Friday, September 26, 2014

"We are the police. We can do any damn thing we want to you!"

I had nothing to fear. I was wearing a suit, had two jobs and a brand new car. Surely the officer would realize I wasn't one of “them.” 

Reflecting back on those thoughts that ran through my mind almost 30 years ago, I realize how futile they were. You see today, I recognize that racism is an illogical act, fueled by an irrational mindset. The idea that skin color makes anyone superior or inferior makes no sense whatsoever. But when confronting it for the first time, the response can be surreal. At least it was for me.
The year was 1988. I was employed at Laclede Gas Company and had just started my new business, Take Five Magazine, a monthly news publication. I was 31, had two jobs and my wife (at the time) and I both had brand new cars. Mine was a tricked-out Mazda RX-7 convertible.
To be honest, I thought I was hot stuff.  Why wouldn't I? Since I was a boy, people-especially white people-told me “I was different” or I wasn't like “them.” I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness. Six days out of the week were dedicated to studying the Bible, learning how to proselytize or going from house-to-house trying to recruit "unbelievers." I was a enthusiastic reader who could hold decent conversations with adults. Therefore, I was constantly told "you’re different.”

Anyway, on this particular night in 1988, I was supposed to meet a potential advertiser in North County. I lived in Jennings at the time and the client’s business, on West Florissant Ave, somewhere between Ferguson and Dellwood, wasn't far from home. I changed from my work clothes, put on a suit, climbed into my car and headed for my appointment.

When I arrived at my destination, I noticed that the lights in the tiny strip mall were out, except for those at a convenience store. There was a payphone in front of the establishment so I got out and proceeded to call the client. 
As I was on the phone, a police car pulled up next to mine. I watched as the young officer got out of his car, looked at my car then proceeded to shine his flashlight into my windows. I cupped my hand over the speaker part of the phone and very politely said; “that’s my car officer.” 
He ignored me, opened my car door and leaned in. I hung up the phone and walked toward him. Almost instantly three more police cars pulled up.
“Is this your car?” the first officer asked. 
“Yes sir,” I responded confidently. After all, I had nothing to fear. I was wearing a suit, had two jobs and a brand new car. Surely the officer would realize I wasn't one of “them.” 
He didn't.
“Where’d you get it?” he asked. I was dumbfounded by the question. In my mind, I thought, “I bought it, I have two jobs, what the hell do you think.” He pulled the camera off my seat and dangled in front of me: “Where’d you get this?” he demanded.
“I bought it,” I replied weakly.
By this time about three or four more policemen were surrounding my car, opening doors and rummaging through my belonging. I grew angry and shouted: “Hey, I told you; that’s my car. What’s the probl…”
Why the hell did I do that?
The officer snatched me by my suit lapels and slammed me against the convenience store window. To my horror, the lights in the store suddenly snapped off. The officer’s breath was hot in my face: 
“We are the police. We can do any damn thing we want to you!” he hissed.
They continued rifling through my car, throwing the contents on the pavement. The cop who threw me against the window went back to his car with my driver’s license in hand. When they were done; he walked back to me and flicked the license in my direction with two fingers:
“We’re looking for someone who fits your description,” he said. “Have a nice night.” They all climbed back into their patrol cars and left.
I remember standing there on that dark parking lot, panting, tears brimming in my eyes and overwhelmed with feelings of fear, betrayal, humiliation and helplessness. I realized that my suit, my two jobs, my new car and my professional demeanor meant nothing. My skin color made me “just like them.”
That incident really wasn’t my first encounter with racism. Ten years earlier, as one of the last “affirmative action” hires at Laclede Gas, we young black men had to deal with angry white bosses, most from the Missouri boonies, who did their dead-level best to let us know we weren't welcomed. 
But that’s gist for another commentary. The point is; I wasn't prepared for the illogical mindset. I was raised in a religion where white people were friends to my family, mentors and confidantes. Throughout my young life, it was mostly whites who told me I “was different.” Then, as well as now, many benevolent whites walk me to opportunities. Yet, as a child, I was too young and naïve to recognize the insult in those compliments and too needy of validation to realize I was being conditioned to think I was different or better than those who share my hue.
All these years later, the officer’s words still echo in my head. 

 I am Darren Wilson bands

Sadly, it’s a missive that's just as relevant today as it was some 26 years ago. It’s disheartening to realize that my 28 year-old-son, my daughters and my grandchildren have to deal with the deadly, illogical mindset that my parents and grandparents endured.
In class, I remember how our Sweet Potato Project youth reacted to the news of George Zimmerman’s exoneration for the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the slaying of Michael Brown this summer. Their comments reflected the sense of pain, betrayal and humiliation I felt on that dark, lonely parking lot in 1988.

What’s even sadder is that black kids today are in no way as naïve as I was at their age. Through news media, movies, music and interactions with white strangers they've already accepted the fact that they are “them”-the ones to be feared, detained, scrutinized and justifiably brutalized. 
Believe it or not, black kids do believe in "the system." They know if they or their peers screw up, they will go to jail. It's an insult to what we've taught them that the killer of an unarmed teen, Officer Darren Wilson, has yet to be detained or charged with a crime. It's painful for youth to hear people justify the killing of a kid eating a bag of Skittles or a teenager who might have stolen a pack of Cigarillos.  
It hasn't escaped me that Michael Brown was killed in the same area where I was detained and humiliated years ago. Recently, I read about Ferguson police officers who are wearing "I am Darren Wilson" wristbands. Do they have any idea what message they are sending to youth and people of color? It's illogical. It's a sick and sad irrational mindset. 
In reality, it's the same message I received almost 30 years:  
“We are the police and we can do any damn thing we want to you!”

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Long Fuse to Ferguson: How the City of St. Louis Sparked the Explosion

“The city will change, but in ways different than before. The next time the city changes, remember Pruitt-Igoe."– The Pruitt-Igoe Myth

by Sylvester Brown, Jr.

Before the credits rolled in the 2011 locally-made documentary, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, viewers were asked to think about the failed housing complex as the city develops further. The whole region is now under government and international media scrutiny spurred by the killing of an 18-year-old black teen by a white police officer. Almost everything is under the microscope-poverty, police abuse and municipalities that profit off the poor. What has not received much attention, however, is the role St. Louis City played in creating the conditions that led to the August 2014 volatile, racial eruption.    

Be it by design, accident or benign neglect, the fuse that led to the explosion in Ferguson was lit in St. Louis more than 60 years ago. At that time, city planners were wrestling with several pressing racial and economic issues. Starting in 1947, whites started migrating outside city limits. City leaders wanted to develop downtown’s business district to draw in more major businesses and increase tax revenue. 

There was a problem: Impoverished blacks had occupied the downtown slum properties since the beginning of the 19th Century. Instead of investing in and restoring homes, businesses and schools in the historic areas, city officials developed while relying on restrictive, racial housing codes to contain the poor. In the proceeding decades, Blacks found themselves bouncing from poor city neighborhoods to county neighborhoods that-due to “white flight”-were destined to become poor as well.  

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many African Americans migrating northward to escape southern oppression settled in St. Louis. This passage set off race riots in the North. Most were sparked by media-based fears of black people and whites who thought blacks were coming to steal their jobs.

To keep blacks confined in certain areas of the city, voters overwhelmingly passed a zoning ordinance in 1916 barring black people from buying homes in any block "with more than 75 percent white" residents. The ordinance was struck down in the courts but segregated, restrictive housing covenants and real estate redlining continued for almost 40 more years.

Mill Creek Valley
Newly arriving blacks and those already in St. Louis were confined to certain areas of the city, including the Greater Ville Neighborhood and Mill Creek Valley (from Union Station to Saint Louis University), where some 20,000 blacks would eventually call “home.”

With a plan to revitalize downtown in the early 1950s, City leaders proceeded to build large public housing complexes for low-income residents. Passage of the National Housing ACT in the late 1940s and the creation of the Missouri Urban Redevelopment Corporation made federal and state dollars available for new housing developments. What planners didn't predict was the damaging impact government money would have in enticing white city residents to new affordable homes in the suburbs.

Suburban housing developments began at a time when St. Louis had reached its peak population of 850,000. Between 1950 and 1970, almost 60 percent of St. Louis’ white population fled to the suburbs.
After the Pruitt-Igoe high rises opened in 1954, Mill Creek Valley with its 800 neighborhood businesses was razed for new development. The Pruitt-Igoe “experiment” came to an explosive end in 1972 with the demolition of the 33 concrete high-rises. Former residents of Mill Creek Valley and Pruitt-Igoe then migrated northward to the Greater Ville neighborhood and other inner-city low-income areas north of Delmar Blvd.
In 1975, the City commissioned the “Team Four Plan," which basically discouraged development in so-called "depletion areas" until the city "determined that redevelopment can and should begin.” It was no coincidence that these areas constituted much of North St. Louis. The plan of was never officially adopted, but, to this day, critics swear the silent agenda of “benign neglect” in North St. Louis was enforced for more than 30 years.
According to the 1980 census, mass depopulation in the city accelerated, falling from 622,230 to 452,800. Between 1970 and 1980, large numbers of African Americans crossed the “suburban color line,” moving into municipalities like Wellston, Normandy, Jennings, Ferguson and Bellefontaine Neighbors.

Much of this “flight” was due to the 1980 court-ordered school desegregation plan. The courts ruled that St. Louis public schools were still segregated and unequal long after the 1954 “Brown v. Board of Education” Supreme Court ruling. Court-ordered busing-blacks students to the county and white students to the city-was the judicial remedy. As a result, more white families moved out of the city and the majority of kids bused were black. With billions in school dollars flowing to the county and very little investment in city schools, black parents also followed the buses to the suburbs.

By the year 2000, St. Louis’ population had dropped to 348,189 and hovers around 317,000 today. For almost 60 years, blacks have been moved or shoved out of the city into suburban locales where they weren't necessarily welcomed or wanted.  As the county became more diverse, more whites moved even further north towards St. Charles County.

Although blacks are the majority population in many suburban communities, power (economic, educational, institutional and law enforcement) remains in the hands of whites. This may explain why the annual budgets of so many St. Louis County municipalities are heavily dependent on revenues collected from black traffic offenders.

St, Louis has a proud history of redeveloping and sparking economic growth in city areas such as Tower Grove, Lafayette Square, Skinker-DeBaliviere, Old North and the Central West End. Unfortunately, for decades, city leaders have maintained a “hands-off” approach to developing North St. Louis…until recently. And the big question concerning St. Louis County developer Paul McKee’s proposed multi-billion dollar North side project is will it be a boon for the current population or a stepping stone to depopulation?

The fuse that led to Ferguson burns hot in St. Louis city and county. We can only uproot, deny, demean and psychologically, physically and monetarily abuse people for so long. I maintain that another explosion can be avoided if we choose a different more inclusive route. Economic and community empowerment is possible if we change courses, attempt to rectify past mistakes and tried really, really hard to… “Remember Pruitt-Igoe.”