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Ferguson and the Troubled Spirit of St. Louis

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 [1] 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 [2].

Since 2012, University City—home to Washington University, my alma mater—has imposed a 9:00 p.m. curfew on teenagers under 17 [3] 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,” [4] 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 [5].

In Ferguson itself, many people have seen the 2009 case [6] 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.

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#1 Comment By Clint On August 19, 2014 @ 1:45 pm

“Last year, black residents accounted for 86% of the vehicle stops made by Ferguson police and nearly 93% of the arrests made from those stops, according to the state attorney general. FBI statistics show that 85% of the people arrested by Ferguson police are black, and that 92% of people arrested specifically for disorderly conduct are black.

In 2008, the town’s crime rate was significantly higher than the state average, but since then, violent crime has consistently dropped each year. There were 163 instances of violent crime in Ferguson in 2008 and only 80 in 2012, according FBI data.”

#2 Comment By Steve On August 19, 2014 @ 1:51 pm

How does something this intelligent, well thought-out, and not reactionary at all (prudence- the most important conservative value) end up sharing the same space with something written by Patrick Buchanan?

#3 Comment By Aaron Paolozzi On August 19, 2014 @ 2:38 pm

This is very well written and helps those not from that area of the country understand what is really going on. Thank you for your addition to the developing story.

Every issues such as this has another story that is not being reported, everyone wants to see what is on the surface and accept this. The police are brutal, there is looting, the poor boy was shot six times, people are protesting; but people do not ask the questions, is there a trend that could have predicted eventual unrest, what have the police done to address the concerns of the people, do the people respond antagonistically to the police regardless of the circumstance, what is the need for military hardware in police forces? All important questions.

#4 Comment By Frank Stain On August 19, 2014 @ 2:50 pm

One thing you don’t mention here is the rise of for-profit policing. There are 90 municipalities in St. Louis County. These tiny local governments are inevitably going to duplicate services like police, fire, city hall, etc. They can’t tax their citizens more to make up the difference, or they will simply cross over to another, cheaper town. So what do they do? They rely on traffic stops to raise revenue. An article in the NYT suggested that some of those municipalities make up to 50% of their revenue through traffic stops.

When virtually all the police officers are white and the majority of residents are black, you get a situation where blacks are 86% of stops, 92% of searches, and yet contraband is found on black drivers less of the time (22%) than on whites (34%). Understandably, this creates simmering anger and resentment, as poor blacks are effectively funding public services for more affluent members of the community.
It is the economic incentives that need to be changed, not just the military gear.

#5 Comment By MikeS On August 19, 2014 @ 3:33 pm

I wonder why the majority-demographic inhabitants of Ferguson don’t vote in elected leaders to their liking, who would then hire policemen to their liking. It’s democracy and it actually works; certainly it works here in Los Angeles County where the majority-hispanic cities are governed by … hispanics. Does anyone know why that hasn’t worked in Ferguson? Do the inhabitants not bother to vote?

#6 Comment By cka2nd On August 19, 2014 @ 4:09 pm

Thank you very much for this wealth of information, Mr. Payne.

#7 Comment By EngineerScotty On August 19, 2014 @ 5:01 pm

And then there’s East St. Louis, Illinois–just across the Mississippi River–which is (unfortunately) one of the more infamously blighted ghettos in the country, one that routinely ranks in the top of FBI crime statistics. The city of East St. Louis has a rather tragic history, including several mass-lynchings in the early 20th century. As a standalone municipality in the cultural orbit of St. Louis but in the political orbit of Springfield, it–like several other ghettos with their own zip code–has pretty much been left to rot for decades.

#8 Comment By William Dalton On August 19, 2014 @ 6:02 pm

“How does something this intelligent, well thought-out, and not reactionary at all (prudence- the most important conservative value) end up sharing the same space with something written by Patrick Buchanan?”

And did you notice how intelligent, well thought-out and not reactionary was the piece written by Pat Buchanan on the subject? Everything I have seen on TAC this week about Ferguson has been remarkably helpful.

#9 Comment By Aaron Gross On August 19, 2014 @ 11:58 pm

Thanks for writing this article, and thanks to the TAC editor for publishing it. I was born and raised in St. Louis county, in one of the predominantly black suburbs you talk about. Most of the article was news to me, as I haven’t lived there in a long time. It’s interesting to see how it’s changed.

#10 Comment By Colonel Bogey On August 20, 2014 @ 10:51 am

The curfew in University City was imposed a couple of years ago after an unruly mob of teenagers stayed on the streets late at night and disrupted all business in the Delmar Loop entertainment district. Even in the daytime, the teens loiter on the sidewalks, mooching smokes and “spare change”. And what business does any sixteen-year-old have in a nightclub district after nine at night?

#11 Comment By M_Young On August 20, 2014 @ 1:21 pm

Here’s [8] for more info on the reality of crime in St. Louis

#12 Comment By C. Van Carter On August 20, 2014 @ 2:26 pm

“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”

That’s not because of racial bias, that’s because black behavior leads to more interactions with police.

#13 Comment By ELiteCommInc. On August 20, 2014 @ 3:19 pm

“That’s not because of racial bias, that’s because black behavior leads to more interactions with police.”

I am not sure that I should say this — but am laughing a to this comment.

And it is not laughter of agreement. Typically bizarre perhaps. I am not pro the legalization of marijuana or anything drug currently illegal based on the arguments. But I did get the point of the use of marijuana resulting is disportionate arrests. That would be a disparity that blacks would take note of.

#14 Comment By W.E.B. Dupree On August 20, 2014 @ 4:34 pm

Mike S, I also live in L.A., and I’ve been wondering the same thing about this Ferguson story. A small L.A. County city like San Fernando would seem to be a good example of what you describe. If 2/3 of Ferguson is black, I would have thought that such numbers would have provided a pretty good set-up for Democratic African-American machine politics. I haven’t really heard an explanation yet.

#15 Comment By Charming Billy On August 20, 2014 @ 11:31 pm

@WEB Ferguson only recently became majority Black. It will probably develop politically along the lines of other STL suburbs that have been majority Black for several decades. E. g. Wellston, Pine Lawn, and Normandy. Only it will happen more quickly than these suburbs, thanks to the events under discussion. Ferguson’s white population has certainly already responded to events by speeding up their evacuation of the town.

#16 Comment By Flossie On August 21, 2014 @ 11:48 am

Someone asked why a mostly-black jurisdiction hasn’t elected more blacks to its various agencies and departments. I read recently (in the wake of the Ferguson brouhaha, naturally) that voter turnout in Ferguson was either 6% or 9%, I forget which. Either way, that would easily explain the lopsided demographics of its elected officials. And police departments everywhere have trouble finding qualified non-whites. I would imagine a place like Ferguson, in particular, would have this problem. Many of the men will have serious crimes on their rapsheets, effectively eliminating them from consideration. And living off the dole suits them better than gainful employment.

#17 Comment By Jayson On August 21, 2014 @ 2:27 pm

I imagine this Mr. Payne would have found New York City’s use of stop and frisk under the former Mayor Bloomberg offensive and just down right wrong. The fact of the matter is that most of the crime in general is perpetrated disproportionately by minorities, i.e. blacks and Hispanics, so why look for crime where it isn’t happening? It would follow the insanity of political correctness in the way we will look for terrorists amongst the least likely suspects so as not to offend sensitive Muslims.

#18 Comment By Jonathan On August 23, 2014 @ 12:09 am

Having lived in St. Louis city for two years, all of this rings true- I’d just echo what others have said about the way in which the hodge-podge of municipalities in the county love to suck money out of passers-through. My wife and I- both white- ‘contributed’ our share of money; I can only imagine the frequency with which a darker skinned person is compelled to cough up cash for the various glorified suburbs ringing the city.

I’d also add that I came to like STL- it has its charms. I even came to appreciate the many problems and struggles within the city, which I like to think I made small contribution towards resolving, in conjunction with those still strong pockets of civility and neighborly cooperation, sometimes across racial lines, sometimes less so. There is a great deal of danger and potential combustion in the area, but there is also a great deal of potential and hope, which let us hope will be realized over the bad.