Aug  2014 12
The Ferguson I Never Knew

Let me tell you about the Ferguson, Mo., I remember.

I grew up going to church in Ferguson, at Immanuel United Church of Christ, or “Immanuel Ferguson” as it was known in local UCC parlance. It was my family’s church, and had been for generations. In the basement of the church, right at this moment, there are pictures of my confirmation class, my dad’s confirmation class, and my grandparents’ confirmation classes. My husband and I got married there. My grandfather dug the first shovelful of dirt at the groundbreaking of the educational building. Many decades later, his funeral was there, as was my grandmother’s. But perhaps more to the point, most Sundays of my childhood would find our family making the trek from the tonier streets of Ladue north to Ferguson, where we would go to church and then go out to lunch – three generations of us, with some combination of cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents – to a north county eatery.  We’d tend to get stuck in ruts, lunch-wise, going to the Thyme Table (now closed) for months on end before we’d switch to Yacovelli’s in nearby Florissant.

It wasn't home – we didn't live in the north county – but for me, it was safety. That church in Ferguson was a safe place, removed from my Monday-to-Friday life of social awkwardness and teenage overachiever histrionics. As is true of many of us who become professional church people, I found a level of acceptance there that I couldn't count on anywhere else, so I called that “church” and then made a livelihood of it. Was it church, or was it family? I'm not sure, because at Immanuel, when I was a kid, and when my dad was a kid, and when his dad was a kid, the two were the same.

Every Christmas Eve, driving in for the midnight service, my dad would recall aloud that when he was a boy, all the storefronts in Ferguson would paint their windows with Christmas scenes and cozily bundled-up families would walk around and look at them. When he was a boy, in the 1950s and 1960s, north county was built for families like his – built, in Umar Lee’s words, “for the blue-collar American Industrial Economy.”

I thought about my dad’s memory of cheerfully painted Ferguson streets and storefronts this week, because the Ferguson on the news seemed to be its opposite:  a mother in anguish, a child lying dead, a grieving stepfather carrying a sign. And then the police dogs, the burning QuikTrip, the smashed glass, the rubber bullets and tear gas. No, it wasn't the Ferguson I knew – because it was the Ferguson I’d been protected from knowing.

Looking back, even though I know I went to church “in Ferguson,” I realize that most of the people at the nearly all-white church of my youth didn't actually live in Ferguson. And unfortunately for my childhood nostalgia, demographic data doesn't lie. This map tells the bigger story of which my fond church memories are a part, and it’s a story that worked out badly for a lot of people.

Some necessary background: St. Louis is odd in that it’s divided into St. Louis City and St. Louis County – the latter of which also includes a bunch of smaller municipalities like north county’s Ferguson, Florissant, Hazelwood, and Normandy, or the cushier Ladue, Creve Coeur, and Frontenac from which most of my high school friends hailed. (To make matters even more confusing, in St. Louis County, the school districts don’t necessarily align with the municipalities. That’s how Michael Brown graduated from Normandy High School even though he lived in Ferguson. The City of St. Louis has its own school district – the St. Louis Public Schools – which actually lost its state accreditation in 2007, though it was later granted provisional accreditation.)

Beginning in the 1950s and continuing through the 1980s and 1990s, north St. Louis city – as opposed to north St. Louis County, where Ferguson islost population in a big way. Some blocks became so depopulated that they lost basic services like trash pickup. Stretches of north St. Louis city became urban prairie where wilderness has reclaimed a stretch of vacant properties. Well, what do you do when your neighborhood evaporates? You move. So displaced African Americans of north St. Louis city moved into nearby north St. Louis County. At which point a lot of white people moved out of the areas that African Americans were moving into, many of them heading for the developing suburbs of St. Charles and St. Peters, across the Missouri River.

Today, Ferguson is about two-thirds African American. Yet being in the majority racial identity did not protect Michael Brown from deadly force, even though he was unarmed and, according to eyewitness accounts, retreating from the police officer. Brown’s death is horrifying, and the scenario – young unarmed man of color, shot dead by someone who saw him as a threat – is sickeningly familiar. John Crawford was shot to death last week at an Ohio Wal-Mart. Eric Garner died on July 17, after a police officer was filmed putting him in a choke hold. Last year, an unarmed Jonathan Farrel was seeking assistance from police after a car wreck, but he was perceived as a threat and shot dead. Jordan Davis was killed by Michael Dunn, a white man who opened fire because he didn't like the rap music that Davis and his friends were playing in a convenience store parking lot. Trayvon Martin was pursued by George Zimmerman for acting suspicious, and then shot dead in the chest.

This is infuriating, soul-wrenching and devastating. And you know what? My “take” on it – speaking as someone whose interests are usually protected by law enforcement, speaking as someone who hasn’t had to teach my sons that people will be deathly afraid of them for no reason and it might get them hurt or killed – is ultimately not worth much. At all. Despite spending nearly every Sunday of my childhood in Ferguson, despite knowing the very storefronts and street names now showing up in the national media, Ferguson’s struggle isn’t my struggle. Whether I romanticize it (not helpful), stroke my chin and muse about solutions (also not helpful), or scold a traumatized people for not being well-behaved enough in their anger (definitely not helpful), the fact is that I really haven’t got a clue. Centuries of racism and white supremacy have seen to it that Ferguson’s problems haven’t been my problems, despite family roots and fond memories.

Here’s a little detail that, if it showed up in fiction, I would find unbelievable and obviously contrived to make a point. But I promise it really happened. The Sunday before Brown’s death, my childhood church called the Ferguson Police for help. There was someone with a grievance against the church that they feared might show up and make a scene, so they called the police to keep an eye. My beloved childhood church – the community in which I was baptized and loved and taught to think theologically and confirmed and married, the place where I played horrible piano solos during worship and nobody criticized them, and where I sobbed with my cousins because our grandpa had died – had no reason to be afraid of the police. And this fact, whether they realized it or not, separated them from a lot of their neighbors. In a conversation with a family member in St. Louis this week, I heard his voice groan with sadness when he observed, “How sad that Immanuel doesn’t have the kinds of relationships in Ferguson that would allow it to be helpful right now.” Indeed.

So that, dear reader, is my overdue cue to shut up, stop talking and just listen to the people whose struggle this is: the people who are scared that they or their sons/husbands/brothers might “look scary” to someone whose imagination has been formed by the racist notion that men of color are threats. To listen, and just listen – not romanticize, or explain away, or play devil’s advocate, or be a Helpy McHelper Saving Those Poor Folks Over There, Bless Their Hearts. I can’t love my neighbor if I don’t know a thing about the neighborhood we share, and privilege has a way of making sure that privileged folks don’t know much about the systems propping them up and helping them to lead charmed lives. So it is here, with me.

I’d begun this post with a promise to tell you about the Ferguson, Mo., I remember, but I’m sorry. I find I can’t do that. For it turns out I didn’t know the community of Ferguson much at all.

Browse more posts by: Sarah Morice Brubaker, Phillips Faculty
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