The first thing I noticed when I heard about the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, of Ferguson, MO, I thought of my first home where I lived in that very town.
I used to live on Coppinger Street, with my mother, father and two brothers. It was a small wooden, three bedroom house with a tiny kitchen. It was a wooden house, painted green. It was a mostly working class neighborhood. We moved to a more middle class neighborhood in St. Louis County in 1959. The whole time I lived in Ferguson I don’t ever remember seeing an Afro-American person. Today 67.4% of Ferguson is black, and mostly because of white flight.
According to Time:
Historically, St. Louis’s African-American population lived in decrepit inner city slums. But that began to change in the 1950s, as deindustrialization and emergent white flight conspired to erode the city’s population. The urban renewal projects of the era, which included the construction of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project and the vast tracery of highways that now entangles the city, only accelerated the city’s decline, razing many of its historically black neighborhoods and relocating its residents, ultimately, to inner-ring North County suburbs like Ferguson. The combined result is that St. Louis, once the nation’s fourth largest city, has lost more than 500,000 residents in the last 60 years.
“The wealthier population of St. Louis has always been running from poverty,” the late James Neal Primm, author of the definitive St. Louis history, Lion of the Valley, told me shortly before his death. “No one ever says this, but one of the results of rebuilding the city was getting rid of a large and impoverished population that lived in blighted districts. The whole idea was to make St. Louis what it had been in the past: a leading city in the Midwest.”
I never saw black people until we drove around in downtown St. Louis. Once I started in grade school, in St. Louis County, I immediately realized that racism was alive and well. My parents discouraged all racism, especially my mother. But I could tell from other kids that they heard things not so pleasant about black people. Some used the “n” word. I remember the joke a kid told me: “If you want to take a dangerous ride, go through n@#$%-town on a slow moving mini bike.” Although our whole family moved to Wichita, KS in 1969 my brother Chris Otto has moved back and he has told me that there is a lot of bigotry by St. Louis’s whites today.
“In the south of St. Louis County, where I work, there are a lot of whites who believe that blacks are all on welfare or are criminals,” Otto said.
He added that suburban whites are scared to death.
Otto also said that Ferguson has become highly militarized, since the shooting with police using military style helmets and weapons.
“They even have a tank,” he said.
He said a lot of the press seems to report on all protests along with common crime as if it is all the same thing.
“Anytime someone protests they make it look like it’s violent,” he explained.
According to the L. A. Times, city officials have asked protesters to rally only during daylight hours to ensure community safety.
“During protests they would not let people leave their houses,” Otto said. “Some people tried to return to their homes and found them blocked off by barricades.”
As with this shooting and its aftermath we see some of the raw racism that still lingers in this country. Not only do our police shoot black suspects for flimsy reasons, but white and black people are still—in reality and in general—deeply divided. After 200 years of white owned government—which took the US through slavery, Native American Indian genocide and the continuation of imperialism—this country is almost as racist today as it was in the early 20th century.
Pix from www.nbcnews.com.