Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ferguson Reflections

I just got back from a trip to Ferguson, and elsewhere in the St Louis area, and I thought I'd share some of the thoughts and observations I've had along the way.

A little background seems in order, particularly for readers from other countries, who might not know.

Yes, there is a black president. However, the US is a segregated country. It is and always has been institutionally a profoundly racist country. Slavery was defeated, but Jim Crow essentially remains. Only the formalities have changed.

You don't need a “whites only” sign to maintain a very separated, unequal society. My own history is a classic illustration.

When I was a toddler, my parents decided to buy a house in the suburbs of New York City. My dad had a good union job as a university professor and my mom also taught there part-time, and part-time to piano students who came to our house. Even with this sort of employment, even back in 1969, it was a stretch for them to buy a house in what was then a fairly remote suburb, even though it was a less expensive one to buy a house in than some others. But with help from their fairly gainfully-employed, homeowning parents, they were able to swing it.

Like so many other similar suburbs around the US, growing up in Wilton, Connecticut, the town I lived in was almost entirely white. Out of the 1,200 students at Wilton High School, there was a small handful of nonwhite students – one Iranian, two Latinos, and a handful of African-American students, like five or so, all of them bused in from the black-majority, impoverished city of Bridgeport, an hour away.

Ten miles away was South Norwalk, which at the time was, like most of the cities in the US then and now, the very image of urban decay, full of boarded-up, abandoned buildings, overflowing garbage cans, stripped cars, and densely-populated, barren government housing known as “the projects.” All the kids from places like Wilton knew never to set foot in places like South Norwalk. The expression was, “that's a bad neighborhood.” “Bad” in this case almost always means “black.” In polite society in places like Wilton, you didn't refer to it as a “black” neighborhood. That would raise questions. We used the term “bad” because it's safer.

Some of my friends and I did set foot in South Norwalk, though – to buy drugs. There, as a cowering young teenager, I waited outside the projects in the car while my more worldly friends went inside. I remember feeling safer when the police were passing by and shining their floodlights in at us, even though we were there to buy drugs. When the police cars left, the projects were in total darkness, I remember, since all of the street lights around them were out for one reason or another. But they'd always be back minutes later.

I'd talk to people there from this town ten miles away from my home sometimes, but I often wouldn't understand them. For the most part they spoke a different dialect of English from mine – not because they were from a different region that had developed a different accent or dialect because they were separated from other parts of the country. But because I and these other people who both grew up in the little state of Connecticut were separated by racism, and economics (which are concepts that generally go hand-in-hand in the US).

My parents always told me as a kid that the main reason we had left New York City was for the schools. This is one of the main reasons for the massive phenomenon known here as “white flight.” The last thing they wanted to do was to move to an almost completely homogenous town. See, the bizarre state of affairs that many people outside of the US are unaware of is that education in this country is about 98% locally-funded, mostly through local real estate tax. So, in wealthier communities they are able to spend much more on education, and they do.

So you end up with a situation where the vast majority of people who grew up in places like Wilton become home-owning college graduates with good jobs, and the majority of people growing up in the projects of South Norwalk end up not going to college, not owning homes, not getting good jobs, and in a huge number of cases, not even being functionally literate. And in so many cases, dying violent deaths at a young age.

White kids from the suburbs like me are the ones doing most of the drugs, statistically. But for the most part, we're not the ones taking the risk of importing, manufacturing and distributing the drugs. That's too risky, you could go to jail for that. So the politicians we elect refuse to fund education or other aspects of the social welfare in any kind of meaningful, national way like they do in civilized countries. Then the very large suburban white population descends upon these neglected communities to buy illegal drugs, thus fueling a massive, prohibited drug economy, and the gang violence that prohibition tends to engender. (Especially when the prohibition is combined with racist laws, racist police departments, and an utter lack of local, regional or national government spending on anything other than law enforcement, the military, and building more highways for people from the suburbs to use.)

I went to three different summer camps as a kid, some of them for multiple summers, and at all of them, I don't recall there being a single person of color -- either campers or staff. When I went to a private college in the midwest, out of two thousands students, there were maybe two or three African-Americans, and several Africans, including my roommate, Enock, from apartheid South Africa.

At the age of 18, growing up in a country with tens of millions of people of African descent who lived within a hundred miles in any direction, Enock was the first friend I ever had who was black. And somehow I had to go to Indiana to meet him.

The US is nothing like it is in the Hollywood movies. These days, much more often than not, the movies and TV shows like to depict a multiracial, relatively egalitarian, solidly middle class society. In reality, there are occasional pockets that more or less accurately reflect Hollywood's version of society. But that's not at all the norm. The norm is segregation.

The norm is white and black people who only meet from either side of the checkout counter.

Since I dropped out of college I have lived in many towns and cities – Boston, Brookline, Somerville, and Medford in Massachusetts. Seattle and Olympia, Washington. Berkeley and San Francisco, California. New Haven and Southbury, Connecticut. Houston, Texas. Now in Portland, Oregon. All of these cities are almost completely segregated by race. The ones that aren't segregated are that way because they barely have any people of color in them.

I have lived in neighborhoods that were almost completely white, or almost completely black, or almost completely Latino. I'm not sure if I have ever personally been to a town in the US that reflects the demographics of the country as a whole, where different people live together in a more random sort of pattern. I'm not sure if a town like that exists. Though I haven't yet been to all of them. The only time that such a demographic seems to exist, from what I've seen, it's temporary. Temporary because when either white flight or its opposite, gentrification, is taking place in a neighborhood, town or city, it doesn't happen immediately. It takes a few years, or longer.


Despite the obvious realities of Apartheid in the US, as a white person I could nonetheless mostly ignore the fact that I lived in a violently racist, terribly unequal, segregated society. Like other white people with a conscience, I could think about it if I wanted to, and then stop thinking about it when I wanted to. My ability to keep it all at a theoretical distance ended suddenly in the early morning hours of May 1st, 1993, when my housemate and close friend, Eric Mark, was killed in a gang-related shooting when we went out that night in San Francisco.

The exact circumstances really don't matter, except that Eric was killed by a violent street gang, and the proliferation of heavily-armed gangs on the streets of American cities is a direct consequence of a vicious combination of poverty, racism, and drug prohibition. But beyond that, what really matters is that Eric's death blew my sheltered white middle-class world into shreds, permanently. Because suddenly for me people no longer fit into boxes according to class, race, national origin, etc. Now people only fit into two boxes, I suppose: those who had suffered the sudden, violent loss of friends and relatives, and those who hadn't.


I suddenly could plainly see the extraordinary pain on the faces of my neighbors in the neighborhood I lived in in San Francisco, which at the time was around 95% black, and on the faces of the Central American refugees that made up the vast majority of the population in the neighborhood in which Eric was killed. (Both of these neighborhoods have since been gentrified, with most of the former residents forced by economics to move to places like Oakland, San Jose, or further afield.)

Ever since Eric's death, hearing a gunshot reverberating among the hills of San Francisco – a common occurrence – was no longer just a loud noise. Since that time, people became more human, more mortal, more three-dimensional. Except those who had grown up the way I grew up, and had managed to maintain their protected lives. Those people suddenly became more foreign to me, harder to relate to.

So I guess that's the background. Too much background, perhaps. Anyway, Ferguson.

I tend to structure my tours around protests. All sorts of protests around all sorts of issues, but the kind that are planned in advance – against a meeting of the G8, or the World Bank, or a climate summit. If there's a protest planned with less advance notice, I try to make it to them, too. Which mainly works if it's near home, or near the tour route if I'm touring at the time.

Police kill black men under very questionable circumstances more than once a week in this country. It's so routine that most of these events don't inspire a large-scale community reaction. Sometimes, though, if the circumstances are completely insane – such as an unarmed man with his hands raised in surrender being shot multiple times in the head at very close range by an enraged cop for nothing but a refusal to move to the sidewalk, and then his body is left face-down in the street for over four hours, while aggressive police refuse to allow the victim's mother to go to her son – there is a community reaction, as was the case with the racist execution of Michael Brown, Jr.


Protests had been happening for a week in and around Ferguson before it finally occurred to me that this mobilization of the community there might just keep happening. Usually these things fizzle out over the course of a few days. But the outrageously disproportionate and violent police reaction to thousands of nonviolent protesters (as well as to the comparatively small number of people engaged in property destruction and looting of liquor stores and gas stations) fueled more outrage.

So I called my friend Chrissy, who lives four miles down the road from where Michael Brown was killed. As I had predicted, she had been out protesting with the Ferguson community every day since the shooting, and she brought me up to speed on events. I got a plane ticket the next day, for the first day I could get there on frequent flier miles, which was last Saturday night.

As I waited for Saturday to arrive and continued to follow events in Ferguson, post to social media my thoughts about things, share the song I wrote about Mike Brown, etc., I was shocked every day by some of the idiotic comments I was seeing from clueless white people talking about Mike Brown's character, or talking about waiting for the authorities to investigate what multiple people witnessed. Most people commenting were in sync with my take on the situation – that a racist cop serving a racist institution executed a young black man in the street while he had his hands raised in the air. But a number of people commented or emailed me privately to express their perspective that Mike Brown was something other than an angel, which, true or not, is completely irrelevant. Just as irrelevant as their comments about the cop having no record of prior complaints against him.

These comments from people were another reminder that what you might call “white progressives” is a very mixed bunch. I write songs about many different issues and sing for many different kinds of causes, and it never ceases to distress me that people who are so hip to anti-imperialism or environmentalism might on the other hand be so ignorant when it comes to the realities of institutionalized racism in the USA.

And then there's the gaping divide between white progressives and the black community. I tour all over the country, playing in many different places. I've been to St Louis many times. Like Detroit, Atlanta, Philadelphia and many other cities in the US, St Louis has a population that has an African-American majority. Knowing that fact, it's always hard not to notice that at my shows in places like St Louis or Philadelphia, my audience is usually around 90% white -- about as white as a show might be in Idaho. This, essentially, is my audience: white progressives with a penchant for acoustic music, and a smattering of other folks who don't fit some aspect of that mould.

Normally, at least 9 times out of 10, if I'm planning to go to a protest in the US or just about anywhere else in the world, if I put the word out among my activist-oriented contacts (that is, my email list, Twitter followers, etc.) that I'm coming to town, I'm soon going to hear from someone about singing at the protest or other events happening that call for music. This time that didn't happen. (And I say that just to illustrate the point about the separation of racially-divided communities in the US, not to complain that I didn't get a chance to take my guitar out of its case.)

As a further illustration of this divide, people I know in St Louis were asking protest organizers about what's happening next. Things were moving fast day by day, and inevitably people were organizing by the seat of their pants, and in any situation like this it's going to be hard to know what's going to happen next. But the response of the organizers was interestingly confounding in this particular situation. They would generally tell people to check their social media.

There's a phenomenon that I only just heard about in St Louis called Black Twitter. I also just learned that per capita, African-Americans use Twitter around twice as much US society as a whole. But me and the white folks I know in St Louis aren't on the right feeds, and were basically unable to rely on social media to keep us informed, unlike everybody else around there – the overwhelmingly African-American majority involved with the protests.

Reiko took me to the airport in Portland on Saturday afternoon. The young African-American man working at the restaurant we went to first asked me where I was headed. I said something about protesting the cops in Ferguson, and somehow we ended up with an extra meal.

Upon landing in St Louis I took the shuttle to the rental car place, and was asked the same question by the white woman behind the counter. I told her I came to attend a funeral in Ferguson. She had a bit of a scowl on her face then, and spoke to me with suspicion after that. Perhaps she would have said more, but she seemed to be mindful of the two black men in line behind me to rent cars.

Hundreds of people, at least, came from all over the country to be part of what was happening in Ferguson, as well as media from around the world. There were white people coming from various places, along with much larger numbers of people of African descent, but from what I saw, most of the white people at protests and other events were journalists on assignment.

Upon arrival at Chrissy's place in Florissant, we reminisced about past protests we had been at together – the teargas-drenched FTAA talks in Miami in 2003, the NATO meetings in Chicago a couple years ago which involved Occupy kids getting charged with terrorism for alleged possession of molotov cocktails, and others. And I heard stories about the ongoing protests in Ferguson, and the especially hairy first few days, which saw so many nonviolent marchers and journalists both gassed and arrested, and some shot.


In the morning we drove down Florissant Avenue to the Target store whose parking lot had been largely taken over by military and police vehicles, which was the police “command center.” We passed a new, shiny Quick Trip gas station/market that was surrounded by a shiny new fence. This wasn't the Quick Trip where the alleged theft of Cigarillos had taken place, but they were taking no chances. We passed a liquor store that had been boarded up, and the “ground zero” Quick Trip, which was a blackened hull.

Locals knew that not all of these boarded-up buildings had been victims of the recent unrest – many of them were businesses that had shut down years before, in this economically struggling part of the world. We visited the site of the murder, on a small street just off of Florissant Avenue. One thing that's hard to glean from the news coverage is the feel of the place. While it is not doing well economically, there isn't the same kind of ghost town feel that you find in large parts of St Louis. It's got a suburban feel to it. The apartments around where Mike Brown's grandmother lives seem nice and well-maintained, though small. There's a lot of green space around them, fields and trees.

We parked in the shade on this scorching hot day, and we met a middle-aged man who came to Ferguson from South Bend, Indiana. We walked toward the makeshift memorials for Mike Brown, one of which was in the middle of the street, on the yellow lines, where he was gunned down, arms raised. People say there is still dried blood beneath the now-dried up flowers that stretch up and down the yellow lines. Someone leaned a very large wooden cross against a tree in memory of Mike. There was a crowd of a couple dozen people talking and milling about. Local people, journalists, and various visitors like us. (Including two other white people, a gay couple from St Louis I believe.) During the few minutes we were there, several police cars drove by, in a way that somehow felt inherently disrespectful.

The word managed to trickle down to me that there was a Peace Fest that was happening that day in St Louis which was a place people were going, so we headed there next. It was an annual event planned well in advance, a small, free festival with a theme focusing on ending gang violence. There were the usual booths from local sponsors, and then there were other tents set up by activist sorts who I imagine might not have been there otherwise, like some folks who came from Chicago with some freshly-made, powerful “Hands Up, Don't Shoot” t-shirts (one of which I bought).

I had been hearing rumors of people coming to the St Louis area from all over for the weekend. When there are ongoing protests around a particular theme – Occupy Wall Street, protests against Israel's war in Gaza, etc. – things often heat up on the weekends. This wasn't the case last weekend. Well, the weather heated up, a lot – every day it was well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and extremely humid. But the numbers of people engaged in marches and the like had decidedly dwindled.

The world's media was still around to report on daily events, so a few hundred people coming to the Peace Fest was among the top news stories on AP that day. Many parents of other young men unjustly killed were in town, and one of those who spoke at the Peace Fest was Trayvon Martin's father.


Among the small white minority at the Peace Fest were a number of members of the Revolutionary Communist Party from Chicago, San Francisco and perhaps elsewhere, and one lone old guy pushing the newspaper of the extremely bizarre Spartacist League, who, last I checked, dedicated most of their paper's column inches to criticizing other leftists.

In another part of town the Festival of Nations was on, and as the name implies, there were several stages with musicians from around the world, as well as a huge array of fried food from dozens of different countries. I guess whatever your national cuisine is, you have to fry it in order for it to be palatable to Missourians, I don't know. Just about the only thing among the food tents that wasn't fried was the Ethiopian food, so we ate that.

Mokabe's cafe nearby was adorned with a large antiracist banner, and felt like liberated territory. Early evening Chrissy had a weekly soccer get-together with friends in the neighborhood where the loose-knit Catholic Worker movement has various houses in the midst of block after block of abandoned, boarded-up, or just completely gutted buildings that the city hasn't done anything with for ages. Much of the city is like that.

The area where we went later in the evening for dinner and to hear some music was just on the other side of what's known locally as the Delmar Divide. On one side of Delmar Boulevard is a ragged neighborhood where every other house is boarded up, and 99% of the population is black. The only statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr is nearby. On the other side of Delmar – which used to be the other side of the tracks, back when St Louis had decent mass transit, a long time ago – is a posh street adorned with American flags every ten feet or so, lined with overpriced restaurants and cafes filled with white people, a large number of whom live in gated communities right there, only a block from the boarded up neighborhood on the other side of Delmar.

The commercial street with the cafes and such there is the only one you can drive on without a password for frequent stretches. Every street coming off of it has a gate on it. Talking to one member of the all-white crowd of people in the restaurant where we ate, at one point she commented that although she lived in the neighborhood, she didn't know anyone who lived in the neighborhood on the other side of Delmar. Quite likely she had never dared even take a walk on that side of the disused train tracks.

We passed through Ferguson on the way to Florissant later that night, and a small march was proceeding down a sidewalk beside the main drag, Florissant Avenue, maybe a couple dozen people.

When I initially got the plane ticket, the timespan was fairly random. I just figured I'd come for three nights. It turned out that my timing was accidentally going to coincide with Michael Brown, Jr's funeral, which I heard about on the AP newswire. I hadn't brought much in the way of clothing that's really appropriate for the occasion, but I did have a “Hands Up, Don't Shoot” t-shirt now, and I figured that would be OK.

There had been rumors the previous day that the Westboro Baptist Church was planning to show up outside the funeral, but when we went to the megachurch by 9 in the morning, there was no sign of those bigoted lunatics, thankfully. The line to get into the church went around the block, and there was a huge media presence, with loads of satellite trucks. By the time we got to the entrance of the sanctuary, it was full, and we were directed to an auditorium, which also soon filled up, with close to five thousand people altogether, and many hundreds more outside.

I very rarely attend church services of any kind, and this one was easily the most exciting church service I've ever experienced. The chorus and band were fantastic, and even in the auditorium, watching things in the sanctuary on screens and listening through speakers, the people in there danced, clapped and sang magnificently.

There was much talk from the lengthy string of male ministers who dominated the program about stopping the violence in the black community. Their animated speeches seemed to focus more on gang violence than on police violence, and decidedly focused more on peace than it did on justice. That theme changed noticeably with Attorney Benjamin Crump's short speech and introduction to Reverend Al Sharpton, who gave a long, eloquent, impassioned plea for movement-building, for justice, for accountability on the part of the police.

Every time I hear Reverend Sharpton speak I wonder what the heck the pundits in the corporate and “public” media are talking about when they constantly berate him as a “divider.” It seems so obvious to anyone who's paying attention that he's not dividing anyone – in fact he's trying to unite people, behind common sense. Talking about obvious divisions doesn't make you divisive. (Ignoring them does make you divisive, though!) The worst thing you could say about Al Sharpton, it seems to me, is that he still has faith in the Democratic Party. Why an apparently sensible person like him would have such faith is a complete mystery to me.

Well under 1% of those in attendance at the homegoing service were white, and most of those whites were journalists. Some white antiracists I talked to didn't go to the funeral because they felt like doing so would somehow be intrusive. Like just because the event is open to the public doesn't mean it's OK to invade the cultural space or something. Maybe I'm just thick, but I'm pretty mystified by that perspective. Seems to me, someone was killed by the police, and anybody who shows up at the funeral is showing solidarity with that person, his family, and his community, whoever that may be, wherever in the world they may be. (Period.)

The embarrassing reality was that, far from being unwelcome, we were treated in that church like ambassadors. Every other person I passed by at the end of the service thanked me for coming, and shook my hand, for being a white person who showed up. I was reminded of that saying, I don't remember who said it, about how sometimes you just need to show up. The fact that we were there to mourn the sudden, early death of a young man with great potential who was killed in a racist hate crime was horrific as it was, but the almost complete lack of visible solidarity from anyone outside of the black community was about equally depressing. (As was the dominant message of most of the speakers preceding Crump and Sharpton, that not being violent, praying, and voting would solve everything.)

Outside the church, a hundred or so black motorcyclists were now revving their engines at deafening volume and producing such clouds of smog that it resembled a tear gas attack in several ways. The colorful bunch had been requested by the Brown family to escort the funeral procession, rather than the police.

Chrissy and I walked down the street toward where we parked, now being thanked for showing up by people outside a car repair shop. We hadn't really eaten yet that day and it was now afternoon, so we skipped off to a nearby diner, which was filled with other well-dressed people from the funeral who had the same idea. We talked with many of them there, all of whom recognized us from the funeral (we were very recognizable there) and thanked us for showing up.

At the cemetery, the motorcyclists were guarding the entrance theatrically. We parked nearby and walked in. There may have been no police in there, but the fire department had managed to create a small presence, handing out cold bottles of water. At the cemetery the crowd was much smaller, maybe two hundred people. Someone close to the casket was talking, but there was no amplification, so only people really nearby could hear that. People started singing “We Shall Overcome.” I didn't know the songs about Jesus they were singing at the church, but I knew this one, and joined in, quietly, singing a bass part.

Members of the Nation of Islam had been present in large numbers outside the church, and some were at the burial as well. Someone, I didn't see who, said in a nasally voice very much resembling Louis Farrakhan, “the white man really is the devil.” Everyone else ignored him. Spike Lee walked away from the casket with his family, toward his car. I wanted to tell him how much I loved his movies, but figured it was the wrong time.

Chrissy and I headed back to our car, and met a journalist from Guatemala who had driven to St Louis from Austin, Texas to attend the funeral. He was telling us how he was embarrassed to take out his fancy camera because he didn't want to just be another journalist, since really he was mainly there in solidarity and had come on his own dime.

We thought we'd visit the site of the most recent “officer-involved shooting”/racist execution in the area, which happened last Tuesday, not very far from where Michael Brown was shot. There was a makeshift memorial there, too. Teddy bears, flowers and a plastic, upside-down American flag.

There was a “town meeting” at the Missouri Museum of History. We got there early. The exhibits in the museum that were not closed off for the evening's event were a bizarre mix. A collection of photographs related to the Mississippi River on one floor. A collection of newspaper covers praising the achievements of local Nazi sympathizer airman, Charles Lindbergh on another floor. A statue of a dead, rich white slaveowner named Thomas Jefferson in the front of the building. He wasn't even from Missouri.

But the program of events held regularly at the museum was much more interesting than the museum itself would indicate, and it included the event that evening, which was being led by Kevin Powell, an author and activist from New York City.

My 60 hours in Missouri ended with a visit to a swimming pool, in the forest down the hill from a house a half mile down a private road in the far reaches of Florissant, so close but so far from Michael Brown's little apartment in Ferguson.

Early the next morning, eating breakfast at the airport before boarding my flight home, CNN was reporting on a new audio recording that indicated that Officer Darren Wilson had fired ten shots at Michael Brown, Jr, rather than six, as had been previously reported. The next day, back home, while taking my morning walk around the swamp on the campus of Reed College, I heard the news that two more young black men somewhere in the US who had posed no threat to police whatsoever had been been shot and killed the day before.