Ferguson Revisited

Ferguson Revisited

Memorial for Michael Brown in Ferguson, September 2014 (Mike Tigas / Flickr)

A year ago today, eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death by Officer Darren Wilson on Canfield Drive in Ferguson, Missouri. The circumstances were so stark—Brown was unarmed; Wilson fired his gun twelve times, hitting Brown six times, twice in the head at close range; the body lay in the blood and dust on Canfield Drive for almost four hours while the police plodded through their post-incident investigation—that outrage boiled over into protest almost immediately. Before Brown’s body was finally removed, there were two-dozen police cruisers, six canine units, and a SWAT team on the scene.

This was the spark, but the unrest smoldered and flared for months. Heavy-handed response to the first wave of protests threw fuel on the fire, the images of militarized police confronting local citizens echoing those of Bull Connor in Birmingham half a century earlier. The streets filled again in November, when the grand jury in charge of the case declined to indict Officer Wilson; in December, when the same happened in the case of Eric Garner in New York; in March, when Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson resigned; and in April, in response to the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. By this point, Ferguson was both a struggling inner suburb of St. Louis and shorthand for economic, political, and carceral injustice.

Over the course of the past twelve months, to be sure, the movement touched off by Michael Brown’s death has transformed the national conversation on policing and criminal justice. (Even Bill Clinton, who oversaw the consolidation of today’s mass incarceration regime with the 1994 crime bill, has admitted making a mistake, and presidential hopeful Hillary has made criminal justice reform a centerpiece of her campaign.) But what about the root conditions—the deep precursors to racial unrest and police violence?

Race, Wealth, and Housing

As I argued in these pages last fall, Ferguson’s demographic and physical setting is a powerful testament to the long and bitter legacy of segregation in greater St. Louis. Three elements of this history—and its lingering consequences—stand out. First, a combination of legal restrictions, systematic discrimination in the practice of private realty, and local zoning sorted the local population in St. Louis by race and income. The result was a hard boundary—what locals dubbed the “Delmar Divide”—between north (black) and south (white) St. Louis. Second, this divide persisted long after the formal practices that created it had evaporated, and municipal fragmentation—featuring intense and exclusive control over local zoning and development—extended the line out into the suburbs of St. Louis County.

Third, segregation did not just sort people by space and race, it fundamentally shaped the life chances and intergenerational mobility of white and black families in St. Louis and elsewhere. Simply put, local and private strategies of segregation were cemented and perpetuated by public policy, including the federal subsidies (FHA mortgages and the GI Bill) that served as the principal mechanism of wealth creation for the middle class in the second half of the twentieth century. Even as the gap between black and white wages or incomes closed, the gap between black and white assets or wealth widened. In this way, older patterns of segregation persisted. Their housing opportunities delayed by discriminatory practices and policies, and narrowed by the wealth gap, black families filtered into inner-ring communities (what scholars have called “secondhand suburbs”) being abandoned in a second wave of white flight.

Three-Fifths a Citizen

Across this history, and through the events of the last year, runs the discomfiting presumption that African Americans are lesser citizens, an offense to property values and a threat to public safety. Indeed, black migration to Ferguson and north St. Louis County through the 1970s and ‘80s was in part driven by their displacement elsewhere. Big-ticket urban renewal projects (including Mill Creek Valley and the first Busch Stadium) pressed the haphazard relocation of nearly 75,000 St. Louis residents—the vast majority African Americans whose presence in the downtown core was equated with “blight.” And in St. Louis County, older enclaves of African-American settlement were systematically erased as blemishes on the suburban landscape.

In neighborhoods undergoing racial transition—north St. Louis in the 1950s, north St. Louis County a generation later—the assumption that black residents do not belong, and are a threat to those that do, remains a powerful presumption. It has manifested itself in blatant and disturbing ways—for example, in the systemic racism of the Ferguson Police Department, whose practice of “suspicionless, legally unsupportable stops” (in the words of the Justice Department) has yielded staggering arrest and citation rates that fall almost exclusively on the city’s black residents. But it is also sustained in subtler ways: even a middle-class white homeowner free of overt racial bias will respond to institutions and incentives that regard black residents as a threat to property values, falling property values as a threat to local schools, and so on.

Predation and Punishment

The events of the last year also lifted the veil on a pattern of predatory local policing, animated in equal parts by the desire to discipline the poor and desperation to backfill city coffers. Indeed, the Department of Justice’s “Report on the Ferguson Police Department” is notable less for its litany of racial animus and bias than for its documentation of the candid and sustained effort to buttress municipal revenues with court fines and fees levied on the City’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. This, as Joe Soss has argued, is neoliberalism laid bare: the policing marks the heightened importance of disciplining and controlling citizens deemed marginal to the market; the predation marks the last gasp of revenue generation (what Devin Fergus has dubbed “fiscal fracking”) for a local government starved of resources by the same market forces. Indeed, Ferguson officials continue to dig in against reforms; just this week, with the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death on the horizon, they rejected a draft reform proposal from the Justice Department on the grounds that any retreat from policing for profit “would financially ruin the city.”

At this intersection of local segregation, petty bias, and fiscal desperation, the consequences are unmistakable. Predatory policing and its long carceral tail leave many poor African Americans in an uneasy relationship to the state—a sort of custodial citizenship, as Vesla Weaver puts it—defined entirely by police harassment, an ongoing burden of warrants and fines, and imprisonment. These policies and practices—which savage educational, familial, economic, and political prospects—are pressing national problems, but they are perfected and carried out locally. Ferguson, in this sense, is a sobering reminder of our fragmented and devolved politics, in which local governments bear enough responsibility to do great damage, but not enough capacity to do much good.


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. This post reflects the work and insights of his colleagues in the Yale working group, “Deconstructing Ferguson.”