St. Louis blues
Racism persists in the Gateway City
Even as pro football battles the White House on whether flag salutes should be mandatory, we have St. Louis.
For the second time since 2014, the St. Louis area has been torn by demonstrations that have devolved into broken windows and worse. Three years ago, the death of Michael Brown, a suspected robber, sparked rioting in Ferguson, just outside St. Louis. The latest conflagration came after the Sept. 15 acquittal of a former St. Louis cop who killed a suspected heroin dealer in 2011.
What’s up with St. Louis, a city that is angling to become the next headquarters for Amazon even as it earns a reputation as the nation’s epicenter for racial unrest?
It is not an easy question to answer.
First, folks who strongarm shopkeepers or sell heroin are neither Emmett Till nor your next-door neighbor. Brown and Anthony Lamar Smith, the suspected drug dealer, were, as best we know, criminals. Investigations by local authorities and the U.S. Department of Justice have shown that Brown invited his demise – a video shows him pushing aside a shopkeeper while walking off with a pack of cigarillos; forensic evidence shows that Brown attacked Darren Wilson when the officer tried to apprehend him. The feds also investigated the Smith shooting but filed no charges. The case brought by city prosecutors hinged on whether police planted a gun after the shooting, but video was inconclusive. That none of Smith’s DNA was found on the gun meant little, given that the prosecution’s expert testified that you can handle a gun and leave no DNA. Throw in a prosecutor who had never before tried a murder case and acquittal was a given.
This isn’t to say that criminals don’t have rights or that rules for using deadly force should change depending on skin color or whether officers are under stress. We live in a racist country where advantages, or disadvantages, are bestowed based on whether you are black or white or brown. We are all different. Brown and Smith stand distinct from folks like John Crawford III, who has been all but forgotten since being gunned down by Ohio police in 2014 when he picked a toy gun from a Walmart display shelf and was mistaken for a mass shooter.
Not all injustices are created equal in St. Louis. My first story as a St. Louis journalist 18 years ago concerned Jerome Ruffin, an unarmed black man who was killed by police in a passageway between buildings where there were no witnesses. Ruffin had no history of violence. He wasn’t threatening anyone when police gave chase while attempting to bust him for drinking beer on a building stoop, which pretty much everyone in St. Louis does when weather turns hot. Forensic evidence didn’t add up. The case barely made the papers. Just two dozen people gathered for a vigil the day after the killing. The city settled a lawsuit for $100,000 eight years after the fact. Smith’s kin received a $900,000 settlement in 2013.
Last week, St. Louis aldermen passed a resolution in remembrance of Smith. Is it progress or political expedience or something different to recognize a heroin dealer while not passing a resolution for a beer drinker?
A friend who lives in St. Louis surmises that Ferguson would have remained at peace if Brown’s body hadn’t stayed in the street for four hours, as if a human being were a stray dog. Hands-up-don’t-shoot was an understandable lie enabled by authorities who didn’t give the simplest of dignities to a dead man. An overly militaristic police response to protests didn’t help.
Smith wouldn’t have been shot if cops hadn’t chased him at 80 mph, contrary to department pursuit policy. That mistake was compounded by a murder charge that never should have been filed – even a bad lawyer knows that you shouldn’t go to court if you can’t prove your case, and this one was unprovable from the start. But prosecutors punted to a judge who wrote a 30-page ruling that says what prosecutors should have publicly explained long ago: There was too much reasonable doubt. Police made matters worse in the aftermath as they chanted, “Whose streets? Our streets!” while gassing protesters. The chief proudly told reporters that police “owned the night.” What kind of cops say such things in such situations?
St. Louis has been called America’s most racist city for good reason. The degree of segregation in housing and schools is staggering. When courts in the early 20th century overturned laws barring blacks from moving into white neighborhoods, real-estate covenants accomplished the mission. Whites maintained power by creating postage-stamp towns, some smaller than a square mile. The legal system in the metropolitan area, a patchwork of more than 90 municipalities, is a joke that jails poor people for unpaid traffic tickets because burgs that shouldn’t exist survive on traffic fines. Cops in some of these urban Mayberrys make less than $15 an hour.
It’s baked-in-deep racism that spreads to questions of class. “Where’d you go to high school?” That’s a question often put to strangers in St. Louis, a way to determine whether you’re one of us or one of them, and confirmation that a remarkable percentage of the population has never lived anywhere else, or known anything different.
Add it all up and mistakes of the sort made in the Brown and Smith shootings are magnified beyond what they might have been elsewhere. That folks are marching now, black and white together, when they didn’t before is a good thing. But St. Louis has a long walk ahead to arrive at a better place.
Bruce Rushton was a writer for Riverfront Times in St. Louis from 1999 until 2005.