I live in the city of St. Louis, about 10 miles south of the suburb of Ferguson as the crow flies. As I have watched national media cover the events in Ferguson over the past 10 days, I have wondered what impression people outside of St. Louis have formed about the city.
The first thing that outsiders should know is that Ferguson is not some post-urban hellscape. It’s a working class suburb with a roughly two-thirds majority black population, which is not unusual for communities in north St. Louis County. Nor is the city government and law enforcement exceptionally poorly managed or racist. That is not a compliment, however. Most St. Louisans think of our area as representative of the nation as a whole, and there is a great deal of truth to that. But, like the nation at large, St. Louis is still divided along racial lines. Ferguson exploded as a flash point specifically because of the shooting of Michael Brown, but many communities in the area are just tinderboxes waiting for a spark.
The St. Louis metropolitan area can largely be divided into five areas. First, there is the city of St. Louis itself, which seceded from St. Louis County in 1876, making it both a city and county under state law. A little more than 300,000 people call the city of St. Louis home, and it is almost equally divided between black and white. That’s true both in terms of numbers and geography, with Delmar Boulevard serving as a stark dividing line between the south (mostly white) and north (essentially all black) parts of the city.
A plurality of area residents live in St. Louis County, with just under a million people according to the last census. St. Louisans usually subdivide the county into the informal regions of south, west, and north, which some people actually mistake for counties themselves. To put it as briefly as possible, the south county region is working class and largely white; west county is middle and upper class and white; and north county is working class and largely black. The demographics of north county—where Ferguson is located—have changed the most in recent years, with many white residents moving into the outer counties—most notably by moving west across the Missouri River into St. Charles County.
Ferguson exemplifies the shifting demographics of north county. It was nearly three-quarters white in 1990 and is two-thirds black now. However, I do not want to give the impression that people are moving away from Ferguson because it is a particularly undesirable place to live. It is served by the Ferguson-Florissant School District, which is one of the better districts in north county. By contrast, the school districts of St. Louis, Jennings, Riverview Gardens, and Normandy School District—where Michael Brown graduated this spring—have all lost their state accreditation. And on the subject of school districts, I am obliged to mention what is often called “the St. Louis question”: Where did you go to high school? This single question can neatly profile your race, class, religious affiliation, and upbringing. The question speaks to a local insularity and desire to keep to one’s social milieu that is stronger in St. Louis than other metropolitan areas that I know.
That’s not necessarily problematic, but it is very easy to live in St. Louis and only interact with people of your background. That can quickly lead to labeling people who don’t fit that as other and unwelcome. I do not believe that St. Louisans harbor more racist attitudes than people in other cities, but they are more skeptical of those they consider to be outsiders.
That said, Ferguson law enforcement is hardly alone in struggling with race relations. Just a few miles away in 96.4 percent black Pine Lawn, the police department is well-known for hiring the castoffs of other area departments and is regarded as something of a public joke in the law enforcement community. In 2012, the NAACP lodged 20 complaints of civil rights violations with the city.
Since 2012, University City—home to Washington University, my alma mater—has imposed a 9:00 p.m. curfew on teenagers under 17 in the Delmar Loop, a popular strip of bars, restaurants, music venues, and retail shops. Of course, the mostly white college students are not affected by the curfew, but the black teenagers who live around the area are rounded up with regularity. Police enforce the policy with the “nuisance abatement vehicle,” which is an armored vehicle mounted with cameras that allow it to record all 360 degrees.
In the primarily black neighborhoods north of Delmar, violent crime remains a serious problem. Nevertheless, University City seems to invest more resources in chasing black teens away from more affluent areas in quasi-military vehicles than in protecting their lives. I’m sure that makes an impression.
It may come as a surprise, but the city of St. Louis enjoys relatively good race relations compared to some of the suburbs. Mayor Francis Slay is white, but President of the Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed, who is black, mounted a strong challenge to Slay in 2013.
Perhaps more importantly, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department does not take a heavy-handed approach to minor offenses. For instance, possession of marijuana was decriminalized in the city last year. But even before the law was officially changed, city police did their best to avoid arresting low-level offenders, making only 58 arrests in 2011, compared to over 20,000 statewide. But even with the relaxed enforcement, the arrest numbers reflect a strong racial bias, blacks being more than 18 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than whites according to an ACLU report released last year.
In Ferguson itself, many people have seen the 2009 case where a black man was charged with bleeding on the uniforms of the Ferguson PD officers who beat him. But I know that police harassment is also a daily occurrence for many black residents. For instance, for the past three years, my best friend worked for an alternative learning center located at West Florissant and Canfield, just a few hundred yards from where Brown was shot. The center specializes in teaching students who dropped out but have come back to earn their diploma.
Even before this shooting, my friend complained frequently that the Ferguson police stopped and searched his students on their way to school nearly every morning. The problem became so bad that the teachers contacted their administration to ask for name tags for students so that the police would stop harassing them and allow them to get to class on time. In another case, a student was arrested and held for 24 hours because he was short and had dreadlocks, which matched the description of a robbery suspect—and probably a thousand other men in the area.
What happened in the Michael Brown case is still unclear, but what is clear is that the black community in Ferguson has lost all faith in local law enforcement. Speaking as someone who has lived in the area almost all of my adult life, I understand why. What’s more troubling is that I know that problem is hardly limited to Ferguson.
John Payne is the executive director of Show-Me Cannabis and lives in St. Louis, Missouri.