serious. We need to flip the script. It must be understood that Ferguson municipal elections are right there with the quadrennial vote for President of the United States. That should be manifest by now.

What will it take to get over the top? What would it take to get a good, black mayor in Ferguson?

It would take a Bobby Rush-type from the 1970’s. Someone with deep roots in the black working class. A history of fighting for civil rights. Fiery, combative, knowledgeable, and connected. A real liberal. A real Democrat. Someone built for the age we are in. That’s who, and what, we need in Ferguson.

Whoever that is, we haven’t found them, and they haven’t stepped forward. It has certainly been the right time. Perhaps he, or she, is not here. Likely, we will have to make do, with who is here.

Look what we have already achieved. We have a black police chief with a history of being a conciliator. We have a black city manager who knows the area well. We have body cameras. We still have a consent decree. And voting participation is up, a little.

You know who got that done? Massive, prolonged, sustained protesting by mostly young black folks. Our leaders were often gay women of color. Think of that. My sistas–Ashley, and Brittany, and Alexis, and Alicia Garza and Patrisse Khan-Cullors, from the west, who helped us out. Protesting, by my friends Jamell, and Dhoruba, and Phil, and on and on.

When that settled down into something else, what was left was me, Tony, Alicia, Emily Davis, and Mildred Clines. There are so many others, all over the place, but down here, on the ground, that is as close to the truth as I can force on you in this moment. Those five people–one white man, one black man, one white woman, one black woman, and one black woman who’s mother is white. We are the point of the spear, and we are INTEGRATED. We all happen to be liberal Democrats, too. We do our best work together. We are most effective when we blacks and whites work together.

A hybrid machine.

That’s how to get it done. That’s who will get it done. We can do it.

13 thoughts on “Why Ferguson Fails

  1. Dwayne James, an African-American, was on the Ferguson City Council in 2015. I believe that is the only factual error in my post. Watch this space, and thank you.

  2. I didn’t say the council was all white, what I said was that if I could have beaten Fletcher the ideological balance could be tipped in favor of getting an agreement done with the DOJ faster, with more strict guidelines.

  3. You didn’t need more money from the union. You didn’t need more money at all. The $5,200 you carried over from your old committee was more than anybody had spent on a city council race in Ferguson history. In fact, in his 8 days before the election report, Knowles had only raised a bit more than $11,000 for his hotly contested race. You had more than that during the first round, if I remember correctly.

    You lost your election first and foremost because you were sabotaged by your campaign manager. Whether she was motivated by the money she would later attempt to grab, I do not know. But if she had her eyes on the prize, your victory wasn’t the prize she had in mind. I don’t know why you give her a pass in your essay here, because she has done more than anybody to set back the cause of reform in Ferguson.

  4. You didn’t say anything about the piece, Nick! Essentially, I gave her a pass because the piece is 3,500 words long, I don’t think she’s the reason I lost, and some folks think I was too hard on her on Twitter yesterday. You should watch Twitter more. I caught up with her while she was commenting on Ella Jones, and this year’s contest.
    It’s a touchy subject. I do not disagree with you, in the main, but, having observed what goes on around here in elections, I really question whether I could have beaten Fletcher in 2015. I don’t know. I don’t want to feel bad after dealing with someone. Patricia has paid her price, and is somewhere else.

  5. I was peeved, the way they had a pecking order with the union money. I thought, Can’t they see that I could have used the same help, earlier? The money you are talking about came too late. There was no way to use it when we got it. You are confused. That was my first run. You are thinking about last year. How could I have carryover before I ever ran?

  6. You say the white flight took 47 years. Over that length of time, I’m not sure its flight as much as residents getting old and dying or retiring to Florida, and their kids choose to buy newer homes further west. And similarly, African Americans probably did not move to Ferguson, but their kids did since the houses in Ferguson were an upgrade from the small homes of the city. So in some ways, even though racial discrimination in housing is illegal, the legacy of the old North City segregation just translated West as the next generation sought better houses. So that makes it a little less overt than most folks want portray white flight. It’s more a subtle holdover from old segregation patterns than an overt head-for-the-hills exodus. And I understand St. Charles County isn’t showing any overt race separation housing pattern, implying race isn’t a driving factor in home purchase decisions for newer homes anymore.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful reply. Two things: The white flight was dramatic; there is no doubt about it. Their exodus has had major implications for our public policies here for a generation. For example: they had to completely re-do the bridge over the Missouri River due to accelerated, increased volume of traffic. Also, many who need jobs would like the option of light rail to get into St. Charles and St. Peters. We can’t get light rail out there, essentially because white people do not want blacks, who want to take those jobs, to have easy access.
      Number two: I used to date a black woman who lives in Bel-Ridge, near Natural Bridge Road and Highway 170. She raised her daughter and son in St. Charles for about a decade. She wanted to avail herself of the quiet, and the schools. Her daughter, who was older, got a very good education in a small school district.
      They had to return to an inner-ring suburb because they felt so isolated; they looked around and found it inhospitable to them, and others like them. They were almost miserable. They had to leave, and come back to where the schools are not as good, and the crime is higher, but they feel it is home. All of this has caused social dislocations in their lives. It has meant periodic upheavals. It has hurt her financially. It turned out to be a mistake.

      • I lived in St. Charles County as a single person for 13 years also, and felt pretty much the same as your friend. I also moved back to St. Louis County after I got married. So I think you’re saying that self-segregation is rampant among all races.

        I believe a bigger problem is lax enforcement of EEOC rules for fair hiring and layoffs race, gender, and age. From my observations, companies and the government did a lot more to spread the wealth and opportunities in the 1980’s and 1990’s than they do now, And with large corporations and manufacturing jobs moving to the distant suburbs, it makes it harder for folks from the old inner cities to get good paying jobs.

      • Wow, Gary, with that, I am so glad you commented again! I think you must be correct about enforcement, and how that has played out in this century.
        I feel like we have had a meeting of the minds. I look forward to hearing from you again. Your comments have provoked me to think, and that’s what we are supposed to be doing.
        Thank you very much. I hope you enjoy this weekend.

  7. My sister, who lives in Ferguson, must drive 20 miles to work every day to get to her job in New Town, in St. Charles. She needs a reliable car because mass transit across the bridge is almost non-existent, and very inconvenient. She works at a business there. New Town is comprised by religious white people, who voted en masse, for Donald Trump. How about that?

  8. My sister, who is white, was raised upper middle class. She is working class, as a middle aged person. She has the privilege of having a well-off, elderly mother, who helps her financially. She helps her when she has car trouble. My black friends do not have wealthy parents. They do not get help from their parents when their car goes bad. You follow? Gary? Are you there?

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