Citizen Brown

Citizen Brown

On the history of dispossession, disinvestment, and discrimination that formed the backdrop to the killing of Michael Brown.

Ferguson, Missouri, August 19, 2014 (Justin Norman)

The Hurst Children, 1965

Lottie Mae, Willie Hurst, and their seven children lived at 209 Handy Street in Meacham Park, a small, unincorporated African-American neighborhood bounded by the St. Louis suburbs of Kirkwood, Crestwood, and Sunset Hills. On the evening of January 16, 1965, the two teenaged children, Gladys and Alice, left the house to attend a dance. By eight o’clock, the rest of the family was in bed: the two youngest, Patricia Ann and Arthur Lee, were in the front bedroom with their parents; the others—Willie Jr., Helen, Thomas, and Perleen—were in a small bedroom down the hall.

Gladys and Alice were still out when, at 10 p.m., a fire started near a coal stove in the hallway between the bedrooms. Lottie Mae awoke to screaming, smashed the nearest window, and crawled out with two-year-old Arthur. Her husband, his left arm paralyzed by a work accident, escaped through the kitchen, suffering severe burns. Both parents attempted to reenter the house, tearing at the tar-paper walls until their arms and hands bled.

A neighbor called the Meacham Park Fire Department, but the department’s only fire truck had to be jump-started. Neighbors called the Kirkwood and Crestwood Fire Departments as well, but by the time firefighters arrived, the fire was out of control. Almost forty minutes after the first alarm, they were finally able to get into the house. They found Helen near the back door and the bodies of the other four children where they had been sleeping.


Esther Brooks, 1967

Esther Brooks was born in 1897 and lived at 10008 Roberts Avenue in Elmwood Park, an unincorporated African-American enclave of about one hundred families a few miles west of the St. Louis city line, and few miles north of Meacham Park. She commuted to a $32 per week job as a domestic worker in the tony central-county suburb of Ladue. To help make ends meet, she took on a boarder, who paid $20 per month for the second bedroom of her modest home.

In 1957, as Brooks approached her sixtieth birthday, St. Louis County officials began discussing the prospect of “renewing” Elmwood Park, the neighborhood she had lived in for decades.  The first draft of the plan was dropped when voters spurned the development of a new public-housing complex. A revised plan involved making new homes on Elmwood Park’s east side available for relocated residents. But it didn’t happen. County officials used the idea to placate federal officials but privately in their communications with Elmwood Park residents pressed public housing in St. Louis as the best option. For Esther Brooks, who had owned her own home in Elmwood Park for over thirty years, the option of taking an apartment in the city’s notorious Pruitt-Igoe complex (far removed from family, friends, and her place of employment) was “entirely obnoxious.”

As a county grand jury would conclude in 1966, relocation efforts became little more than “an evasion of responsibility and intent [that] . . . practically wiped out an enclave of Negro property holdings of nearly a century’s duration; a community where there was never any question of the right of Negroes to buy, own, and rent property.” This was not an urban renewal program; it was a “race clearance program.”

As residents—some of whom had deep, multigenerational roots in Elmwood Park—saw their homes confiscated, they turned to the courts. In March 1967, Brooks and her neighbors asked the Missouri Supreme Court for a declaratory judgment, arguing that grave constitutional questions were at stake. The case was shunted to the Missouri Court of Appeals and by the time the lower court issued its opinion, Elmwood Park had been blighted for over a decade, the land had been cleared, and rebuilding was well underway. These facts alone were sufficient to guide the court’s opinion. Since the redevelopment authority now owned the land, the plaintiffs had no legal standing. 


Cookie Thornton, 2008

Charles “Cookie” Thornton lived at 351 Attucks Street in Meacham Park, just a few blocks from the site of the 1965 fire. Thornton, who owned a small paving and demolition business, had serious financial problems and a long history of bitter disputes with Kirkwood City officials. As Kirkwood began toying with the annexation and redevelopment of Meacham Park in the 1990s, Thornton expanded his business, signing a five-year commercial lease on an old service-station property that he advertised as the “world headquarters of Cookco Construction.” Within six months, Thornton was bankrupt, listing debts for rent, back taxes, unpaid child support, and business expenses of nearly half a million dollars. He went back to parking his equipment at job sites in Kirkwood or in front of his parents’ house. The city of Kirkwood, which had annexed Meacham Park in 1991, began to ticket Thornton for parking violations, improper disposal of trash and debris, and improper storage of building materials.

Over the next few years, Thornton was prosecuted for 114 municipal ordinance violations, including nineteen counts in May 2001 (totaling $12,500 in fines) and another thirty-four counts in October 2001 ($27,808 in fines). In Thornton’s view, Kirkwood officials were not only singling him out for code violations; they were also complicit in his failure to win contracts in the area’s ongoing commercial development.

Over the next eight years, Thornton became a “chronic antagonist” of Kirkwood, and built up a rap sheet of violations, which included an assault against Ken Yost, Kirkwood’s director of public works. He filed frivolous and rambling lawsuits against the city. His last hope—for redemption and relief from crushing debt—was a federal civil rights lawsuit. It was thrown out in late January 2008.

On February 7, 2008, Thornton arrived at Kirkwood City Hall for a regularly scheduled council meeting. He parked his van, crossed the street, and shot and killed police sergeant William Biggs. Thornton entered the City Hall council chambers, concealing his weapon with a poster, and yelled, “Everybody stop what you are doing!” Police officer Tom Ballman, who had twice arrested Thornton for disorderly conduct at meetings, rolled his eyes. Thornton dropped the poster and began firing, shooting and killing Ballman, Yost, and council members Connie Karr and Michael Lynch, and fatally wounding Mayor Mike Swoboda. Audience members rushed to the exits or ducked under desks and chairs. Police arrived at the council chambers and killed Thornton.


Michael Brown, 2014

Michael Brown was born in 1996 in Florissant, an inner-ring suburb a few miles north of Elmwood Park. Brown’s life was not easy. His parents, teenagers when he was born, divorced when he was young. The inner suburbs of north St. Louis County were marked by economic decline, an aging housing stock, and rapid racial transition. His high school, in the Normandy School District, was one of a handful in the state that had been stripped of accreditation for poor performance. Like many teenagers, Brown dabbled with drugs and alcohol. He had had a few minor brushes with the authorities: a scuffle with a neighbor, an accusation of a stolen iPod. Yet, against these odds, he was a good kid. He used his size and stature to avoid trouble. He was, by many accounts, “a reserved young man around people he did not know, but joking and outgoing with those close to him.” He and his parents were intensely proud of his recent graduation from high school and his plans to enroll in a local technical college.

On Saturday, August 9, Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson were walking down West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson. They entered Ferguson Market and Liquor a little before noon, where, in an altercation captured by surveillance video, Brown scooped a handful of Swisher Sweets (a small flavored cigar) off the counter, pushed away the clerk, and left the store. Brown and Johnson walked north, then turned east onto Canfield Drive, a residential street. There, they were stopped by Officer Darren Wilson. Wilson was not responding to the robbery at Ferguson Market; he stopped Brown and Johnson for walking down the center of the street—in violation of an obscure municipal code proscribing this “Manner of Walking in Roadway.” The stop was undoubtedly animated by the pressure that Wilson and his fellow officers were under to generate revenue by aggressively enforcing the municipal code, and by systemic racial bias in local policing. The Ferguson Police Department, as the U.S. Department of Justice would conclude seven months later, was “more concerned with issuing citations and generating charges than with addressing community needs,” and much of its activity bore “little relation to public safety and a questionable basis in law.”

Officer Wilson instructed Brown and Johnson to “get the fuck on the sidewalk” and then pulled up next to them when they didn’t immediately comply. Wilson initially tried to get out of his car, then reached through the car window and grabbed Brown by the throat. The two struggled awkwardly through the open window, and then Wilson fired, breaking the car window and striking Brown. Officer Wilson and Johnson both remember a moment of shock, a hesitation, and then both boys ran. Johnson ducked behind a stopped car. Brown kept running, and Wilson fired a second shot that, as Johnson recalled, “did strike my friend Big Mike in his back ’cause that’s when he stopped running.” Wilson fired ten more shots, hitting Brown six times, twice in the head at close range. As Brown lay in the street, as the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported, his blood “ran in a wide ribbon several feet down the hill.” Brown’s body lay in the blood and dust on Canfield Drive for almost four hours while the police plodded through their post-incident investigation. Before Brown’s body was finally removed, there were two dozen police cruisers, six canine units, and a SWAT team on the scene. Outrage boiled over into protest almost immediately.


These episodes of tragedy, dispossession, and violence all unfolded within a few miles of each other in St. Louis County, the first frontier of suburban development west of the city of St. Louis. Bound together by a common location and a common history, the stories of Michael Brown, Cookie Thornton, Esther Brooks, and the Hurst children underscore pervasive patterns of racial division or exclusion or neglect. And these stories raise pervasive questions about the status or standing of African Americans in their own communities. In the aftermath of the 1965 fire, Robert Reim, the mayor of neighboring Kirkwood, conceded that his city was “equally guilty with surrounding cities and St. Louis County in creating a ghetto-like effect in Meacham Park through neglect [and] discrimination.” At the unhappy conclusion of Esther Brooks’s lawsuit, none of the justices paused to comment on the savage irony of the decision: the confiscation of her and her neighbors’ property had erased their standing as citizens of Elmwood Park.

In the wake of the Kirkwood shootings, observers immediately underscored local patterns of racial division. At the core of both Cookie Thornton’s rage and the community response was the unevenness of local citizenship. Thornton wanted to share in the benefits of local politics and the potentially lucrative redevelopment, but instead he experienced only punitive and predatory state action. “While the acts are unimaginable,” as one reporter concluded, “many Kirkwood residents say the frustrations that consumed [Thornton] are very real”—that he was “driven to violence from frustrations that many black residents in Meacham Park describe: Being disrespected by city officials. Being hassled by the police. Being treated like second-class citizens.”

The confrontation between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, in turn, was most elementally a confrontation between citizen and state. This was evident of course in terms of policing and punishment—a state function with the capacity to discipline, disenfranchise, or destroy citizens. But it was also evident in schooling; in the most prosaic patterns of local regulation (the county’s inner suburbs are notorious for aggressive code enforcement); in basic democratic representation (the Ferguson-Florissant School District has only rarely and sporadically claimed an African- American member); and in the patchwork of municipal incorporation, annexation, and zoning that sorts the local population by class and race.

The aftermath—the protests that roiled through the next year, the Department of Justice investigation, and the ongoing political and legal battles—underscored how tenuous citizenship was (and is) for many African Americans in Ferguson and in the rest of St. Louis County. Heavy-handed response to the first wave of protests threw fuel on the fire. The images of militarized police confronting local citizens echoed those of Bull Connor in Birmingham a half-century earlier. The streets filled again in November 2014, when the grand jury in charge of the court case declined to indict Officer Wilson; in December, when the same happened in the case of Eric Garner in New York; in March 2015, when Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson resigned; and in April, in response to the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Ferguson became a shorthand for economic, political, and carceral injustice.


Spatially and historically, St. Louis County is a particularly stark setting in which to assess the inclusion and exclusion of African-American citizens from public services, public goods, and public protection. In U.S. central cities, the terms of modern citizenship were forged in a crucible of demographic and democratic change in the quarter century following the end of the Civil War. As the fleeting promise of reconstruction faded into the horrors of Jim Crow and the labor demands of northern industry outpaced those of the agricultural South, African-American migrants pushed north. (The African-American population of the city of St. Louis grew from about 22,000 in 1880 to almost 70,000 in 1920.) In cities like St. Louis, postbellum race relations were reinvented in a context of intense competition over housing and jobs and urban space. Where African Americans settled, the reach of Jim Crow followed. Racial lines were etched across the key elements of citizenship: housing, policing, schooling, and economic opportunity.

In suburban settings like St. Louis County, these racial lines were just as indelible—even if the threat they imagined was largely absent (the African-American population of the county was just 3,500 in 1890 and 4,700 in 1920, and it did not grow significantly until the 1970s.).

Some white residents in the suburbs saw their homes and neighborhoods as a haven from the racial threat represented by the city. This belief sustained a powerful investment in the advantages that flowed not just from segregation but also from local and federal policies that boosted the prospects of white families at the expense of others. What did this mean for the County’s African-American citizens, in the older settlements of Elmwood Park and Meacham Park, and in the transitional inner suburbs like Ferguson?

Elmwood Park and Meacham Park were part of a broader pattern of early twentieth-century African-American suburban settlement, often in unincorporated enclaves established before both systematic residential segregation and the land-use policies that sustained that segregation. Homeownership rates in these enclaves were high, but so too were unconventional forms of home finance (such as private mortgages and contract sales.) that made such ownership fragile.  Nationally, the populations of these “little ghettos” swelled with the Great Migration, and by 1940, they housed nearly a fifth of the metropolitan African-American population outside the South.

Inner suburbs such as Ferguson, by contrast, were developed and settled in the middle years of the last century as bastions of working-class white flight. Such settings employed the same tactics as their neighbors—including legal restrictions, systematic discrimination in private realty, and exclusionary zoning—but, over time, those tactics failed. Both disinvestment in the north of the city (and with it the failure of local public goods like schools) and the dislocation caused by urban renewal (shouldered overwhelmingly by African Americans) created immense pressures on the older, relatively affordable housing stock of the inner suburbs.

The larger setting of Greater St. Louis was irretrievably southern in its “race relations” and northern in its organization of property. In Missouri (as in much of the Midwest) the prairie beyond the last streetcar stop invited sprawl, while the policies shaping private development, municipal incorporation and annexation, and local land use were remarkably lax. This exaggerated both the incentive and the opportunity to engage in local segregation and discrimination. It deepened the contrast between older African-American enclaves (whose development, lacking modern sewers or water lines, was essentially rural) and the cul-de-sacs that surrounded them, and it heightened the economic and political pressure to erase them entirely under the pretext of fighting blight. And it raised the stakes in the inner suburbs, where racial transition brought with it deep anxieties about property values and public goods in the wake of a “black invasion” or “ghetto spillover.”

Much of the county’s suburban development was motivated by the desire to segregate. Development patterns and local zoning segregated land use, separating, or creating buffers between, homes, commerce, and industry. Private development and zoning, whose core logic was the uniform-lot, single-family subdivision, also segregated citizens by income. And both of these strategies were essentially and explicitly racist. The first stabs at zoning (including St. Louis in 1916) were efforts to circumscribe black and white neighborhoods, and the assumption that African-American occupancy was a form of “noxious” use akin to a junkyard or a glue factory lived on in the language and intent of race-restrictive deed covenants. The economic sorting accomplished by exclusive single-family zoning was so riven with unequal opportunity and naked discrimination that it quickly and accurately earned the moniker “white flight.”

In such settings, the notion that African Americans—either persisting in older pockets or moving into inner suburbs—were “in the wrong place” proved powerful and persistent. Urban renewal of the county’s black enclaves included relocation programs to move black residents “back” to the city. The demolition of the city’s largest public-housing project in the early 1970s prompted near hysteria that displaced tenants would find their way across the county line. New arrivals in transitional neighborhoods routinely noted the withering of local services and the bolstering of local policing. “I can’t recall the streets being cleaned the last year. We now have the most inadequate lighting in the city,” an African-American resident of the County told the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1970. “[But] I think we’ve got more police protection than we required when I first moved here. I don’t know if they were protecting me more or protecting someone from me.” A half century later, the Justice Department’s scathing dissection of policing in Ferguson made essentially the same point: the police see “residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue.”


Greater St. Louis underscores the long and troubled history of these patterns—starker in the shadow of globalization, deindustrialization, wage stagnation, market fundamentalism, and mass incarceration, but hardly new. It is a setting in which African Americans have experienced an uneven, tiered, and stratified citizenship—their opportunities and outcomes, their rights and obligations, sharply constrained by the structure and actions of local government.

Consider patterns of municipal incorporation and annexation and zoning, or the way in which political communities (and their citizens) were defined. In much of the county, across much of its history, political jurisdictions were drawn for the express purpose of sorting the population by race—facilitating white flight, stemming black flight, and quarantining existing enclaves of African-American occupancy. Suburban development, in this respect, reflected both the demand side and the supply side of “white flight.” Racial transition, economic decline, and the erosion of civic services provided the incentive to flee. Local zoning and housing policies, federal mortgage subsidies, and the deeply racialized practice of private realty reserved that opportunity for white families. And, adding insult to injury, private development and new municipal incorporation bypassed scattered enclaves of African-American occupancy. New construction and infrastructure flowed around these “little ghettoes” like rocks in a stream; the resulting economic and developmental contrast eventually targeted them for redevelopment or removal.

This fragmentation also meant uneven access to basic public goods and services (sewers, schooling, policing). Here again, uneven citizenship is evident from the most mundane (garbage collection) to the most profound (educating kids) of local responsibilities. The population sorting accomplished by municipal incorporation and zoning created jurisdictional fragments with vastly different capacities to deliver or pay for basic services. Older African American enclaves were often marked off by streets, sewer mains, and water lines that stopped at their borders. Secondhand suburbs like Ferguson undergoing racial transition suffered from both a meager fiscal base and steep service burdens. And, across the county, African Americans suffering lesser schools and services could always count on more attention when it came to policing or code enforcement.

Urban renewal and redevelopment policies underscore this unequal treatment, The designation of “blight” and the relocation policies that accompanied redevelopment were animated by concerns about the impact or legitimacy of African-American citizenry in the suburban landscape. Redevelopment, animated by profit, invariably ranked African-American occupancy near the bottom of the scale. Homeownership—so integral to the American ideal of citizenship—was sustained and subsidized for white families not just by denying the same opportunity to black families but also by actively dispossessing and relocating them. In Meacham Park and Elmwood Park these patterns of urban renewal and displacement played out in dramatic ways. Elmwood Park (the home of Esther Brooks) was wiped from the map and rebuilt in the 1960s, a process that scattered its original citizens across the deeply segregated housing markets of Greater St. Louis. In Meacham Park (the home of Cookie Thornton), redevelopment dragged out over nearly four decades and ended up embroiled in controversy over the displacement of its citizens.

The conditions sketched above shaped St. Louis and its suburbs, bearing most heavily on older inner suburbs like Ferguson that were caught between the sustained decline of the central city and the flight of wealth and resources to the outer suburbs. As black flight followed white flight, municipal fragments like Ferguson suffered both the success of local segregation and its failures. All of this formed the backdrop for the death of Michael Brown in August 2014. Uneven development yielded uneven fiscal capacity and a double burden for the county’s poorest residents: in areas where services were at their most meager, where public schools were struggling, local tax rates were invariably higher. Facing this combination of escalating demands and declining revenues, local governments drew even sharper distinctions between their citizens—abating commercial taxes in a desperate play for new investment, while using predatory policing and local courts to extract even more from those least able to pay.

The larger argument here is simply about the different institutional and political mechanisms shaping local citizenship—fragmenting and segregating citizenship through local incorporation and service provision, bulldozing citizenship under the auspices of urban renewal, and arresting citizenship through predatory policing.  But this argument also has a historical arc, suggesting the ways in which local policies sought to sustain segregation in response to shifting demographic, political, and fiscal challenges. Mid-twentieth-century innovations in municipal incorporation and zoning were quite explicitly and candidly crafted to sort the local population by race and class. Where and when these strategies failed—especially where pockets of African-American occupancy predated white-flight suburbanization—local authorities invoked urban renewal to erase the last vestiges of “blight.” This tack, however, was soon confounded by the slow collapse of the hard racial boundary between St. Louis City and St. Louis County and by black flight into the inner suburbs. With this, the definition and maintenance of local borders—and the day-to-day distinction between citizen and subject—fell increasingly to the police and the courts.

Colin Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa. He writes widely on the history of American public policy.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Citizen Brown: Race, Democracy, and Inequality in the St. Louis Suburbs, by Colin Gordon, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2019 by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.

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