St. Louis' African-American Newspaper Details Racist Reactions and Evasions by Missouri Pols to Michael Brown's Killing
(Editor's Note: The Political Eye is a column at the St. Louis American, the country's only African-American weekly newspaper published since 1928. This commentary appeared last Thursday, but speaks to the ongoing institutional racism and other barriers that have been exposed by Michael Brown's killing.)
The EYE is moving in unchartered waters writing about the police shooting of Michael Brown, the greater St. Louis African-American community’s unprecedented response in protest and the militarized police repression of these protests. The motto of this column is “what it is, it ain’t,” because in St. Louis politics, and in much of our civic life, the truth seldom comes out plain. Almost always, it’s twisted.
In this case, for once, what it is, it is.
An unarmed black teen is shot multiple times in broad daylight and killed by a uniformed police officer. Police officials release an implausible story, compared to civilian eyewitness reports, and mention pending toxicology tests, planting the suggestion that the dead man was stoned. Nothing new, tragically, in any of this.
But then the people erupted – that was new in St. Louis – and the police responded literally as the jack-booted thugs typically described by people who fear the police and suffer at their hands. We are talking riot gear, rubber bullets, tear gas, rifles pointed in the faces of civilians, slathering dogs. What it is, for once, it is.
Chaos and looting ensued. This let the conversation be shifted, by those uncomfortable with the dead black man and the cry for justice, toward looting, instead of the police shooting.
Police officials have continued to refuse to release the name of the police shooter (who was placed on paid suspension) or a police report. Yet the county prosecutor, Bob McCulloch, made public images of looters. Justice for places to buy things was regarded publicly as more important to the county’s lead prosecutor than justice for a dead black man. What it is, for once, it is.
In social media, white men (they were always, in hundreds of posts, white men) licked their chops – even while posting to a black media site – about having the vigilante privilege to shoot looters. These white men showed no concern about a black teen shot dead by police, but they were very angry that black people were getting away with stealing shoes and hair weaves. They publicly expressed a desire to shoot these black people. What it is, it is.
Conflicts in the black community that are always silently glossed over came out in the raw. A prominent pastor pulling up for the candlelight vigil on Sunday, before it went to hell, saw a Muslim activist radicalizing some public housing youth who also were headed for the vigil.
“What is he saying to those boys?” the pastor asked a bystander he knew.
“Just what you think he is,” the pastor was told.
“O, Lord,” said the pastor.
O, Lord. What it is, it is.
We all know that we have almost completely lost this generation of black youth, though we always disguise this with words like “at-risk” and “under-represented.” Not this time. This time most of the grown folks were in church praying, and most of the youth were on the streets protesting, hurling words at the police you definitely can’t say in church. What it is, it is.
The themes sounded weekly in this newspaper for decades, which are routinely ignored by the local mainstream media, were suddenly national and international news. Majority-black communities with white officials and white police forces. Stratospheric racial disparities in traffic stops and tickets. Disinvested ring suburbs. Income disparities. Black rage. Jack-booted thug cops. Our peers in the local media like to act as if we make this stuff up, week after week, but suddenly they were competing with the nation’s major metro dailies to tell our stories. What it is, it is.
The United States Department of Justice got involved with a greater St. Louis police shooting. Despite the incredibly cautious language used by President Barack Obama and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the clear implication was that greater St. Louis police officials cannot be trusted to police themselves. What it is, it is.
In St. Louis, many people style themselves as “leaders” who never lead anyone anywhere, and they are allowed to get away with it. But this thing erupted as a largely leaderless protest, and when the protest was met with vicious repression, the typically self-styled “leaders” were nowhere to be found.
The lame duck County Executive Charlie A. Dooley made some public appearances and gave some strong interviews. Steve Stenger, the white councilman who defeated Dooley, the county’s first black county executive, in the recent Democratic primary, barely lifted a finger to tell The American to get his statement off Twitter. What it is, it is.
Surprisingly, Republican nominee for county executive, Rick Stream, made a much better showing. Stream showed more support for the community than Stenger and many other Democrats who come begging for black votes come election time, such as Attorney General Chris Koster, who wants to be governor. Term-limited Gov. Jay Nixon made a token appearance at a memorial event after being hounded publicly by state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who with St. Louis Alderman Antonio French were the leaders among elected officials on the ground. U.S. Senator Roy Blunt also stayed in close touch with The American after hell broke loose.
The longtime congressional representative for North County, U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay, did not come home to protect and strengthen his people in their desperate hour of need. He did write a letter to Holder co-signed by two of his congressional colleagues challenging Holder to expand the DoJ’s investigation into police malpractice. But he did not appear at a local protest or even a press conference. He was absent as a leader. What it is, it is.
St. Louis – we know – is a fragmented region, and not all of its municipalities are viewed as equals. Typically, however, this fact is buried in relatively empty claims of working (or even “better”) together. Not this time.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III tried to lay blame on the unrest in his city on residents of neighboring Dellwood. This is the white mayor of a municipality with roughly four times (roughly 21,000 to 5,000) the population of a municipality governed by a black mayor, Reggie Jones. That kind of “Goliath insults David” story is seldom made public. This time, it was. What it is, it is.
The heated words a black mayor of a tiny municipality might have with the white mayor of a much larger municipality who has insulted him are seldom released to the public. They were this time. Jones said he sent cops to quell Knowles’ city’s unrest and all he got in return was a public insult, and he wasn’t going to stand for it. What it is, it is.
Moving from local in-fighting to almost glamorous international digital intrigue, the hacker collective Anonymous got involved. Anonymous threatened the City of Ferguson with targeting its assets if protestors were harmed. Then it went after County Police Chief Jon Belmar, posting his personal information and images online and threatening worse if he did not disclose the name of the police shooter. This was done on behalf of a community that fears how much information the police holds over their heads. This was information about the top cop being held over his head, for a change. What it is, it is.
The EYE returns, over and over, to an image from the very beginning of this crisis: the image of an unarmed black teenager with college aspirations, shot dead by a uniformed police officer, left to lie dead on the street in the sun for four hours. The EYE is convinced that if Michael Brown’s corpse had been treated immediately with the routine respect due to a dead human being, none of these horrible truths would have come to brutal light at this time. The people may well have not erupted at last.
But this time – the EYE maintains – the police showed the community how it really feels about a dead black man.
Let’s hear it from Jeanette Culpepper, founder of Families Advocating for Safe Streets, who annually hosts a peaceful homicide vigil on New Year’s Eve.
“That young man laid out in the street how long?” she called The American to vent and grieve. “Four hours? That’s ridiculous. You don’t let a dead dog lay that long. The dead are gone, but the family is still living, so you have to be sensitive. You have to treat people like you want to be treated. That’s a hurt to his mother, that’s a hurt to his family, that’s a hurt to his community. What does it take to get him up, get him on a stretcher? That’s wrong.”
This time, for once, what it is, it is.