There is a park near my house in St Louis, Missouri, where I walk every day. To get there I walk past empty stores and vacant lots, past a brick whitewashed church onto which the proprietor painted decorative windows to make it look like the kind of place it could be if anyone around here had money.
The park is always busy. Families hold barbecues, children climb trees, young men shoot baskets, fathers coach sports. Almost everyone who goes to this park is black. When I walk through the park, white policemen ask me if anyone is bothering me. When I walk through the park, black men preface inquiries for directions with the phrase “Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you.”
Those are the assumptions living in St Louis. Sometimes they are spoken, but usually they are just felt.
At the far end of the park there is a teddy bear and a balloon tied to a tree. They were left there to commemorate a 20-year-old man who was shot and killed in July. Makeshift memorials like this line the landscape of St Louis. They remind passersby that the person who died was someone’s son: not an archetype or a statistic or a threat, but a son.
Those the public are taught to fear are often the ones in danger.
The shooting happened near a high school reunion in late July. It had nothing to do with the reunion, an annual park affair attended by enthusiastic graduates of a 90 percent black public school system. The shooting, which took place in another part of the park, seems to have been the violent outcome of a private feud.
But around St Louis, on the internet, the chatter began. On websites, white St Louisans speculated on the inherent danger of such a large gathering of black citizens. They stated again and again that they were not surprised.
A shooting in St Louis is never surprising, but it will always be shocking: that the cruelty of the act is complimented by the callousness of the reaction; that when a community cries, someone always finds a way to give it more to grieve.
Decades of violence
When Michael Brown was shot, many of us in St Louis heard about it on the internet before we saw it in the news. I saw it on the Instagram account of Tef Poe, a rapper and writer who has emerged as one of St Louis’ many black activist leaders. He posted a picture of a man, Brown’s stepfather, holding a cardboard sign that read: “Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son.”
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It took hours for the media to report on the story. Initial reports from the local paper referred to the crowd, gathered outside where Brown’s body lay in the street for four hours, as a “mob reaction”. They retracted that description as momentum grew, as a casualty so horrifyingly common became recognised as the crisis it was.
If you had asked whether the killing of Brown would become an international cause, or be swept silently aside, most would have bet on the latter. It is a testament to black St Louis activists, and their ceaseless documentation and calls to action, that it was not.
No one will forget the killing of Michael Brown. But that killing was preceded by decades of police brutality, of violence, of losses, of teddy bears tied to trees. During the 2013-2014 school year, 17 St Louis public school children died, a record number. The second largest number, in 2010, was eight.
“At some schools, kids don’t come back to school for several days when a young person has died in the kind of violent death that occurred last night because they think there may be repercussions,” a St Louis school superintendent told local media in March, after an eleven-year-old black boy was shot through the window of his home.
By spring, trauma counsellors were working overtime. Now, after the death of Brown and the tear gassing of the local population, including children, they work around the clock.
St Louis was grieving long before the tragedy of Ferguson – or, at least, parts of it were. Like everything else in St Louis, grief is unequally allocated. This is a city where people live their whole lives seeing certain neighbourhoods only on TV.
St Louis is a city where black communities are watched – by police, by spectators – more than they are seen, more than they are heard.
Healing St Louis
At my daughter’s bus stop in St Louis, the children would play games. They would chase each other and run, laughing and screaming, through neighbours’ yards. “You better watch it,” one child called to another. “I’m going to call the police. And it doesn’t matter what you do. They’ll put you in jail for nothing.”
A white classmate asked the boy, who was black, what he meant. He said that had happened to his uncle. The white boy looked at the black boy blankly.
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You can live next to your neighbour and still exist in a different city, with different rights and rules. You can greet each other with sincere warmth, and never fathom the disparity of experience.
In January, my daughter’s school held an event to celebrate the life of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. They called it “MLK: Not a Day, But a Way”. We marched through the neighbourhood, parents and children and local leaders, to show that the struggle against injustice was never over.
But we all marched to different beats, to different histories, and it is foolish to pretend otherwise.
In the auditorium, in a great public school that is, like so many majority black St Louis public schools, in danger of losing accreditation, we sang “We Shall Overcome”. My daughter clasped hands with a black boy, her partner in the afterschool science club. They sang a few bars then lost the words, and began whispering to each other about the movie “Frozen”.
It was a scene of childhood innocence that advocates of a post-racial society like to promote: a black boy and a white girl, sweetly holding hands. But like all childhood innocence, it is an illusion. That boy will find danger when he ventures into the world unless St Louis – and all US cities – change their ways.
There is a movement to heal St Louis. For St Louis to heal, we need to examine deep wounds: decades of discrimination and distrust. We need to protect the young black men who are threatened but portrayed as threats. Michael Brown is one of St Louis’ many sons taken too soon.
Sarah Kendzior is a St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.
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