Why Ferguson Blew Up--and What Can We Learn About Gaza?

By Becky O'Malley
Friday August 22, 2014 - 11:16:00 AM

When I was a child I lived in Saint Louis. Believe it or not, in those days most people didn’t have air conditioning, and it was hot, damned hot, hot as the hinges of Hades the old folks used to say.

And humid. Oppressively humid. No one did much in August if they could help it, just sat out on the porch with electric fans whirring in the background.

I suppose that’s changed now. I expect many more people have air conditioning, at least in one room of their home. But I bet it’s still hot and humid at night on the streets.

One thing that doesn’t seem to have changed much, or at least hasn’t changed enough, is how African-Americans are treated there. Well, that’s a bit unfair, because when I was a child St. Louis was still in the grip of full de facto segregation. No, there were no “White” and “Colored” signs on rest rooms and water fountains, but Black people (“Negroes” if you wanted to be polite) knew very well where they weren’t welcome. 

That would include almost all of the suburbs. St. Louis is oddly organized, with the city of St. Louis proper not part of St. Louis County. In those days African Americans lived downtown and in the city neighborhood of North St. Louis. 

Even the European-Americans knew which neighborhood they belonged in. Some small number of White people, my family among them, had lived in the West End of the center of town for generations. Italians lived on The Hill, and South St. Louis in the city was home to descendants of fairly recent immigrants from northern and eastern Europe. My mother, born in 1914, referred to them disparagingly as “scrubby Dutch”, a corruption of Deutsch (German) and a reference to the immigrants’ habit of scrubbing their front steps on weekends (this despite the fact that her own grandfather was German.) 

Only eccentrics, my family thought in those days, lived in The County. One uncle moved his family to the then small town of Kirkwood and we never heard the end of it. 

In general, the county suburbs of St. Louis were closed to African-Americans. There was one exception, a place whose name I heard occasionally: Kinloch. It was somewhere north of North St. Louis, though I didn’t know exactly where. 

When Michael Brown died, I remembered Ferguson as being just another small town out in the country somewhere, and I wondered if it was near Kinloch. Some online research told the story. (Al Jazeera ran three excellent pieces, and Wikipedia wasn’t bad either.) 

Kinloch, originally South Kinloch Park, was an African American town, the oldest such in Missouri, founded around the turn of the 20th century. By mid-century it was home to more than 6000 residents, almost all Black, living in about three-quarters of a square mile. It had its own school system, a Catholic parish and parochial school, and African-Americans ran both the city and the school board. California Congresswoman Maxine Waters is one of several prominent people raised in Kinloch. 

White residents on the north side of South Kinloch Park seceded to form their own town (coincidentally called Berkeley) in 1937. On another border was the almost all-White town of Ferguson, kept that way by racial-exclusion covenants in home sale agreements. 

A pioneer air field in the area became the major St. Louis airport, Lambert Field. In the 1980s the city of St. Louis began an aggressive drive to acquire Kinloch property to expand airport runways—eminent domain was threatened, so most residents sold. They moved out, and their homes were leveled, but in the end the airport expansion never materialized. 

Kinloch’s population dropped to less than 300 in the last census. 

Former Kinloch citizens moved into crowded cheaply-built apartment complexes in one corner of Ferguson, a small town with only 21,000 residents. African-Americans were not exactly welcomed. White flight ensued, but White control persisted. 

And on August 9 a member of Ferguson’s still overwhelmingly White police force—someone who lives on the far south side of the city of St. Louis where there’s a White majority—pumped six bullets into a big Black kid who might or might not have lifted a pack of cigarettes, and the town’s African-American residents boiled over. 

The heat and humidity of a St. Louis summer probably didn’t help. 

A few background numbers: unemployment for young Black men in the area is 35%. Two-thirds of the population is Black. You can’t have missed hearing that only 3 cops of about 300 in Ferguson are Black. 

And residential St. Louis, city and county, is still segregated, perhaps even more than it was when I was a child. A Brown University study quoted by Jeannette Cooperman on Al Jazeera says that 95% of the population north of Delmar is now African-American. When I was little I lived about 10 blocks north of Delmar, but times have changed—and not for the better. 

Then there’s the general situation faced by African-American men in particular: that they seem to arouse suspicion in the average policeman no matter where they are, who they are or what they’re doing. 

An African-American reader, Joseph Anderson, who formerly lived in my St. Louis neighborhood writes: 

“I was once stopped, detained –as a "suspicious person"—and hassled on a university campus in St. Louis by the campus cop –and I was wearing a suit, with my having a stated appointment, time, specific building address, office number to meet a university dean, including his name! It's a stereotype (even promoted/permitted by the upper-middle-class African American TV/radio punditocracy) that only plus-or-minus 20-something Black males in a hoodie or a side-turned baseball cap, baggy clothes &/or a oversized white t-shirt, with gold teeth &/or neck chains, living in the 'hood, and speaking 'hood English, get stopped by the cops.” 

But getting stopped by the police happens to all kinds of African American men (and some women) all the time. 

Often, too often, suspicion translates into shooting, as it did in Ferguson this month. 

He provided this link to a remarkable set of pictures from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch illustrating exactly how angry Black people in Ferguson have been in the past couple of weeks. 

Really, there’s no reason to discuss any further why they’ve been angry, is there? 

He also supplied these quotes from the past which still have meaning in the present: 

"Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you're a man [or woman], you take it." 

"I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man's problem just to avoid violence." 

"I just don't believe that when people are being unjustly oppressed that they should let someone else set rules for them by which they can come out from under that oppression." 

Malcolm X, who said these things, came up with some different ideas for how to address such problems later in his life, but the underlying analysis remains relevant today. 

Reading these quotes reminded me of a couple of discussions of the situation in Gaza between comedian Josh Kornbluth and Rabbi Menachem Creditor which I’ve attended in the last couple of weeks. If you’re concerned about what’s happening in Israel/Palestine, you can view Part 1 of their dialogue (and probably eventually Part 2) on YouTube. 

There was approving mention at the second meeting of a Berkeley African American pastor who has gone to Ferguson to try to calm things down non-violently, in apparent contrast to what’s been going on in Gaza. 

I’d be interested in hearing how readers react to this presentation, and how they think Ferguson and Gaza might or might not be comparable. Both are home to people who have been moved, not fully of their own volition, from their hereditary place of residence, and both have erupted. Here's Part 1: