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Friday, May 24, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Ferguson’s Racial Divide Traced to Politics of Suburban Growth in Region Around St. Louis

ST. LOUIS (CN) - A clear racial divide in the St. Louis region has been exposed as the Michael Brown protests in Ferguson enter their third month and have expanded into new venues.

A growing number of white suburbanites - either due to protest fatigue, cultural differences, concerns over protest tactics, or flat-out racism - seem to be rejecting the protesters' message, with sometimes violent results.

On Sunday, a Rams fan leaving the game claims she was punched in the eye by a protester simply for celebrating the team's upset win over Seattle by saying, "Let's go, Rams." The incident led to protesters using a flag pole as a weapon; two protesters were arrested.

Two weeks ago, protesters were met with a strong reaction by Cardinals fans outside Busch Stadium during a baseball playoff game. Some fans yelled racial slurs at protesters that mirrored many of the comments found at the end of St. Louis Post-Dispatch website articles chronicling the latest protests.

Ed Pottgen, of Arnold, Mo., wanted to take his family to a Cardinals pep rally in downtown St. Louis before Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against San Francisco, but decided against it in fear of the protests.

"We didn't feel that our kids should be exposed to that," Pottgen told Courthouse News. "We felt uneasy and not safe going down there. The unpredictability of the protests is what really scares us. You see the stuff out of control on TV and on Facebook and on Scan Ferguson."

While Pottgen, who has black relatives, does not agree with the racism directed at protesters, he said he understands the frustration.

"It's definitely turned me off to the cause because they are just not doing it by the books," Pottgen said. "They're not going through the legal steps of the process. They are just jumping the gun before documents come out and the judges decide."

Pottgen's opinion of letting the legal process play out seems to be a growing sentiment in white suburbia. But Ferguson Democratic Committeewoman Patricia Bynes said people with that attitude are missing the point.

"They have no idea that the protest is about the system that is not working for black people in this country," Bynes told Courthouse News. "When you are black in this country, we already know how the outcome is going to be. That is what we're protesting."

Jumping the Shark?

Perhaps the turning point for those in the white community who have been turned off by the protests came with the shooting of VonDerrit Myers on Oct. 8 in south St. Louis city.

Myers, an 18-year-old black man, was shot 17 times by an off-duty police officer moonlighting as a security guard.

Police said forensic tests back up the officer's claim that Myers, who was awaiting trial on gun charges, shot at the officer first.

That shooting spurred several nights of protests in the neighborhood, which included many of the protesters from Ferguson.

But Michael Brown, whose shooting by a white Ferguson officer on Aug. 9 started the protests, is viewed as a more sympathetic character by many in the white community because he was unarmed. Myers is not viewed in the same light because he allegedly was shooting at an officer.


Many in the white community feel that the protests "jumped the shark" in protesting for someone shooting at an officer.

"It's a mirror image of what happened out in Ferguson," Pottgen said. "They immediately started protesting without having any evidence."

Again, Bynes believes many are missing the point of the Myers protests.

"Are we only supposed to be angry about perceived angels?" Bynes said. "Even people who have broken the law, are they not supposed to be given their own due process? Are we not to question what made this off-duty officer pursue this young man in the first place? This goes back to racial profiling. What made you go after this young man in the first place? And the response was that he was holding his waist band. So you're telling me, you hold your pants and if a police officer thinks you are holding your pants in a certain way to think that you have a gun, that's a reason to pursue somebody?"

Bynes said the issue with many protesters is racial profiling. They believe blacks, such as Myers, are more likely to be stopped and questioned by police officers simply due to the color of their skin.

Adding to the distrust, Bynes said, is that the police changed their version of the events surrounding the Myers shooting several times.

The St. Louis Black Experience

"I am always aware that I am black," Bynes told the Courthouse News. "I have to always be aware of how white people are perceiving what I say, how I walk, my facial expressions, so that way I don't come off as threatening and play into the stereotype of the angry black woman. I never get to be myself."

Bynes said that mindset is reinforced by her interactions with police officers.

One time, Bynes was stopped by a police officer in the affluent suburb of Frontenac. Instead of telling her what she was stopped for, the officer asked her if she was lost.

Bynes said her experience is typical for those in the African-American community. Throw in a larger number of police-related killings and incarcerations of African-Americans and it is easy to understand the frustration.

"White people are not pulled over in the same numbers that black people are," Bynes said. "White people are hardly ever pulled over and the police officers actually had the gall to ask them where they are going. That's none of your business. Why did you pull me over, officer?"

Bynes believes the Brown shooting was the boiling point. The protests are not totally about Brown, according to Bynes; they are a people speaking out about decades of injustice.

"They keep focusing on the one," Bynes said. "This is a protest about the system, and getting into the system usually starts with that first interaction with law enforcement. What made you pull them over? What made you pursue? And everything after that, when you are black, goes downhill fast."

A History of Separation

There are 90 municipalities in St. Louis County and all but a few have their own police force, mayor, city manager and town council. Eighty-one have their own municipal court.


Jackson County, which surrounds Kansas City, is geographically larger than St. Louis County, but has about two-thirds the population. Jackson County has 19 municipalities and 15 municipal courts - less than a quarter of the municipalities and courts in St. Louis County.

The proliferation of municipalities can be traced to the white flight out of St. Louis City that started in the 1920's. First the wealthy white families moved to St. Louis County, followed by working-class whites; the last major group was African-Americans.

According to Colin Gordon's the book, "Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City," whites used whatever tools they could to prevent black families from moving into their neighborhoods. Those tools included race-restrictive deeds and covenants until they were struck down in 1947, segregation until it was struck down in 1954, real estate pacts, and finally zoning laws.

When courts began to strike down blatantly discriminatory policies, whites engaged in a pattern of zone and retreat, according to Gordon. Developers would create new subdivisions outside a city. White people would move in. As black families moved north and west of the city, these subdivisions would try to keep them out by zoning themselves as single-family housing only, barring the construction of public and low-income housing.

Bynes points to the recent growth in St. Charles County to the west and Jefferson County to the south as evidence that the practice is still going on.

"St. Louis as a region has failed to deal with this issue," Bynes said. "St. Louis has grown because every time there's too many black people in the neighborhood, everybody wants to move west, move south, move west. This is typical St. Louis reaction to keep moving. ... St. Louis has failed to deal with its race issues."

'Typical St. Louis Move'

The appointment of Capt. Ron Johnson from the Missouri Highway Patrol to oversee police response to the Ferguson protests was initially met enthusiastically by the protesters.

Johnson is black and is from the area. The protesters said they felt more comfortable with him because of that.

Johnson immediately ordered armored vehicles off the Ferguson streets. He promised no tear gas would be used.

After four straight nights filled with tear gas, flash bangs and rubber bullets, protesters seemed to have a sense of relief. A block party atmosphere developed, prompting many in the media to call it a partest.

The party atmosphere lasted only for a night.

The next day, unbeknown to Johnson, Ferguson police released surveillance video of Brown allegedly committing a strong-arm robbery minutes before he was shot.

The video's release stirred an already emotional crowd, prompting more riots that evening. Many protesters believe that the video's release the day after Johnson took over - with a softer, gentler approach that they felt was working - was no coincidence.

"That's the perfect example of access, no ownership," Bynes said. "When people allow blacks to come to the table in perceived positions of power, that's not really going on."

The video release left many feeling that Johnson was just another token appointment.

"That's a typical St. Louis play right there," Bynes said. "We'll hire the one black manager or we'll have the one black CEO and it's other people behind the scenes who are either trying to create the chaos because of that or who are really pulling the strings."

Questionable Tactics

Many in white suburbia question the tactics of the protests.

Certain chants, such as, "Who do we want? Darren Wilson. How do we want him? Dead!" turn them off.


Wilson is the white police officer who shot Michael Brown.

Other suburbanites don't like it that protesters have focused on sporting venues and private businesses to stage their demonstrations.

"That's not the right way to protest," Pottgen said. "The silent protest out in front of City Hall or where the shooting was, that's the right way to protest. To bother families who had nothing to do with that and to go down there and destruct what they're doing - eating, going to a game, going to a musical, whatever, it's not the right time or place for that."

Pottgen worries about the effect the protests have on the police. He believes the protests may have a chilling affect on police reaction to potentially dangerous situations.

"They're handcuffed themselves," Pottgen said. "They can't protect us. It's lawless out there. There's no law and order going on right now. For that, I feel if I'm around that and something goes down I don't think that the police could help us."

Others are concerned that the protesters haven't learned from their predecessors.

A man asked to be identified only as John is a north county resident who lives just a few miles from Ferguson. He is white, but empathizes with the protesters. But he has concerns about the protests' effectiveness.

"It is important to stress that the larger issues being raised in these protests are real, deep-seated and worthy of discussion," John told Courthouse News. "That's what makes it so sad to think that the protesters' own actions seem increasingly prone to discredit those issues as they get stapled to individual incidents where people become emotionally invested in a narrative before the facts of a matter are even established.

"That's exceedingly dangerous - especially if that narrative ultimately doesn't prove true, leaving protesters more alienated from the system and whites more convinced than ever that the legitimate complaints of their African-American neighbors about abusive police are baseless fairy tales.

"I often think that social justice advocates learned the wrong lessons from the 1960s. The successes of that era caused them to romanticize protest as a concept without understanding its mechanics, its purpose or its role as part of a larger strategy to catalyze social change. Showing up to wave signs and chant became more important than actually understanding what effect your actions might be having - or even caring if you were having an effect at all. Good protests impress other people. Bad ones impress other protesters."

Bynes does not agree with all of the chants or all the tactics used by the protesters.

"What I would like people to understand is that not all the protesters are on the same page," Bynes said. "Not everybody is in unison as to why they are out there and what is driving their motivation out there."

Bynes said there are multiple leaders, which leads to differences in tactics and actions.

But even though there is no one predominant leader, such as Martin Luther King became for many in the 1950's and 1960's, the goal to eliminate racial profiling is the same. And even though many in white suburbia can't relate, Bynes hopes they realize the problem is shared by black and white alike.

"We all have to figure this out together, because it's hurting all of us, whether you know it or not," Bynes said. "The people in their uppity houses with the perfectly manicured lawns, they thought they were fine. They did not know, 'No, you are not, because you were completely blind or ignoring a set of issues that is now literally in your back yard.' You're not OK."

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