Delmar Boulevard runs east-west across St. Louis. Most people who live south of Delmar are white and almost everybody who lives north of Delmar is black. There are no Republicans on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, so the political divide, and the fight for resources, is racial. Votes often split north/south, black/white.
This divide cuts across America, but in St. Louis there are no pretenses.
The divide is there for all to see. The tension is not deep and underlying but simmering, slowly and always heating to an unknown boiling point.
During a town hall meeting on the north side in 2011, a then-state representative named Jamilah Nasheed said to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay: “We have a major issue in the city of St. Louis with race relations, and I would like for you to touch on that. What can we do, as elected officials, community organizations as a whole, to try to bridge that racial gap here in the city?”
And the mayor answered, “One of the things I found in the city of St. Louis, you know, one of the things about the city of St. Louis is it is one of the most–on a block-by-block basis–one of the most integrated cities in America.”
Many in the crowd, which was nearly all black, laughed. Even when a racial divide is as clear and objective as the votes on a bill, there are people who deny its existence. That makes the tension worse.
The tension has radiated outward over the years. People moved to the suburbs. First white people, then, more recently, black people. Which explains why a place like Ferguson, Missouri, once majority white, is now two-thirds black, yet has three black officers out of 53 and one black city council member out of six and one black school board member out of seven.
And that is where St. Louis County stood when Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown on Saturday, August 9.
The world has seen on live television what followed. The protests began within hours. Police showed up in riot gear. The looting began on Sunday night. Then came the tanks, the sniper rifles aimed at civilians, the tear gas, the flash-bang grenades, the rubber bullets, and the rows of cops marching with guns drawn. The protests got louder and the police cracked down even more. The scene has been outrageous and chaotic and the authorities appear to have no longterm plan other than a continued showing of pure force.
St. Louis County officials, it is now clear, were unprepared to handle the outrage. Perhaps they believed such outrage was a relic of a past America. They may have believed this because three weeks before a Ferguson police officer killed Brown, New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner in Staten Island. The world saw the whole thing on video: Panteleo wrapping his arm around Garner’s neck and Garner repeating “I can’t breathe” before falling unconscious. The public’s reaction was mild.
There were crowded protests and Al Sharpton appearances and much outrage, but it was nothing like the scenes New York City had seen before. New York City has had its own pent-up racial tensions, and it has occasionally released those tensions over the last 30 years. From the white-on-black killings of Yusef Hawkins and Michael Griffith to the police-on-black killings of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell.
Perhaps New York City officials learned lessons over time. Perhaps the clear-cut footage of the chokehold death made it impossible for city officials to deflect accountability. Whatever the reason, the city’s response, though not as strong as every protester wanted, was swift and clear and compassionate.
Less than 24 hours after Garner’s death, Mayor Bill De Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton held a press conference. They stood beside Sharpton. De Blasio opened by saying, “I stand here before you with a heavy heart. On behalf of all New Yorkers, I want to offer my deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of Eric Garner. He was a loving husband and caring father and grandfather. This is a terrible tragedy that occurred yesterday, a terrible tragedy that no family should have to experience.”
“Like so many New Yorkers,” De Blasio continued, “I was very troubled by the video I reviewed earlier today.”
And only after that did De Blasio address the challenges police officers face in their jobs.
Bratton, responding to a question, said that “this would appear to have been a chokehold.” He called the video “disturbing” and the death a “tragedy that needs to be addressed.” He did not dwell on the allegation that Garner was illegally selling untaxed cigarettes.
The next day, the NYPD released the officer’s name.
The matter is far from resolved. We are still waiting to see if Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan files criminal charges against Pantaleo and if Bratton fires him. And there remains an ongoing debate over the merits of cracking down on quality-of-life crimes.
But the protests quieted within days of Garner’s death. A death sparks the outrage, but a desire for those in power to recognize the injustice fuels it. There was no more need to shout because De Blasio and Bratton appeared to acknowledge the public outcry.
St. Louis County officials did not.
There was no footage of Michael Brown’s death. There were only the facts that he was unarmed and was shot multiple times, and the witness statements claiming that he had his hands up when he was shot.
And so, less than 24 hours after the shooting, officials began their response with a narrative that cleared the officer of wrongdoing. In a press conference, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said that had Brown attacked the officer and reached for the officer’s gun after the officer stopped him for walking in the middle of the street.
“[Brown] physically assaulted the police officer,” Belmar said. “It is our understanding at this point in the investigation that within the police car there was a struggle over the officer’s weapon.”
Off the bat, the county had taken an official position that undermined the public’s outrage, an outrage that already had been building for decades. There were now two sides; the protesters stood on one side and the authorities stood on the other. This opposition became more clear when the riot gear officers met the protesters in the streets.
The protesters stated that they wanted one concession more than any other: the name of the officer who shot Brown. The police would not give the name.
The looting and fires began that night. The police countered with a military arsenal the next day: snipers, tanks, cops in camouflage pointing machine guns at civilians. Tear-gas canisters rained down. Journalists were arrested. Alderman Antonio French was arrested.
By then, the cameras were rolling and snapping and you had to wonder: if this is how the Ferguson Police Department acts when they know the world is watching, how do they act when nobody is watching?
But it still looked like there might be a chance for peace. Five days after the shooting, Governor Jay Nixon put Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson in charge and Johnson seemed to bring compassion and understanding. His message was one of unity between law enforcement and the people. He posed for photos with protesters. Patrol cars paraded alongside protesters.
The next day, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson decided to release the name of the officer who shot Brown. It could have been a show of faith, an affirmation of Johnson’s message. Maybe it would have convinced the public that the officials had finally heard their shouts. Maybe the crowds would have gotten smaller and the police would have felt comfortable putting away the tanks and sniper rifles.
But it was not a show of faith. Along with releasing the name of the officer, Jackson released a video that he said showed Brown stealing cigarillos from a convenience store a few minutes before he died. He said that the alleged robbery had nothing to do with Officer Wilson stopping Brown. To many protesters, Jackson seemed to be suggesting that Brown’s death was no injustice because he had committed petty theft.
And so the outrage grew. Police reported that people in the crowd had fired guns and thrown molotov cocktails. The governor declared a state of emergency, instituted a curfew, and then called for the National Guard. On Monday, 78 people were arrested. The authorities seem to believe that the only way this ends is that they hold the line until the protesters give up and turn back.
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