No one in St. Louis anticipated spending our last week of summer surfing photos of “hardened” North County police in cordons bearing down on protesting crowds escaping into darkness through clouds of tear gas and rubber bullets. And if such a scenario had been presented to us, Ferguson would not have been the first backdrop imagined. Certainly not the Ferguson of 2014, with its reconditioned main street, blossoming park system, burgeoning farmer’s market, and other standard bearers of suburban progress.
The racial tension in St. Louis, so clearly evident in the class drama of Ferguson’s neighborhoods, is not a wound. Wounds can be bound and healed. But almost a week ago, a Ferguson police officer shot and killed 18 year old Michael Brown during a brief altercation on the eastern side of town. After a candlelight vigil the following evening, many in the crowds turned their anger on nearby businesses, vandalizing and looting their way across West Florissant Ave. until overtaken by police. In the days to follow, gatherings of people in Ferguson have swelled, tributaries of protestors joining together in various brands of protest–mostly peaceful. At night, the east side of Ferguson has devolved into a harshly lit and smoky chaos, the canisters of tear gas sparkling across photos of the scene now woven into the history of race in America.
Details about the killing of Michael Brown are hazy. The Ferguson police have not been forthcoming, their silence compounding anger at the intensity of police response. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon remarked that the riots feel like “an old wound torn open afresh.” Others have used the same analogy: there is a wound in St. Louis that hasn’t healed properly.
Such an analogy is naïve. The racial tension in St. Louis, so clearly evident in the class drama of Ferguson’s neighborhoods, is not a wound. Wounds can be bound and healed when treated. Broken systems can be repaired by better policy and set in motion again. But the prophet Jeremiah warned against the ease of such images, describing those who “dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.”
Like many municipalities that circle the city of St. Louis, Ferguson was predominantly white until the 1980’s. After a few decades of white flight, Ferguson is now 67% black–though this is hard to tell when looking at city hall and the police force, which are nearly as white as they were decades ago. These kinds of lingering historic imbalances are endemic in St. Louis, which appeared on the 2010 census as one of the United States’ most segregated cities. You can draw a line east to west with your finger just above the metropolitan center to determine where most whites and blacks live in our region.
This is, after all, the city of Dred Scott, the blistering Fairground Park Pool riots, the restriction of home-buying by race into the late 40s, and the harrowing city planning lessons of the Pruitt-Igoe complex failure (which must be witnessed by all via the Pruitt-Igoe Myth documentary). Historians often note correctly that St. Louis weathered the civil rights era relatively unscathed, but the racial tensions we are witnessing in Ferguson are a foundational component of our structural history.
The rationale for looting and vandalism strikes us as an insane and self-destructive politic. Why would the citizens of Ferguson destroy the property and liberty their protests aim to recover? I’m not sure. I have never been in a situation where that felt like the right answer.
But Merton at least helps to define the fog more clearly in his 1968 essay describing “War and the Crisis of Language.” He recounts a US officer’s justification of a military act during the Vietnam War: “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.” Those that would justify violence in Ferguson, whether law enforcement or protestor, can feel the gravity of this logic. But Merton does too, and he strives to rescue us from it:
The symbol of this perfect finality is the circle. An argument turns upon itself, and the beginning and end get lost: it just goes round and round its own circumference.
A man told Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery, “When I go somewhere and see a cop in riot gear, first thing I think is, ‘Riot.’ When I see someone that looks like they’re ready to fight me, I’m going to put up my fists.” This helped me understand the violence we have seen in Ferguson the past few nights. Michael Brown’s death has made people feel powerless. It has reminded them that personal agency is pretty fragile if they cannot trust the police charged with its protection. At some point it may seem that joining the circular argument Merton describes is one’s only option, especially if local law enforcement already has.
Here is where the analogy of healing wounds is found wanting, and Jeremiah’s more difficult vision of a city entirely rebuilt prevails. Violent protest and the militarization of police response are an inarticulate, self-destructive language. And until the peaceful marches of Thursday night, the standoff in Ferguson has been like the needle skipping repeatedly at the end of a record. What we now need is something entirely different, a local politic shaped by the wisdom of hospitality and sharpened by vocational skill. A history that better shapes the outline of our communities. We should be willing to embrace whatever exposes the circularity of St. Louis’ past. A peace for St. Louis and its suburbs that can only be had if we are willing to acknowledge we have never had it before.
img via AP Photo/Jeff Roberson