Note I: St. Louis, The Ferguson Riots, and Anti-Blackness

[The following note on Ferguson was written by Alvaro Reyes]

Author’s note: Below I’ve put together a series of “notes” on Ferguson that I hope to publish in the next few days as events unfold. I’ve attached a series of footnotes that are not intended as a exercise in academic sourcing necessarily but more as a running guide (especially for those outside the United States) for material available online that might help clarify the situation in Ferguson.

Let me start by simply restating the facts surrounding the murder of Michael Brown as we know them up to now. Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black resident of Ferguson, Missouri, was stopped by local police on a small neighborhood street of Ferguson for walking down the middle of the road—an action that police claimed had disrupted traffic. A number of neighborhood witnesses to Brown’s shooting claim that after the initial police stop and an exchange of words between Brown and the police, the policeman who had initially stopped Brown (who we now know was a white Ferguson policeman named Darren Wilson) reached out from his police car to grab Michael Brown, and Brown attempted to release himself from the hold of Wilson.[1] At this point eyewitnesses report they heard the sound of an initial gunshot inside the police car. Despite this, it seems that Brown successfully freed himself from Wilson’s hold and was able to turn away from the police car and start running. As he was running away a second shot rang out that hit Brown. Brown it seems then stopped, dropped to his knees, put his hands up, and (again, according to eyewitness accounts) in front of a number of people from the neighborhood pleaded with the police, “please don’t shoot me!” Brown’s pleas seem to have been to no avail, as at least five more shots are said to have hit Brown in both his torso and head, killing him instantly.

The initial dismay of witnesses to Brown’s shooting can be seen on a number of Youtube videos that have emerged in which neighbors recount how Brown was shot and killed despite having stopped and placed his hands in the air, thus posing no threat whatsoever to police.[2] As the videos document, the initial dismay at the shooting is clearly only exacerbated by the way that Michael Brown’s dead body was treated by Ferguson police: first simply left on the street for over four hours, and then, in what seems to be very unusual police practice, eventually dumped into the back of Ferguson police vehicle without the accustomed medical examiners or ambulances ever arriving to register the circumstances of the death.[3] All of this was simply too much for the crowds that began to gather in the neighborhood in order to express their outrage at both Brown’s killing as well as the disrespect with which his body had been treated.

This is all to say that Michael Brown’s death was certainly the initial spark of what was to follow. Yet it is necessary to take a step back from the facts of this particular event to understand the context in which it has been received by Ferguson’s Black residents and the country as a whole. Ferguson is a small town of 22,000 residents that serves as a suburb of the St. Louis Metropolitan area, and thus the dynamics of power and resistance present in the region as a whole have to be taken into account to understand Ferguson’s contemporary situation. That is, the St. Louis metropolitan area has been the site (not unlike most Metropolitan centers in the United States) of an extremely virulent history of anti-blackness that due to the limited space here we can only touch upon in a broad and rather schematic way. Even if we go back only about a hundred years, we would have to start from the violent reception of Black workers that began to migrate to northern industrial centers in the early twentieth century, often fleeing the debt peonage system that extended the conditions of slavery across the U.S. south. Feeling threatened by the growing presence of these recently migrated Blacks within the industrial work place, thousands of white workers at the Aluminum Ore Company and American Steel Company right across the Mississippi river from St. Louis organized to attack and destroy the Black neighborhoods of the city of East St. Louis. The result was that on July 2 and July 3 of 1917, in what became the twentieth century’s largest white riot, some 100 to 200 Blacks were murdered by armed whites, with many Blacks lynched and hung from light posts. In addition, some 6,000 Blacks were left homeless as entire sections of the city were burned to the ground by an army of angry whites.[4]

Although today this particular massacre of Blacks in East St. Louis is considered the starting point for a number of twentieth century Black political movements, including what would become the civil rights movement, the utter disregard for Black life in the St. Louis Metropolitan area continued unabated. Take for example the case of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex that was intended to serve as part of a larger project in the late 1940s and early 1950s to clear the central St. Louis area of the city’s largest poor Black neighborhood (DeSoto-Carr), what was then called, “urban revitalization.” Having displaced the residents of Desoto-Carr and moved some of its former residents into public housing, the city then set out to completely rebuild its center city district upon the ashes of those formerly Black neighborhoods. In fact, St. Louis’ now iconic “Gateway Arch” sits on land that was cleared of poor Blacks during this very era. The Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex into which some of these Black residents were moved recently became the subject of a widely circulated documentary (The Pruitt-Igoe Myth)[5] that details the ways the white political class at the city, state, and federal level undermined the success of the then all-Black public housing complex (public housing was legally segregated in St. Louis until 1956). These actions left thousands of Black families to live in wretched conditions within a collapsing industrial economy, shrank the urban tax base dramatically due to the fact that many middle and working class whites preferred to move to the outer suburbs of St. Louis (to places like Ferguson) than co-habit the urban center with Blacks, and consequently brought about an implosion of public services, all of which would combine to morph into “the hyperghettos” of the late twentieth century[6]. All the while (as The Pruitt-Igoe Myth attempts to show) the desperate social conditions created by this new metropolitan configuration were very carefully blamed upon St. Louis’ Black residents, the very residents those conditions had in fact been imposed upon. As if this history of marginalization, displacement, and social blame were insufficient evidence to demonstrate the disregard with which Black life was treated in the region (and the country), we might also mention that previously secret government documents have recently been released that show that the Pruitt-Igoe complex was also the direct object of an experiment in which the (all Black) residents of the complex were sprayed with cadmium sulfide laced with radiation as part of a larger effort to develop chemical warfare technology for the U.S. military.[7]

Some might claim that these are distant and long forgotten histories of St. Louis, and that contemporary Ferguson has little relation to these histories. Nothing could be further from the truth. As I mentioned before, today Ferguson is a city of 22,000 people, with Black residents making up some 67% of the town and whites making up the rest. As recently as the early 1990s, Ferguson’s demographic make up was almost the exact inverse, with whites making up 73% of the population and Blacks making up only 27% of the town.[8] This curious shift opens us onto the particularities of contemporary racial dynamics of many U.S. metropolitan centers, in this case that of St. Louis and its relation to Ferguson. It is very likely that the first major influx of whites to Ferguson came after the 1950s as a result of the “white flight” from St. Louis that I mentioned above which had its roots in the refusal of the white middle and working class to live with Blacks. This situation of Black concentration in impoverished urban centers surrounded by relatively stable white suburbs began to change dramatically in the mid 1990s. As a part of a larger economic shift towards financialization and particularly financial speculation on real estate, U.S. city centers became the target of broad gentrification schemes that had the aggregate effect of raising inner city rents, which, in conjunction with the deindustrialization of these same U.S. metropolitan centers, had the effect of pricing out large swathes of the Black urban population. Take for example cities like New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, which were all solidly Black majority cities and by the late twentieth century they have all lost enormous percentages of their Black population and many of them their Black majority.

On top of the loss of political power this exit from urban areas has meant for Black communities as a whole (the little organized political power Black communities had in the United States was almost exclusively centered around these Black metropolitan areas), what we often see is an inversion of the demographic between many of the U.S. city centers and their suburbs: white middle class professionals (who themselves have been losing economic ground due to the consequences of exorbitant student loans, shrinking employment opportunities, and higher healthcare costs) have now moved back to the urban centers to take advantage of both the Disney-like atmosphere (“Main Street U.S.A”) of the contemporary inner city as well as potential profits from personal real estate investment. Both of these draws are ultimately sustained by the transnational financial sector, while poor and middle class Black families—carrying the living memory and economic weight of yet another displacement—have migrated out of the city centers entirely in search of cheaper rents. These Black families are being received in the suburbs by a sector of the white working class (and their political representatives) that cannot afford to move back to the city center and yet feel themselves deeply under siege by the influx of the very Blacks they had tried so hard to escape this past century.

Given the historic economic marginalization of Blacks in a staunchly segregated St. Louis, their recent displacement created by gentrification, as well as the exit of the white middle class from the suburbs, it is no surprise that along with the inversion of racial demographics there has also been a sharp increase in the rate of suburban poverty. In fact, the population of Ferguson that lives under the federal poverty line has more than doubled in the last decade, with more than 25% of Ferguson residents today located below that economic indicator. Thus the situation in Ferguson: a town with a substantial Black majority but a white city Mayor; 5 out of the 6 city people serving on city council are white, the city’s police chief is white, and the city’s police force is 94% white, with officials from each of these sectors publicly and repeatedly expressing open disdain for the town’s Black majority after the shooting of Michael Brown. All of these factors have created a particularly intense set of localized racial antagonisms that precede the shooting of Michael Brown and that unfold within a regional and national formation that is foundationally marked by anti-Blackness. That is, it is this foundational (not conjunctural!) disregard for Black life in U.S. daily life, the particular expressions of which may vary across time in region, that I think must be our starting point in order to understand the events taking place today in Ferguson.

NOTES:

[4] Charles Lumpking, American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics, (Ohio University Press, 2008) and Harper Barnes, Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement, (Walker and Company, 2008).

[6] For details on the implosion of the “communal ghetto,” the formation of “the hyperghetto,” and its relation to policing and incarceration of the Black subproletariat see, Loic Wacquant, “Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh” http://loicwacquant.net/assets/Papers/DEADLYSYMBIOSISPRISONGHETTO.pdf

[8] For the statistics on racial demographic shifts and poverty in Ferguson that follow see, http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/the-avenue/posts/2014/08/15-ferguson-suburban-poverty

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *