Monday night, St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch delivered the findings of the Grand Jury investigation into the killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. I am sure in the years to come, this footage will serve as excellent source material for lectures about how media transmits judicial findings and matters of public policy. For some citizens of St. Louis, the measured economy of his summary of the evidence and calm assurances that the process has worked provided relief. The situation had been resolved.

If there are any lingering doubts about how the St. Louis area should feel about the death of Michael Brown, the system is officially signaling closure.For others, though, this self-assured pose of McCulloch struck a familiar chord for very different reasons. It was another reminder that St. Louis has always been good at managing its race problem.

In 1915, St. Louis passed the nation’s first segregation ordinance. This policy divided St. Louis city into districts designated for whites or blacks. The Supreme Court struck down the law in 1917, but an informal practice of “restrictive covenants” guiding the selling of property by racial demographics continued until Shelly v. Kramer in 1948. St. Louis is still materially shaped by the success of this policy in conceiving of the racial issue as a spatial issue.

In 1949, St. Louis city officials decided to integrate the Fairground Park Pool in North St. Louis. This was an era when public spaces, such as pools and golf courses, were being regularly desegregated in response to 14th amendment cases. St. Louis was not immune to these blowing winds of change. But this integration attempt went poorly. Fairground Park Pool opened for the first morning of the season, black kids now swimming with white kids in the hot June sun. By the end of the day, riots reportedly swelled to thousands of whites roaming the area for the few blacks they could corner. The mayor immediately rescinded the integration order in response.

The city’s public pools were then integrated in 1950 following the ruling of a federal court. The mayor lined the pool entrances with city police to stem the violence of the prior year. St. Louis got the message and capitulated. Eddie Silva rightly argued in The Riverfront Times, that the moment “has been erased from the city’s collective memory.”

I could go on. The city closed the Homer G. Phillips hospital in 1979, a casualty of the systematic closure of historically black medical facilities and training institutions as larger hospitals began permitting care of black patients on regular wards. Access to health care in this section of St. Louis city remains affected by this shifting of resources west toward municipalities blooming with white flight. Through the 1950s and 1960s, the city went all-in on the Pruitt-Igoe complex, a massive urban design project that failed so miserably, North St. Louis and its families remain permanently marked by its traces. Hundreds of black homes were burned, over 40 black men killed, and thousands forced across the river as refugees with the tacit approval of Illinois police during the 1917 East St. Louis riots. It was a 20th century case of race management through erasure. And further back in history lies Dred Scott in 1847, a case of race management through law.

Note in this brief history a lack of reference to Civil Rights riots in the 1960s. Other cities had them; St. Louis did not. The explanation for this anomaly is simple. St. Louis has been effective at managing its race problem through policy changes and restrictive real estate practices.

All this is to provide a bit of context for the following statement of McCulloch in his Grand Jury presentation:

Our investigation and presentation of the evidence to the grand jury in St. Louis County has been completed. The most significant challenge encountered in this investigation has been the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something, for anything to talk about. Following closely behind were the nonstop rumors on social media.

There is much to read between these lines. First, the issue has been resolved—it has been “completed.” This is to say that if there are any lingering doubts about how the St. Louis area should feel about the death of Michael Brown, the system is officially signaling closure. As far as the state is concerned, the mechanisms it has relied upon in the past to manage crises involving racial conflict have been fully exhausted.

Second, any problems with the case as presented can be explained by the interference of local and national voices questioning the process. One can hear the full momentum of St. Louis history in the rhetorical insanity of this suggestion.

And third, note the tiering of his apportion of blame. The “most significant” challenge was journalism, though the beating of populist drums throughout the intervening months has also proven distracting to the machineries of justice. At the heart of McColluch’s recitation of the findings is an admission that the most significant challenge to successfully managing a local resolution to the shooting death of Michael Brown has been the shape the narrative has taken in national conversation. In between the lines of this presentation, one can hear the patterns so deeply woven into St. Louis’s history finally breaking down. This rhetoric of management simply fails to cohere any longer when tested on a larger scale.

Many of the responses to the Ferguson protests among evangelical voices have been exhilarating. There are expressions of solidarity. There are expressions of a feeling of grief. There are reflections on the shape of our communities. There are echoes of prophetic calls to repentance and the kind of truth-telling that bears witness to the gospel as a pronouncement, a judgment, a mode of deliverance, rather than a mere management of human suffering. May these gestures abide more deeply than sentiments.

There is something very specific that churches can do in response to what has transpired in the Grand Jury findings and ongoing protests. We can resist the acceptance of the easy stories we tell about our communities to gloss over the difficult patterns of history. The work of scholars on race and theology like J. Kameron Carter, Christena Cleveland, and Willie James Jennings need to be read and digested. The historic stresses being felt by St. Louis and its churches need to be internalized and considered.

Our ecclesial convictions must be shaped by the desire to know the communities we serve rightly and honestly, which is the only way we can ensure we are no longer complicit in the politics of conflict management. In the politics of reconciliation, we find that whiteness is not a default mode of existence—an assumption that plagues our reading of scripture and each other. Rather we find Paul’s incessant imagining of believers as one “in Christ,” abandoning the cultural powers and narratives we use to maintain our own securities. If you are wondering what to do, this is a good place to start.

img via Neil Cooler

1 Comment

  1. One of the interesting things to me about journalism in this is how little investigation seems to have gone on. Lots of activists and ameautures bloggers were reporting but major news was just regurgitating press releases. Shaun King was trying to get someone to pick up the fact that the body of Brown was nearly 150 ft from the police cruiser and not 35 as the police kept reporting, but it was not picked up. One CNN producer told him they were interested in the protests not the facts of the case.

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