John Samuel Tieman: Economic Justice and the St. Louis Riots
St. Louis is seething. A profound, inexplicable seething.
A young man, Michael Brown, his hands in the air. Then eight shots. Graphic photographs of his body lying for hours on the street. His stepfather holding a sign that reads, “Ferguson police just executed my unarmed son.” And thus does the mix of anger, unemployment, neglect, and frustration become, in an instant, an almost inexplicable riot. Inexplicable because it is astonishing that it doesn’t happened here more often.
I am a native St. Louisan. My family has lived here for almost two-hundred years. I love my home. Once, driving down Delmar Boulevard, I gave myself a test – Do I have a memory for each corner? And I do.
Thus do I mourn for my home. The recent riots not only make us simply look bad, they uncover an ugly truth. We are one of the most segregated cities in the United States.
I am an inner city school teacher. My wife and I live in a suburb immediately west of St. Louis, University City, easily the most liberal community in Missouri. (One columnist recently referred to us as “The People’s Republic of University City”.) Our part of U. City, the 2nd Ward, is the most integrated part of that liberal community. Which makes us by far the exception. Let me explain.
When I first began teaching in the city, I drove just fifteen minutes east of here. At Stevens Middle School, I commonly would not see another white person until I came home to my wife. For my students, I generally would be the only white person they would see. Fifteen minutes west of here, and the reverse would be true, meaning I could easily find a school where I’d never encounter a Black student or faculty member.
Ferguson, where the riots took place, is an inner-ring suburb of about 21,000, about six square miles, five of which the riots covered. About two-thirds of the residents are African-American. It is a suburb that economic recovery has passed by. It’s the world headquarters of Emerson Electric, but its chief industry has done little to alleviate the poverty. Whites left en masse in the 50’s and 60’s “white flight”. But the whites who remain retained power, and that includes many in the police department.
Many of my students, and many of my co-workers, live in and around Ferguson, so I’ve spent a lot of time discussing all this with them.
Concerning the actual incident, there was a bit of reserve, and even caution. The police may well be at fault. This is a very racist city, so police misconduct wouldn’t surprise anyone. But at this moment, what we can say, for a fact, is that there has been an accusation of murder, and a denial. What we can also say is that no one is helped by another night of violence, however understandable the anger may be. The shop-keeps, whose stores were looted and burned, were also innocent.
When my colleagues, my students and I discussed the larger issues, what was surprising was their resignation. They see the situation as “hopeless”, the problems intractable. It’s worth noting that the word “hopeless” is their word, not mine. They note, for example, that while we talk a lot about interracial dialogue, it’s unusual for white folks and Black folks to sit around a table and actually talk to each other. More often, we stay home and talk about each other.
My opinion? I’m a leftist, so I have a rather singular vision, but a vision that would be good for business.
Our problems take the form of race. At their root, however, they are about a class system that approaches a caste system, poor Black folks being the Untouchables of St. Louis. Liberals say that if you want peace, you must work for justice. And that’s true. I would ask, what kind of justice? And, to answer my own rhetorical question, if you want peace, then work for economic justice. No one would leave a young man’s body lying on the street, uncovered for four hours in Town And Country or Ladue, our richest suburbs.
Think of the word “ghetto”. Today, it has a fairly singular meaning. A ghetto is a poor, Black neighborhood. But it didn’t always mean this. Take the Ville neighborhood in St. Louis. The Ville was always a Black neighborhood. But there was a time, in the early to mid-20th century, when that Black neighborhood wasn’t simply poor. All classes were represented. The surgeon from Homer G. Phillips Hospital. The middle class grocer. And, yes, the poor. Today, the Ville is poor and Black. Hence, the need for economic justice. Why? Because of another sign I read, a young man carrying a homemade placard that read, “No Justice – No Peace!”
My students and colleagues spoke of hopelessness. They also spoke of revenge. There is a seething in this city. Some feel the riots make people lose sight of the underlying problems. Others feel the riots are necessary in order to bring focus on those very problems. In any case, a seething.
And if that seething occasionally turns to rage, and that rage turns to violence, and that violence turns into a riot, then my beloved city has only itself — ourselves — to blame.