The Making of Ferguson

At a vigil and rally for Michael Brown, Milwaukee, August 14, 2014 (Light Brigading/Flickr)

In many respects, the script is a familiar one. A deeply segregated American city; an episode of police violence; a week of rage and protest—directed against both the police and the underlying segregation—and a chillingly militarized restoration of fragile order. Detroit in the summer of 1943. Miami in 1980. Los Angeles in 1992.

At the same time, the shooting of Michael Brown and its aftermath in Ferguson, Missouri offers a twist on this story. Greater St. Louis has always been a starkly segregated city, with the lines drawn at Delmar Boulevard between the city’s north and south sides and—until recently—at the border between the city and the suburbs sprawling west through St. Louis County and beyond.

Over the course of this history, local segregation was enforced and reinforced by a tangle of public and private policies. St. Louis was one of a handful of cities, early in the last century, to propose an explicitly racial zoning ordinance. When the Supreme Court checked this offense to equal protection (in 1917), the real estate industry stepped in—systematically adding race-restrictive deed covenants to transactions in white neighborhoods, and holding the line against racial transition as its core ethical standard.

When the courts outlawed race-restrictive deed covenants (in 1947), municipal zoning took over. West of the city and its inner suburbs, local zoning curtailed (and in many settings simply prohibited) all but large-lot single-family residential development. This fueled both urban sprawl and a generation of population flight, as white families rode federal subsidies (mortgage insurance, the GI Bill) out into the cornfields.

St. Louis’s inner suburbs, particularly those (like Ferguson) clustered between the city and its airport in north county, played a crucial and complicated role in this story. Here the region’s political fragmentation is particularly acute, a modest residential footprint carved into dozens of small municipalities—few of which claim the fiscal capacity to sustain local services, fund local schools, or maintain an aging infrastructure. Here the regulation of land use is more urban than suburban, as development preceded the postwar push for exclusionary zoning. And here the pattern of demographic change, from predominantly white occupancy to predominantly black, continues to push west. Black flight followed white flight as the city went into deeper decline: between 1980 and 2010, the population went from 85 percent white and 14 percent black to 29 percent white and 69 percent black.

The result is a potent combination: a metro area southern in its race relations and northern in its organization and regulation of property. Those race relations are always most fragile on the frontier of racial transition. And when that frontier sits in a struggling inner suburb—its citizens mostly black, its police almost exclusively white—the fuse is always lit. The surprise in Ferguson is not what happened, but why it does not happen more often.


Colin Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (2008) and a companion website.



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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.

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