Forty years from now, we will still be talking about what happened in Ferguson. It will be mentioned in high school history textbooks. Hollywood studios will make movies about it, as they now make movies about Selma. Politicians will talk about “how far we have come since Ferguson” in the same way they talk today about how far we have come since Little Rock, Greensboro, or Birmingham.
Ferguson is that important.
After all, to some, Ferguson isn’t as worthy as other markers on the historical timeline of social-justice struggle. And Ferguson’s native son Michael Brown, whose tragic death in 2014 put the small Missouri town on the map, was certainly no traditional hero. He did not lead a march or give a stirring speech. He did not challenge racial apartheid by refusing to sit in the back of a bus, attempting to eat at a “Whites only” lunch counter, or breaking the color barrier in a major professional sport. He wrote no books, starred in no movies, occupied no endowed chair at a major university, and held no political office. He was no Jackie Robinson, no Rosa Parks, no Bayard Rustin, no Fannie Lou Hamer, no Barack Obama. If he could see what has happened in reaction to his death, he would likely be stunned.
Brown was just eighteen years old on the morning of Saturday, August 9, 2014, when he decided to meet up with his friend Dorian Johnson—who would later become Witness 101 in the Department of Justice (DOJ) federal investigation report—and together they settled on a mission to get high. Johnson, who was twenty-two, had not known Brown very long but, being older, considered himself as somewhat of a role model to the teen. Although he was unemployed, Johnson worked whenever he could find available jobs, paid his rent on time, and consistently supported his girlfriend and their baby daughter.
Brown had just graduated, albeit with some difficulty, from Normandy High School, part of a 98 percent African-American school district where test scores are so low that it lost state accreditation in 2012.1 In addition to low test scores, incidents of violence have become so common at Normandy that it is now considered one of the most dangerous schools in Missouri.2 Conditions in the Normandy School District are so dire that it has become a talking point in the school-choice debate, with conservatives pointing to the schools’ failures as evidence that privatized educational options are necessary.3 Despite this troublesome academic environment, Brown, like many teenagers of color, had a positive and eclectic set of aspirations. He wanted to learn sound engineering, play college football, become a rap artist, and be a heating and cooling technician; he also wanted to “be famous.”4, 5 All of this was part of the conversation between Brown and Johnson that morning.
In need of cigarillos to empty out for rolling paper for their marijuana blunts, Brown and Johnson entered Ferguson Market and Liquor, a popular convenience store at 9101 West Florissant Avenue. As video footage shows, Brown swiped the cigarillos from the counter without paying. The store’s owner, an immigrant from India6 who did not speak English, came around to challenge him. Brown, whose nickname “Big Mike”7 derived from his six-foot-four-inch and nearly three-hundred-pound frame, gave a final shove8 to the shopkeeper before departing. While the surveillance camera captured the entire interaction, it did not show how badly the incident shocked Johnson. He had never seen Brown commit a crime, nor had Brown given him any reason to think he would. “Hey, I don’t do stuff like that,” he said to Brown as they walked home, knowing that the shopkeeper had promised to call the police. Quickly, Johnson’s feelings shifted from shock and anxiety about being caught on camera to genuine concern for Brown. He turned to him and asked, “What’s going on?”9
While interesting, all of this was mere overture to the main event that tragically awaited Brown and Johnson, one that would make both of them unlikely entries in the history books. Brown and Johnson were in the middle of residential Canfield Drive a few minutes later when twenty-eight-year-old police officer Darren Wilson saw the two jaywalking “along the double yellow line.”10 According to Johnson, Wilson told them to “get the fuck on the sidewalk,” though Wilson denies using profanity.11, 12 Regardless of the tone of their initial exchange, the interaction created room for Wilson to link Johnson and Brown to the robbery report and suspect description that had been given over the police radio. The next forty-five seconds—disputed, dissected, and debated ad nauseam throughout the ensuing months—would soon became the focus of international attention.
But how could such a random encounter, in the largely unknown St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, possibly mean so much?
Until the killing of Michael Brown, this city of twenty thousand people spread across six square miles was unknown to just about anyone outside of St. Louis. One of ninety incorporated municipalities that surround St. Louis,13 located a few minutes from the famous Gateway Arch, Ferguson was established in 1855 as Ferguson Station, a train depot named for William B. Ferguson, the farmer who deeded the land to the North Missouri Railroad. Michael McDonald—the White baritone soul singer famous for his time performing with Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, as well as his albums paying tribute to the “Motown sound”—is from Ferguson;14 so was the aviation pioneer Jimmy Doolittle, who received the Medal of Honor for the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in 1942. In the late 1940s, while he was a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, baseball slugger Enos “Country” Slaughter lived in Ferguson as well. Slaughter is famous for scoring the winning run against the Boston Red Sox in Game 7 of the 1946 World Series, a “mad dash” from first to home that is still remembered fondly by old-timers in the town. He was also among the most vocal of the hundreds of racial catcallers who greeted Jackie Robinson from the opposing dugout when Robinson became the first African-American to play Major League baseball a year later. Robinson himself recalled in his autobiography that Slaughter purposely cleated him while running through first base, an incident which, ironically, unified Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers in defiance.15
Ferguson was, for all intents and purposes, an exclusively White city in those days, as it had been since its establishment. Its demographic profile was well guarded by both custom and law. When municipally drawn racial zoning was made illegal in 1917 with the Supreme Court’s decision in Buchanan v. Warley, the court invalidated ordinances like the one that designated certain areas of St. Louis as “Negro Blocks” and forbade Blacks from housing elsewhere.16 But privately drafted “restrictive racial covenants”—contractual obligations between two private parties requiring that a piece of real estate be sold only to White buyers in perpetuity17—still ensured that suburban neighborhoods like Ferguson and others around St. Louis remained exclusively White.18
In St. Louis—once described by civic leader Elwood Street as “northern in industrial development, but largely southern in its inter-racial attitude”19—racial covenants were used as a defense against the Great Migration that brought African-Americans north after World War I. While Blacks make up nearly 50 percent of St. Louis’s population today, only 6 percent of St. Louis’s population was Black in 1900.20 But with the growth of manufacturing opportunities in the industrial north, as well as the continuing deterioration of conditions in the old Confederacy—the decline of the cotton industry due to boll weevil infestation, the harsh realities of Jim Crow, and the arrival of a new, second-era Ku Klux Klan, with all its attendant terrorism and lynchings—thousands of southern Blacks took the journey up the Mississippi River each year, resulting in the movement of roughly six million people from 1910 to 1970. Henry Louis Gates Jr. accurately called this odyssey “the largest movement of Black bodies since slavery.”21
The transition was an uneasy one. In 1917, the same year that the Supreme Court found civil-government-instituted segregation illegal, the city of East St. Louis—just across the Mississippi River—erupted in one of the worst race riots in American history. Marauding gangs of White workers, angry that Blacks had been recruited to take their jobs and inspired by unfounded fears that Black migrants had brought smallpox and other diseases from the South, burned down whole blocks of the city’s Black neighborhoods, killing at least forty people, though likely many more.22, 23 Some police and National Guardsmen were complicit in the violence. More riots followed in the “Red Summer” of 1919, when Whites were once again the aggressors in Washington, DC, Charleston, South Carolina, and dozens of other American cities. Particularly deadly riots consumed Chicago that year, sparked by the killing of a Black sunbather who was stoned to death after crossing an invisible racial line and venturing into a “Whites only” area on Lake Michigan.24
Yet even after the violence subsided, what Blacks found in cities like St. Louis was merely a more subtle version of the structural and interpersonal racism to which they had been subjected in the South. While Black men did not have to tip their hats in deference to White men on the street or use separate public facilities, as was tradition in the South, Blacks arriving in northern cities were nonetheless greeted as a Du Boisian “problem” that needed to be contained, lest disease, vice, and even “Bolshevism” overtake the heartland. To White traditionalists, much was at stake. It was one thing for White Northerners to have fought for an end to slavery and speak glowingly about the principle of equality, so long as they could do it from afar. But when Blacks came north to live with them, to enter into their neighborhoods, their churches, their schools, their workplaces—what Black intellectual Harold Cruse called the “sacred spaces” of life—a line had been crossed that brought the Negro too close.
Real estate agents participated in the defense of their homogeneous neighborhoods. Protection from the encroaching tide of African-Americans was trumpeted in the same way as one might argue for protection from fire or burglary. To promote the 1916 segregation ordinance, for instance, one realty association produced pamphlets showing pictures of blighted areas of the city over captions declaring “An entire block ruined by Negro invasion” and pleading with people to “Save your home! Vote for segregation!”25 Even when that ordinance was declared illegal, agents followed an unwritten edict: sell homes in White neighborhoods to Black buyers and you will lose your license.
Things got more complicated in 1948, with a case involving the sale of a house roughly eight miles from Ferguson in which the Supreme Court took down restrictive racial covenants as well. The justices’ decision did not bar such private agreements per se, but said that courts could not uphold such contractual provisions, since it would involve the State acting in a discriminatory manner barred by the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. To the surprise of almost no one, the high court’s determination coincided with the sentiments that brought about “White flight,” or the movement of White families (and necessary resources) out of the cities and into the suburbs. This trend largely animated the decline of urban America in the second half of the twentieth century. Over the next twenty years, nearly 60 percent of the White population of St. Louis left the city.26
To minimize the chance that Blacks would follow Whites there, many of these suburban communities adopted strict zoning regulations. While they did not overtly exclude Blacks, these rules eliminated the kinds of environments—such as multifamily housing or industrial districts with factory jobs—that Blacks would need and desire. Ferguson, as one of these first ring suburbs, used zoning to block Black access, creating dead-end streets where roads would naturally have met the incorporated Black town of Kinloch and even barricading through streets to prevent their use for passage. But since its establishment predated the mid-century migration of Whites out of the central cities, Ferguson did not have zoning laws prohibiting apartment buildings or factories.27 As a result, places like the Canfield Green apartments, where Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson lived, and factories like the now demolished seven-thousand-square-foot Emerson Electric Company plant on West Florissant Avenue provided the types of housing and employment opportunities that drew Black people to the city.28
Named for John Wesley Emerson, the Civil War commander for the Union Army and Missouri Circuit Court judge who helped found it, Emerson Electric Company was a major defense contractor and the largest producer of airplane gun turrets for the American effort in World War II. Like many American firms, it has since become much more diversified, focusing now on the manufacture of equipment for monitoring industrial processes and components for HVAC systems.29 To do so, Emerson has taken advantage of the labor markets of the low-wage, low-regulation Far East, where most of its manufacturing is now done. The Ferguson factory first outsourced labor overseas in the late 1970s and began shutting down operations in the 1980s.30 All that remains locally is the Emerson corporate headquarters, situated within minutes of where Michael Brown was killed. There, as much of the town lives in suburbanized poverty, Emerson’s CEO, David Farr, guides the company while pulling in annual compensation worth as much as twenty-five million dollars.31
. . . .
THERE WAS, AND IS, no disagreement as to the result of Darren Wilson’s confrontation with Michael Brown. After a brief struggle at Wilson’s car,32 Brown fled the scene and was pursued by the officer in a chase that ended with the unarmed Brown struck dead by bullets fired from Wilson’s Sig Sauer S&W .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol. What remains, however, is the dispute about whether the shooting was criminal. Both the St. Louis County grand jury, which met for twenty-five days over a three-month period and heard a total of sixty witnesses,33 as well as a separate investigation done by the USDOJ that investigated potential civil-rights violations, determined that there was no cause to indict Wilson for his actions. The seven men and five women who made up that grand jury—three Black and nine White, chosen to reflect the racial makeup of St. Louis county, though not the overwhelmingly Black population of Ferguson itself—and the FBI investigators working on the federal study concluded that Brown had not been shot in the back, as some had initially said. Assertions that Brown had put his hands in the air and said “Don’t shoot” in the moments before he was killed—an image so disturbing, it became a rallying cry for protesters determined to see that Wilson was indicted—were also not supported by witnesses who watched the encounter. Those conclusions, when matched with Wilson’s testimony that he feared for his life in the confrontation with Brown and with Missouri’s broad latitude for police use of deadly force,34 left little legal room to justify an indictment. But the law does not tell the full story.
The law is but a mere social construction, an artifact of our social, economic, political, and cultural conditions. The law represents only one kind of truth, often an unsatisfying truth, and ultimately not the truest of truths. The rush of public emotion that spilled into the streets after the killing of Michael Brown alerted the world to the existence of a multitude of other, competing truths. Whatever the facts may have shown in this instance—including the forensic evidence and the parade of witnesses who recanted earlier statements—Michael Brown’s life was taken with disturbingly casual ease. This indifference unmoored racial and class antagonisms long held in awkward restraint.
There was not only Brown’s shooting to consider; there was also the aftermath. There was Brown’s body, left for hours on the hot pavement, his crimson blood puddling next to his young head, staining the street, flowing in a crisscross pattern, a tributary running slowly to the gutter. Eventually, an officer produced a bedsheet and placed it over Brown’s frame, a figure so large that the cover could not shield it all, the oversized teenager’s legs left peeking out from the bottom. Though it was early August, a wintry stillness set in over the next four hours, as police officers stood stone-faced and crowds of passers-by gazed in astonishment. While this was happening, Michael Brown remained on the street, discarded like animal entrails behind a butcher shop. As Keisha, a local resident who I interviewed a week after the shooting, said to me, “They just left him there . . . Like he ain’t belong to nobody.”
No parents who loved him. No community that cared for him. No medical establishment morally compelled to save him. No State duty-bound to invest in him, before or after his death. Michael Brown was treated as if he was not entitled to the most basic elements of democratic citizenship, not to mention human decency. He was treated as if he was not a person, much less an American. He was disposable.
Despite the heated claims by many observers, Michael Brown was not “innocent,” as either a moral or legal designation. To the contrary, it is virtually indisputable that Brown made bad choices, both in the convenience store and in his subsequent interactions with Darren Wilson. But the deeper issue is that one should not need to be innocent to avoid execution (particularly through extrajudicial means) by the State. After all, theft, even strong-arm theft, is not a capital offense in the United States.
It is also not clear that Wilson was acting with racist intentions—but, like debates about Mike Brown’s “innocence,” this is beyond the point. Even if Wilson operated with the best of conscious intentions, he was nonetheless following the logic of the current moment, one marked by what Princeton race scholar Imani Perry calls “post-intentional racism.”35 Perry argues that contemporary understandings of racism cannot be reduced to intentional acts of bigotry, beliefs in biological determinism, or even subconscious prejudices. Instead, we must rely on a thicker analysis, one that accounts for the structural, psychological, and cultural dimensions of racism. With regard to Darren Wilson, even if he held no personal racial animus, he nonetheless approached Michael Brown carrying a particular set of assumptions about the world. Like everyone else’s, Wilson’s assumptions included socially constructed narratives about Black men, Ferguson residents, and even what constituted a lethal threat.36 Beyond the level of the personal, Wilson also obediently and uncritically followed the protocol of a system already engineered to target, exploit, and criminalize the poor, the Black, the Brown, the queer, the trans, the immigrant, and the young.
For many of the thousands who erupted in protest after Michael Brown’s death, and again after the grand jury’s subsequent decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the motivating factor for their anger was not shock.37 To the contrary, the incident between Brown and Wilson was animated by a set of beliefs and conditions that were all too familiar: the assumptions that all people of color are violent criminals from birth; that petty crimes are the neon arrow pointing to someone already involved in, or destined to commit, more serious crimes; that there is money to be made in overpolicing minor offenses; and that poverty, race, and gender nonconformity are identifiers of moral failings so rich that there is no longer any reason to recognize the rights, the citizenship, or the humanity of those so identified.
This attitude—most visible in the conduct of law enforcement, but pervasive throughout the halls of power—is not a phenomenon limited to Ferguson or even St. Louis. In response to the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson, crowds of protesters appeared in Oakland, Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver, Washington, Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, and New York to stand in solidarity. They wanted not only to see justice prevail in this particular instance but also to assert the deeper symbolic importance of the story. They wanted to express its clear resonance, to speak to their own sense of familiarity with the circumstances that in an instant left an unarmed eighteen-year-old Black boy holding a pack of stolen cigarillos dead in the street. “Enough,” read placards raised by marchers in Atlanta. “We are all one bullet away from being a hashtag.”38
The teenager and the police officer had become like characters in a national morality play with so many rich ironies and plot twists, so many double meanings in the language of its participants, that it was hard not to feel that we were witnessing the playing out of a civic parable. “As he is coming towards me, I . . . keep telling him to get on the ground,” the sandy-haired Wilson told the grand jury, using phrases that made him sound like he was a game hunter confronting a wildebeest:
“He doesn’t. I shoot a series of shots. I don’t know how many I shot, I just know I shot it.”
“It.” Not “him,” not “Brown,” not “the teenager,” not even “the perp.” Wilson told the grand jury that he had shot “It.”39
“I know I missed a couple, I don’t know how many, but I know I hit him at least once because I saw his body kind of jerk.”40
The aim was not mere incapacitation; it was execution.
“At this point I start backpedaling and again, I tell him get on the ground, get on the ground, he doesn’t. I shoot another round of shots . . .”
An invader who had burst through the neighborhood barriers.
“It looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.”
A Magical Negro with superhuman powers.
“And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.”
In Wilson’s account, it is the Magical Negro who dehumanizes the courageous officer. Ironically, this process humanizes the officer and dehumanizes the Magical Negro to the jury and the broader public.
“And then when [the bullet] went into him, the demeanor on his face went blank, the aggression was gone . . . the threat was stopped.”
. . . .
THERE ARE FEW MOMENTS in American history that can match the shimmering optimism of the 1950s. There was not only the sense of triumph that came with the winning of World War II and the revving of the engine of American prosperity; there was also the growing belief that all problems, even social problems, could be solved through an earnest application of American ingenuity. This was not the first time that technological determinism held the nation in its grip. Indeed, throughout American history, a kind of fetish for technology, joined to visions of the Utopian future that it would provide, had harmonized well with the traditional American trumpet flare for the “free” market. St. Louis was the setting for one of the most celebrated such displays of American confidence when it hosted the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904, known to many as the St. Louis World’s Fair, with its 1,240 acres of walkways and buildings41 containing exhibits heralding the accomplishments of the “advanced” (read: White) peoples of the world.
Just to emphasize that this kind of prospect was only possible in White capitalist America, the fair featured anthropological displays of native peoples in their natural environments. When arrayed together, this “Congress of Races,” as the fair’s organizers called it,42 demonstrated that “the white man can do more and better than the yellow, the yellow man more and better than the red or black.”43 The story of “human progress,” the fair’s literature continued, could be reduced to the passage from “the dark prime to the highest enlightenment, from savagery to civic organization, from egoism to altruism.”44
By 1939, with the opening of another World’s Fair—the New York World’s Fair—much of that overt racial hubris had faded, but not the investment in science as an agent of social transformation. In what is now Flushing Meadows Corona Park, in Queens, the 1939 World’s Fair was laid out on 62 miles of roads, inside 200 buildings, featuring the work of 1,354 exhibitors45 from 58 nations and 33 states.46 The future as seen in Queens in 1939 was the product of an emerging American religion, urban renewal, derived from a gospel written by strict modernists like Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, the Swiss-French architect who was more popularly known as Le Corbusier. “Revise the shelter and one improves the people,” he had said, with an attitude that in its purest form can now be understood as equal parts optimistic and fascistic. In his time, though, the architect was revered by the academy, and while Le Corbusier’s designs resulted in only a handful of actual buildings, he was hugely influential. Less-celebrated architects, sociologists, and postwar city planners happily followed Le Corbusier’s lead as they endeavored to build postwar America.47
It can be challenging today to understand the passion with which a past generation embraced housing alone as a solution to urban blight, but this is precisely what happened. During the middle part of the twentieth century, interlocking highways were erected and gleaming suburban enclaves brought forth the city dweller with a few dollars to spend. At the same time, however, after the passage of the Housing Act of 1949, African-American neighborhoods were gutted en masse. In their place, monuments of glass and steel were built that were intended to house and reform the poor.
Among those who established the postwar plan for St. Louis, there were several impulses. White flight from the inner city had become so great that there was concern that downtown was losing its residential character. “We cannot have a city without people,” wrote distinguished urban designer Harland Bartholomew in St. Louis’s Comprehensive City Plan of 1947.48 Yet Bartholomew’s warning for St. Louis coincided with the country’s need to accommodate the new automobile culture, even though those very automobiles tended to bring people both into the city and out of the city to its burgeoning suburbs. A 1948 study raised the issue of the unsightliness of the city’s slums—not so much out of concern for those who lived in them as for those who had to witness this blight on their daily commutes and on visits to downtown attractions.49 “[P]eople going and coming from work . . . are offended by the state of decay they witness on all sides.”50 The resulting plan for St. Louis was much as it was for New York City in the Robert Moses years: bulldoze the slums to make room for highways and then build gleaming new high-rise communities for those who were displaced by the construction. Like the model city at the 1939 World’s Fair’s Futurama exhibit, these were plans that favored the automobile and those who could afford it. “The city is doomed,” Henry Ford once said. “The future of the city is to leave the city.”51
Mill Creek Valley, a Black neighborhood that was once home to Scott Joplin and Josephine Baker, fell victim to the St. Louis Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority.52 White slums were cleared along with Black slums, and new public housing developments were designed with an intent to maintain segregation. Bartholomew was not shy about admitting this. Public housing, he acknowledged, would keep Blacks from venturing outside acceptable areas and “reduce their migration [to] other portions of the city that would not welcome them.”53 The St. Louis Housing Authority even operated two separate relocation offices, one for Whites, the other for Blacks. Still, under any circumstance, those being displaced by the dream of a new St. Louis—one modeled on a Utopian metropolis like those exhibited at the World’s Fair—got little help. A federal audit of those moved out of Mill Creek Valley, for instance, found that more than half received no assistance at all and ended up in housing worse than that from which they had been “removed.”54
Those who did make it to the new projects were likely to find themselves caught in the grip of a Le Corbusian nightmare. The most famous of the developments was Pruitt-Igoe, a multistructure complex containing 2,870 housing units on 56 acres that was commissioned in 1950 and completed in 1955. Built on the remains of the African-American neighborhood of DeSoto-Carr, which had once been home to 3,200 families, it was designed to house Black residents in the Pruitt homes—named for Wendell O. Pruitt, an African-American pilot who was one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen who fought in World War II—while White residents would live in the Igoe buildings, named for William L. Igoe, a White St. Louis politician.55 Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who would go on to crown his career with the design for the World Trade Center in New York, Pruitt-Igoe was part of Mayor Joseph Darst’s attempt to erase St. Louis’s “hick town” reputation by luring the nation’s finest architectural and engineering minds to redesign his city.56
Yamasaki himself preferred low-density, low-rise residential planning. “If I had no economic or social limitations,” he later wrote, “I’d solve all my problems with one-story buildings.”57 But, of course, he did have such limitations. The social ones were born of a deep-seated community prejudice that dictated that public housing should be sited downtown—certainly nowhere near the prosperous suburbs—and at high density, so as to leave the commercial core of the city intact. His economic limitations came from the federal government’s lukewarm support. Many politicians, particularly Republican politicians, regarded public housing as a “socialist” idea,58 and so they saddled the legislation with strict construction-cost guidelines and a policy that dictated that the buildings be maintained on rent monies alone. The latter regulation was based upon the professed immorality of “giveaways,” with the “stench of Russian communism” attached to public housing then being felt so intensely that for a period of time tenants were even required to pledge their loyalty to America as a precondition of residency, lest the largess being granted them become the first step toward their being recruited into a communist cell.59 Yet, ironically, all along subsidies in the form of Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans—“giveaways” of a different sort—were assisting White homeowners as they moved to the suburbs, to sites from which Blacks were by definition excluded.60 The agency even forbade loans to female-headed households61 and pledged to avoid loan practices that might force together “inharmonious racial or nationality groups.”62
Yamasaki’s solution to the restraints that he faced was to build thirty-three eleven-story buildings at Pruitt-Igoe, packing thousands of lives onto a relatively modest parcel of urban real estate. To retain the feeling of “neighborhood” that the high-rise design sacrificed, Yamasaki then stole an idea from Le Corbusier’s sketchbook: skip-stop elevators. The elevators at Pruitt-Igoe were designed to stop only on every third floor, where they would open upon a common space filled with sunlight, a room where children could play and families could gather. From there, residents would walk to their individual apartments by stairways, mimicking the feeling of a street-block neighborhood. It was all part of what Le Corbusier had once called his “White World,” an architecture of clean lines and precise angles, of meticulous measurements and distinctive materials—“culture standing alone,” as one critic dismissively described it—dictating not only how a building was to be constructed but how its inhabitants were to live within it. To Le Corbusier, the “White World” stood in contrast to the “Brown World” of “muddle, clutter, and compromise, the architecture of inattentive experience,”63 where life unfolded at its own pace and according to its own terms.
Pruitt-Igoe opened in 1954 and was immediately hailed by architecture critics and urban planners as a demonstration of how design could drive social change. But their dreams of a shining new St. Louis, formed from a carefully rendered blueprint, quickly fell victim to some harsh realities. The Supreme Court ended racial segregation in public housing, opening up Igoe as well as Pruitt to Black families. Ultimately, this decision was immaterial, as few White residents had applied to live there anyway. With the slums cleared, even the poorer Whites had left the city, meaning that urban renewal in St. Louis had become essentially a “Negro Removal” operation, as some residents cynically called it, or, better yet, a “Negro Containment” operation.
To the surprise of Yamasaki and others, the skip-stop elevators did not create the feeling of a neighborhood. Instead, their isolation created pockets of shelter for thieves and violent criminals; residents described the feeling of moving from the elevators through the common areas to their apartments as like running a gantlet. Children preferred vacant lots to the “playgrounds” the planners had prescribed for them, especially since budget cuts had forced the architect to dramatically reduce the number of playgrounds. Finally, the construction-cost restrictions imposed upon Yamasaki by government policies meant that the architect had to choose the cheapest of materials, which naturally did not hold up very well. Doorknobs came off on first use; locks were quickly broken and windows shattered. Pipes froze and burst. Because occupancy levels were less than capacity,64 the rent monies were not sufficient to fix these or other problems. When administrators, in response, tried to raise the rents, residents went on a rent strike, prompting a sympathetic Congress to pass the Brooke Amendment, which capped rent in public housing units at 25 percent of household income.65 Noble as that may have seemed, it doomed most projects to permanent disrepair. At Pruitt-Igoe, light bulbs regularly went unreplaced, creating further hazardous conditions. With increased vacancy came even more crime, the pervasive mood of abandonment providing license to those who would operate in the shadows.
Recent scholarship attributes Pruitt-Igoe’s failure to social and economic factors more than the architecture itself. That’s probably right, but for a place described by one housing official as “a cancer within a cancer,”66 there is plenty of blame to go around. From the distance of our day it appears as though public housing never had a chance, for the tragic flaw here was in the conception: an initiative born not out of compassion but out of a penitentiary mentality that sought to hide the city’s struggling peoples, to punish them for getting in the way of progress, and to equate their poverty with little more than degeneracy.
In the process, authorities razed tight-knit slum communities that, while poor and confined to substandard housing, had still retained the kind of social cohesion that engenders dignity of space. They then replaced these neighborhoods with a high-minded social engineering project that was both untested and unrealistic. When this failed, they blamed the residents themselves, ignoring the fact that the deck had been stacked against them. Not only was there an official unwillingness to properly build and manage the public housing projects, but punitive rules like the one limiting public assistance to households absent an able-bodied male further undermined any chance for social cohesion. By all records, the dominant family unit at Pruitt-Igoe was one with a single mother on welfare. Yet was it? Former residents describe fathers and boyfriends hiding in closets to avoid detection when officials came to patrol the hallways in search of men whom they could evict.67
By 1970, St. Louis had closed more than half of the Pruitt-Igoe apartments. Before long, the entire community was emptied. The project was considered to be such a mistake, such an embarrassment, such a towering failure of urban planning, that it earned the nickname “the Monster.” Then, on March 16, 1972, the first of the buildings was destroyed, in a magnificent scene of implosion as dramatic as anything Allied bombers visited upon Berlin. The destruction was over by July. In 1951, consumed with their enthusiasm for a new, rationally designed city, for a perfect urban society that would answer all social problems, planners had leveled the run-down African-American neighborhood of DeSoto-Carr. Roughly thirty years later, they leveled their new experiment too, and returned the land back to nature. Today, the site that once held Pruitt-Igoe is an urban forest, a dense thicket of greens and browns interrupted by the occasional non-natural relic, a decayed piece of what was once an asphalt curb or a broken streetlight rising incongruously from the trees,68 shards proclaiming to anyone who knows the story that “the future once happened here.”
And where did the people who lived at Pruitt-Igoe and in other projects go?
They moved to Ferguson.
. . . .
IN A MOCKERY OF the city’s longstanding efforts to maintain segregation, St. Louis’s inner ring of suburbs, once nearly exclusively White, became home to thousands of poor and middle-class Blacks. One reason for the shift was economic: there were simply too few opportunities for employment in St. Louis. Another was the opportunity for better housing; as Whites moved out to shinier, newer developments, housing in the older suburbs opened up. But while the Black population in Ferguson had grown from just 1 percent in 1970 to roughly 25 percent in 1990, the 2010 census revealed an even more dramatic shift to 67 percent Black. Over the course of forty years, Ferguson had become a majority-Black city, indicative of a trend that extended beyond St. Louis. Amazing as it may seem, there are now more poor people and more African-American people living in American suburbs than in American cities.69
The problem in Ferguson, of course, was that the administration of the city did not change with these demographic shifts. While the city itself was becoming largely African-American, most positions of authority—including the mayoralty, most of the city council, and all but three police officers in a fifty-three-officer department—were held by Whites.70 But much more important than that, as the second part of the DOJ investigation of the killing of Michael Brown revealed, the social distance between those in positions of authority—particularly the police, but others as well—and those who actually lived in Ferguson was now vast. As the city became African-American, the Ferguson Police Department (FPD) shifted from being the protector of the people of Ferguson to their user and abuser.
How else to explain the DOJ’s finding that Ferguson officers “routinely conduct[ed] stops that [had] little relation to public safety and a questionable basis in law,” often issuing multiple citations for the same violation, and all in the interest of increasing revenue to the department?71 How else to understand that in the FPD budgets, “fines and fees” accounted for nearly one quarter of the department’s operating revenue ($3.09 million in 2015), and that it urged officers in performance reviews to help achieve this number, as if they were a sales team needing to make their fourth-quarter projection? What else are we to make of the fact that at the time of the DOJ investigation, more than sixteen thousand people—this out of a population of twenty thousand—had some form of outstanding arrest warrant, nearly all of them relating to a missed payment or court appearance on a traffic fine or a (usually minor) municipal code violation?72 As a report in the Washington Post revealed, it was not unusual for towns in St. Louis County to cite residents for loud music, unkempt property, disruptive behavior, and even “saggy pants.”73 These penalties reflect a long history of public-nuisance laws being used in ways that further marginalize the vulnerable, and reinforce the idea that poverty, mental illness, and even Blackness are threats to the public good.74
In the course of their study, the DOJ investigators also discovered repeated instances of Ferguson police issuing arrest warrants without probable cause, in direct violation of the Fourth Amendment, and of police being unaware, in general, of the constitutional restrictions on their conduct. Confronted, for instance, about one situation in which Ferguson officials arrested a man without a warrant (and, as it turned out, on false conclusions), the officers explained away objections by asserting that the detainee was held in an “air-conditioned” environment. They also told investigators that the disproportionate arrest of African-Americans in Ferguson was indicative of the lack of “personal responsibility” among members of the Black race.
Finally, the DOJ investigation report, released only days before the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma voting rights march known as “Bloody Sunday,” found despicable racial stereotypes in e-mails routinely sent within the department, including e-mails comparing President Obama to a chimpanzee and mocking Black citizens’ use of language. Others repeated age-old stereotypes of Black people as lazy, ignorant, and “on the take.” These Ferguson officials were merely reenacting the quintessentially American ritual of humiliating and dehumanizing Black bodies while at the same time exploiting them for economic gain.
A few months after the DOJ report was issued, another study of Ferguson75 conducted by a Missouri state commission appointed by Governor Jay Nixon, issued a call for reforms, including an expansion of Medicare eligibility, an increase in the minimum wage, a reform of zoning laws, and a new scrutiny of police incidents requiring the use of force. “We know that talking about race makes a lot of people uncomfortable,” asserted the authors of the report. “But make no mistake: This is about race.”76
Yes, except that the story of Ferguson, Missouri—the epic tale that prompts us to keep talking about it—is not only about race. It is not only about the death of a Black teenager at the hands of a White policeman in a department that routinely abused and exploited the city’s majority African-American population, not only about the virtual exoneration of Darren Wilson for acting in a manner that, if not criminal, was certainly reckless and avoidably deadly.
Despite the widespread outrage about the grand jury’s failure to indict Darren Wilson, the deeper meanings of Ferguson have become more apparent in the aftermath of the non-indictment. If an indictment had been made, a trial convened, and perhaps even a conviction secured, the story of Ferguson would have been reduced to the story of a single act of injustice in a single place at a single time. Such an analysis would only have given comfort to those who would like see the error here as Wilson’s (or even Brown’s) alone, rather than a signpost of a much deeper and more intractable set of problems.
Michael Brown died at the hands of police in Ferguson, but his killing was preceded by the death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin—armed only with a hoodie, an Arizona Iced Tea, and a bag of Skittles—who was shot dead not as a victim of the police, but of the vigilante George Zimmerman, who was then exonerated in a trial that played out in minute detail on CNN; and by the death of Jordan Davis, who was killed neither by the police nor a vigilante but by Michael Dunn, a White software developer who became irritated by the sound of “thug music” coming from Davis’s car.
Michael Brown’s death was succeeded by Cleveland, Ohio, police officer Timothy Loehmann’s killing of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice in a playground when Rice’s toy gun was mistaken for the real thing;77 by the killing of Samuel DuBose after University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing stopped DuBose for driving a car without a front license plate and then, when DuBose appeared to be getting ready to drive away, shot him in the head;78, 79 by the killing of Walter Scott after North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager stopped him for a broken taillight. Scott was unarmed and sprinting from the scene when Slager shot him eight times in the back.80, 81
Michael Brown’s death came after the death of Eric Garner, suffocated by New York City policeman Daniel Pantaleo as he arrested Garner for selling loose cigarettes; and before that of Sandra Bland, who allegedly hung herself in a jail cell after she had been arrested for refusing to cooperate with an aggressive Waller County, Texas, officer who had stopped her for changing lanes without signaling.82 Finally, it came before the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in a Baltimore police van while Gray was in custody for possession of a legal knife. It was this last death—suspicious as it was tragic—that led to weeks of rebellion in Baltimore. These incidents were not extraordinary circumstances, but representations of a chilling pattern of deadly encounters between Black bodies and State power.
Back in 2009, in the heady days of enthusiasm that accompanied the election of a Black man, Barack Obama, to the presidency, the nation was riveted by the “teachable moment” offered when a Cambridge, Massachusetts, police sergeant arrested Henry Louis Gates Jr., the eminent Harvard African-American studies professor, in front of his home. Gates had been dealing with a faulty door key when a passerby, mistaking the scene as a break-in, called the police. Gates verbally challenged Sergeant James Crowley for investigating the scene—the citation refers to “loud and tumultuous behavior”—and in turn, Crowley arrested Gates for disorderly conduct. Amid the ensuing public outcry, President Obama intervened, resulting in what became known as the “Beer Summit,” with Crowley, Obama, and Gates engaging in “guy talk and trouser hitching”—Darryl Pinckney’s wonderful image in the New York Review of Books83—over a few cold-and-frosties at the White House.
The unfortunate and dishonest conclusion of that incident—the first landmark episode of the Obama presidency—was a kind of twenty-first-century retort to Rodney King’s 1994 plea for peace: “Yes, we can all get along.” Maybe now, with a Black man in the White House, the American Empire was finally prepared to enter its much-desired post-racial era, in which race would no longer be a central organizing feature of our social world. As wrongheaded as the idea was then, it seems downright absurd today. In light of Ferguson, the Beer Summit is quite easily exposed for what it was: a gross trivialization of the racial, cultural, and economic divides that continue to starkly define American life well into the twenty-first century.
Given that it occurred in an upper-middle-class town known for its conspicuously liberal allegiances, and with a protagonist in the form of the very distinguished and respected Gates, one could see how so many were deluded into thinking that the confrontation was all one big, unfortunate misunderstanding. Such an analysis, however, would be nothing short of delusional. The “presumption of guilt,” as Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree described it,84 that characterized Crowley’s initial attitude toward Gates was no mere accident. Rather, it has always been the governing logic for White officers engaging Black men and women in America. As the ensuing years have demonstrated so vividly, the Gates-Crowley incident was only the most polite demonstration of this logic.
Indeed, thanks to the Beer Summit, the implicit understanding reached about this event was not that Black America should not be made to suffer such unfortunate and degrading indignities, but that Henry Louis Gates Jr.—prosperous, educated, friend of the president, a commingler with White society—should not be made to suffer such unfortunate and degrading indignities. And precisely why should he not? Because Gates was, in fact, “one of us” who had tragically been mistaken for “one of them.”
It is this same dynamic that informed then-senator Joe Biden’s 2007 comments about fellow presidential candidate Barack Obama when he said that Obama was the “first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”85 In each case, the inference is that Black men who fit in deserve respect—but what about those who do not? What about Black Americans who do not look like Henry Louis Gates Jr., who do not have his pedigree, his eloquence, his stature, his paycheck, who do not fit the White mainstream’s conception of “bright,” “clean,” or “nice-looking”? What about those who look like Michael Brown or Freddie Gray, Renisha McBride or CeCe McDonald, Sandra Bland or Jordan Davis? What about the single mothers, the welfare recipients like those who a generation ago lived at Pruitt-Igoe? Do they deserve fairness too, or is fairness the privilege of the well-turned-out, the conformist, the employed, the happy, the “accepted”?
It is worth contemplating how “Gates and Crowley” and “Brown and Wilson” form the same basic narrative: a Black person doing something ordinary is subjected to heightened scrutiny for a suspected criminal act. Police confront the Black suspect, who responds with verbal hostility, whereupon that hostility becomes, for the arresting officer, the very confirmation of criminal behavior. This confirmation of criminality then becomes the justification for the use of force. Gates was doing something ordinary as he fiddled with his key; Brown and his friend, the dreadlocked Dorian Johnson, were doing something ordinary as they jaywalked in their own neighborhood. Brown, like Gates, reacted to the police officer’s questioning with “lip.” In Gates’s case, the result was an embarrassing arrest that turned into a national incident. The Brown episode, as with many other incidents involving America’s vulnerable, ended with his death.
That Brown’s story also contained a petty crime—the stealing of the cigarillos—and a physical tussle may cloud the picture for some. This was likely the reason that the Ferguson Police Department released video footage of Brown’s store theft during the same press conference in which they were forced to release Darren Wilson’s name to the public. Their hope was that the public, including the Black community, would not invest its support in Brown if he was marked as a criminal. But, in fact, Brown’s story highlights how respectability politics around who deserves public support and protection within the Black community, as well as the expansion of the market-driven punishment state, creates an environment where constitutional affordances like due process and protection from cruel and unusual punishment are reflexively denied to those considered part of the “criminal class.”86 Brown’s story is a testament to how race and class, as well as other factors like gender, sexuality, citizenship, and ability status, conspire to create a dual set of realities in twenty-first-century America. For the powerful, justice is a right; for the powerless, justice is an illusion.
This is why the discourse of race is at once indispensable and insufficient when telling the story of Ferguson and other sites of State-sanctioned violence against Black bodies. Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, and Trayvon Martin were not killed simply because they were Black, although it is entirely reasonable to presume that they would still be alive if they were White. They were killed because they belong to a disposable class for which one of the strongest correlates is being Black. While it is hard to imagine that Brown would be dead if he were White, his death was only made more certain because he was young, male, urban, poor, and subject to the kinds of legal and social definitions that devalue life and compromise justice. His physical presence on Canfield Drive was due not only to his own personal experiences and choices but also a deeply rooted set of policy decisions, institutional arrangements, and power dynamics that made Ferguson, and Canfield, spaces of civic vulnerability. There is no formal poll tax to march against anymore, no segregation of the lunch counter.87 But the kind of injustice that the story of Ferguson illuminates is just as insidious as the targets of earlier battles of the freedom struggle.
This is why the death of Michael Brown is not merely a throwback to a wounded racial past but also a thoroughly modern event. It is not only the repeat of an age-old racial divide but also a statement of a relatively new public chasm that has been growing for years. This divide is characterized by the demonization and privatization of public services, including schools, the military, prisons, and even policing; by the growing use of prison as our primary resolution for social contradictions; by the degradation and even debasement of the public sphere and all those who would seek to democratically occupy it; by an almost complete abandonment of the welfare state; by a nearly religious reverence for marketized solutions to public problems; by the growth of a consumer culture that repeatedly emphasizes the satisfaction of the self over the needs of the community; by the corruption of democracy by money and by monied interests, what Henry Giroux refers to as “totalitarianism with elections”;88 by the mockery of a judicial process already tipped in favor of the powerful; by the militarization of the police; by the acceptance of massive global inequality; by the erasure of those unconnected to the Internet-driven modern economy; by the loss of faith in the very notion of community; and by the shrinking presence of the radical voices, values, and vision necessary to resist this dark neoliberal moment.89
The stories of Ferguson, Baltimore, Flint, and countless other sites of gross injustice remind us of what it means to be largely erased from the social contract. They expose life on the underside of American democracy, where countless citizens are rendered disposable through economic arrangements, public policy, and social practice. They spotlight the nagging presence of the exploited, the erased, the vulnerable, the dehumanized—those who are imagined, treated, and made to feel like Nobody.
Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond
Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond
“[Nobody] examines the interlocking mechanisms that systematically disadvantage 'those marked as poor, black, brown, immigrant, queer, or trans'—those, in Hill’s words, who are Nobodies...A worthy and necessary addition to the contemporary canon of civil rights literature.” —The New York Times
“An impassioned analysis of headline-making cases…Timely, controversial, and bound to stir already heated discussion.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A thought-provoking and important analysis of oppression, recommended for those seeking clarity on current events.” —Library Journal
Unarmed citizens shot by police. Drinking water turned to poison. Mass incarcerations. We’ve heard the individual stories. Now a leading public intellectual and acclaimed journalist offers a powerful, paradigm-shifting analysis of America’s current state of emergency, finding in these events a larger and more troubling truth about race, class, and what it means to be “Nobody.”
Protests in Ferguson, Missouri and across the United States following the death of Michael Brown revealed something far deeper than a passionate display of age-old racial frustrations. They unveiled a public chasm that has been growing for years, as America has consistently and intentionally denied significant segments of its population access to full freedom and prosperity.
In Nobody, scholar and journalist Marc Lamont Hill presents a powerful and thought-provoking analysis of race and class by examining a growing crisis in America: the existence of a group of citizens who are made vulnerable, exploitable and disposable through the machinery of unregulated capitalism, public policy, and social practice. These are the people considered “Nobody” in contemporary America. Through on-the-ground reporting and careful research, Hill shows how this Nobody class has emerged over time and how forces in America have worked to preserve and exploit it in ways that are both humiliating and harmful.
To make his case, Hill carefully reconsiders the details of tragic events like the deaths of Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and Freddie Gray, and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. He delves deeply into a host of alarming trends including mass incarceration, overly aggressive policing, broken court systems, shrinking job markets, and the privatization of public resources, showing time and time again the ways the current system is designed to worsen the plight of the vulnerable.
Timely and eloquent, Nobody is a keen observation of the challenges and contradictions of American democracy, a must-read for anyone wanting to better understand the race and class issues that continue to leave their mark on our country today.
- Atria Books |
- 272 pages |
- ISBN 9781501124945 |
- July 2016