In Ferguson, cycle of racial tension boils over into rage

FERGUSON, Mo. -- Garland Moore, a hospital worker, lived in this St. Louis suburb for much of his 33 years, a period in which a largely white community has become a largely black one.

He attended its schools and is raising his family in this place of suburban homes and apartment buildings on the outskirts of a struggling Midwest city. And over time, he has felt his life to be circumscribed by Ferguson's demographics.

Moore, who is black, talks of how he has felt the wrath of the police here and in surrounding suburbs for years -- roughed up during a minor traffic stop and prevented from entering a park when he was wearing St. Louis Cardinals red.

And last week, as he stood at a vigil for an unarmed 18-year-old shot dead by the police -- a shooting that provoked renewed street violence and looting early Saturday -- Moore heard anger welling and listened to a shout of: "We're tired of the racist police department."

"It broke the camel's back," Moore said of the killing of the teenager, Michael Brown. Referring to the northern part of St. Louis County, he continued, "The people in North County -- not just African-Americans, some of the white people, too -- they are tired of the police harassment."

The origins of the area's complex social and racial history date to the 19th century when the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County went their separate ways, leading to the formation of dozens of smaller communities outside St. Louis. Missouri itself has always been a state with roots in both the Midwest and the South, and racial issues intensified in the 20th century as St. Louis became a stopping point for the northern migration of Southern blacks seeking factory jobs in Detroit and Chicago.

As African-Americans moved into the city and whites moved out, real estate agents and city leaders, in a pattern familiar elsewhere in the country, conspired to keep blacks out of the suburbs through the use of zoning ordinances and restrictive covenants. But by the 1970s, some of those barriers had started to fall, and whites moved even farther away from the city.


These days, Ferguson is like many of the suburbs around St. Louis, inner-ring towns that accommodated white flight decades ago but that are now largely black. And yet they retain a white power structure.

Although about two in three Ferguson residents are black, its mayor and five of its six City Council members are white. Only three of the town's 53 police officers are black.

Turnout for local elections in Ferguson has been poor. The mayor, James W. Knowles III, noted his disappointment with the turnout -- about 12 percent -- in the most recent mayoral election during a City Council meeting in April. Patricia Bynes, a black woman who is the Democratic committeewoman for the Ferguson area, said the lack of black involvement in local government was partly the result of the black population's being more transient in small municipalities and less attached to them.

There is also some frustration among blacks who say town government is not attuned to their concerns.

Aliyah Woods, 45, once petitioned Ferguson officials for a sign that would warn drivers that a deaf family lived on that block. But the sign never came. "You get tired," she said. "You keep asking, you keep asking. Nothing gets done."

Moore, who recently moved to neighboring Florissant, said he had attended a couple of Ferguson Council meetings to complain that the police should be patrolling the residential streets to try to prevent break-ins rather than lying in wait to catch people for traffic violations.

This year, community members voiced anger after the all-white, seven-member school board for the Ferguson-Florissant district pushed aside its black superintendent for unrevealed reasons. That spurred several blacks to run for three board positions up for election, but only one won a seat.

The St. Louis County Police Department fired a white lieutenant last year for ordering officers to target blacks in shopping areas. That resulted in the department's enlisting researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, to study whether the department was engaging in racial profiling.

And in recent years, two school districts in North County lost their accreditation. One, Normandy, where Brown graduated this year, serves parts of Ferguson. When parents in the mostly black district sought to allow their children to transfer to schools in mostly white districts, they said, they felt a backlash with racial undertones. Frustration with underfunded and underperforming schools has long been a problem, and when Gov. Jay Nixon held a news conference on Friday to discuss safety and security in Ferguson, he was confronted with angry residents demanding to know what he would do to fix their schools.

Ferguson's economic shortcomings reflect the struggles of much of the region. Its median household income of about $37,000 is less than the statewide number, and its poverty level of 22 percent outpaces the state's by seven percentage points.

In Ferguson, residents say most racial tensions have to do with an overzealous police force.

"It is the people in a position of authority in our community that have to come forward," said Jerome Jenkins, 47, who, with his wife, Cathy, owns Cathy's Kitchen, a downtown Ferguson restaurant.

"What you are witnessing is our little small government has to conform to the change that we are trying to do," Jenkins added. "Sometimes things happen for a purpose; maybe we can get it right."

Ferguson's police chief, Thomas Jackson, has been working with the Justice Department's community relations team on improving interaction with residents. At a news conference here last week, he acknowledged some of the problems.

"I've been trying to increase the diversity of the department ever since I got here," Jackson said, adding that "race relations is a top priority right now." As for working the with Justice Department, he said, "I told them, 'Tell me what to do, and I'll do it.'"

Although experience and statistics suggest that Ferguson's police force disproportionately targets blacks, it is not as imbalanced as in some neighboring departments in St. Louis County. While blacks are 37 percent more likely to be pulled over compared with their proportion of the population in Ferguson, that is less than the statewide average of 59 percent, according to Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

In fact, Rosenfeld said, Ferguson did not fit the profile of a community that would be a spark for civil unrest. The town has "pockets of disadvantage" and middle and upper-middle income families. He said Ferguson had benefited in the last five to 10 years from economic growth in the northern part of the county, such as the expansion of Express Scripts, the Fortune 500 health care giant.


"Ferguson does not stand out as the type of community where you would expect tensions with the police to boil over into violence and looting," Rosenfeld said.

But the memory of the region's racial history lingers.

In 1949, a mob of whites showed up to attack blacks who lined up to get into the pool at Fairground Park in north St. Louis after it had been desegregated.

In the 1970s, a court battle over public school inequality led to a settlement that created a desegregation busing program that exists to this day.

A Ferguson city councilman caused a stir in 1970 when he used racially charged language to criticize teenagers from the neighboring town of Kinloch for throwing rocks and bottles at homes in Ferguson. The councilman, Carl Kersting, said, "We should call a black a black, and not be afraid to face up to these people," according to an article in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

Eventually blacks broke down the barriers in the inner ring of suburbs, and whites fled farther out. But whites fought hard to protect their turf.

In the mid-1970s, Alyce Herndon, a black woman, moved with her family to what was then the mostly white town of Jennings in St. Louis County. She said some of their white neighbors stuck an Afro pick in their front lawn and set it on fire. Herndon also recalled tensions flaring between black and white students at her school after the television miniseries "Roots" first aired in 1977.

For all its segregation and discrimination, St. Louis did not have the major riots and unrest during the 1960s that was seen across the country.


St. Louis' black leaders "were able to pressure businesses and schools to open their doors to black people and employers to hire black workers," Stefan Bradley, the director of African-American studies at St. Louis University, wrote in an email. "These concessions may have been enough to prevent St. Louis from taking what many believed to be the next step toward redress of injustice: violent rebellion."

But the fatal shooting of Brown has brought submerged tensions to the surface.

"St. Louis never has had its true race moment, where they had to confront this," said Bynes, the Democratic committeewoman. Without that moment, she added, blacks have been complacent when it comes to local politics. "I'm hoping that this is what it takes to get the pendulum to swing the other way."

Herndon, 49, said she moved her family to Ferguson in 2003 because she felt it was a good community, safer than the unincorporated portion of the county where they lived previously and with better schools for her children.

The town, she said, offers everything -- places to shop, eat and drink. There is a farmers market on Saturdays. She frequents a wine bar across from a lot where a band plays on Fridays. She has white and Asian neighbors on either side of her, and there are other black families on her block. She has not experienced the racial tensions of her childhood in St. Louis County, she said, but she understands that the younger generation is living a different experience than she is.

"I understand the anger because it's psychological trauma when you see so many people being shot or people being falsely accused," said Herndon, who over the past week has avoided the streets that have been filled with tear gas and rubber bullets in clashes between police and protesters.

But now, a population of young black men who often feel forgotten actually feel that people are finally listening.

"If it wasn't for the looting," said one man, who declined to give his name, "we wouldn't get the attention."

Moore went one step further. He does not condone the violence that erupted during some of the protests, he said, but he does understand the frustration. And if he were younger, he said, he probably would have joined them.

This story originally appeared in The New York Times and has been republished here with permission.