Parts of my hometown are on fire.
Parts of St. Louis look like a bombed out war zone. And in reality, it is a war zone ... St. Louis is a war zone. The combatants are typically young Black men, many just above the age of puberty. They're at war with each other and by and large, the community is at war with the police. Most did not sign up for the war. They were drafted. But even those who dodge the draft often get caught up in fighting and end up a part of the carnage.
The latest victim is 18-year-old Michael Brown, killed in a hail of bullets fired from a Ferguson, Mo. police officer's gun. Brown, a recent graduate of Normandy High School – a school that lost its state accreditation – was set to attend college. Aug. 11 was to be his first day in classes. It was to be the start of his new life. He didn't make it to his new life. Shot multiple times, his previous life ended on Aug. 9.
Buildings erupted in flames.
But the gasoline had been doused all over Ferguson – and the Fergusons throughout the United States – long before young Michael was shot. Michael's death at a cop's bullet ... excuse me, bullets; plural – was simply the match that ignited the blaze. And while the literal fires lit were uncomforting and disheartening, the figurative fires are well justified.
They are justified because I lived in North County – a middle and working class section in St. Louis County where many (in several cases, most) of the municipalities' residents are Black, but almost all of the power structure is white. I know first hand the daily harassment that goes on at the hands of officers in St. Louis County cities such as Ferguson, Florissant, Bel Ridge, Bel Nor, Jennings, Dellwood, Country Club Hills, Hazelwood, Normandy, St. John, St. Ann, Charlack and the list goes on. All these little fiefdoms exist within a small geographical area,. Almost all are predominantly African-American in residency. Yet whites control all.
It's been found time and again that many of the officers who patrol these municipalities applied for jobs with other, larger departments but were rejected for various reasons. So they land employment with a city such as Ferguson and get to take out their frustrations on the residents they encounter daily. Very rarely do these officers live in the municipalities in which they "serve."
I live in Minneapolis now, but I know well the area where Michael was killed. I patronized the Quik Trip that was looted and burned. I know the area as a resident; I know it as a reporter and unfortunately several times as a "suspect" and "defendant."
I know what it was like to be 19 years old, fresh from playing a baseball game – still in my baseball uniform – sitting in my Bel Nor driveway and to have an officer question me as to why I'm in my driveway and assert he's "investigating a burglary claim" and I "fit the description." Who did he think I was, the Derrick Jeter Bandit? I can just imagine that supposed call. "Yeah, there's a guy in a baseball uniform out here breaking into homes. He's about 5'7" he plays for the A's, wears number 19 and his last name is Colbert ... at least that's the name on his uniform." So much for being stealth.
I was able to prove I lived there. I didn't get shot. Michael Brown wasn't as lucky.
In North County just being Black is probable cause. Then again, that "suspect description" doesn't just apply to suburban St. Louis – just ask Eric Garner of Staten Island. Oh wait, we can't ask him ... he's dead. In Minneapolis, ask Al Flowers. He was "lucky" and escaped with staples to the head, stitches, a bloody eye and a concussion – but he lived. If only Michael Brown were so lucky.
As I type, I'm recalling all my incidents of being stopped by police in one of varying "cities" in North County. In all, I've been pulled over more than 10 times. My "crimes" include driving with no front license plate, not having a city sticker (Jennings) even though I did not live in the city in question, a cracked front windshield (this must have been the most observant officer ever, because I was pulled over at night and the officer trailed me from behind not seeing my front windshield until he walked up to my car), running a red light that was manually controlled by a Bel Ridge officer to go from green to red with no yellow (no, I'm not making this up), to driving too slow ... yes, I really was pulled over for driving too slow.
It was so bad that while working as a reporter and editor for the North County Journal I was getting pulled over so much in Jennings, I would call before I entered the city and ask them to not pull me over, I'm there to cover a story and I'd promise to leave as soon as I was done. I didn't want to be there any longer than I had to be.
But in all, my encounters were nothing compared to Michael's. I'm alive.
A well-known truth is that traffic stops result in a large portion of revenue for each of these wannabe cities, so harassment is part of the police culture. And who are these almost exclusively white cops stopping and harassing? Yep, Black people. Statistics don't lie. In Ferguson, site of Michael's execution, in 2013 86 percent of all stopped were Black. And while it's true that 65 percent of the residents of Ferguson are Black, of the 57 officers in Ferguson, only three are African-American. The city's mayor and police chief are white. Similar statistics ring true for all the other North County municipalities.
So now Ferguson burns.
It burns from the scorched shell of a building that used to be a Quik Trip. It burns from the tear gas that cops shoot off once darkness falls. It burns from the national spotlight that's exposing the culture of racism, harassment and brutality.
Play with fire long enough and eventually you will get burned. Let's hope there's enough water to quench the flames.
But when it's all said and done, a mother and father have to bury their 18-year-old son. That's the real story here.