Imagine the neighborhood where you went trick-or-treating as a child, hurt your knee falling off the jungle gym, or went on your first shy date. Now imagine seeing it on the television one day, the eerily familiar backdrop occupied by violent mobs facing off against troops in camouflage amid clouds of tear gas. Now imagine you and your daughter have just returned from a vacation in Scotland—I know, this is a highly specific thought experiment—with little access to phones or the internet, to find that your old neighborhood has been leading the news for days.
I grew up next to Ferguson, Missouri. My childhood home was just over the border in Florissant, but my grandparents and cousins lived in Ferguson, and the Halloween, the playground, and the date all happened there. And I was one of the last people in the news-watching world to learn about it becoming a war zone.
I live in rural Ireland these days, and can’t vouch for what’s happening on the ground in Ferguson right now; I’m reading the same Rashomon-style reports on the internet like everyone else. As someone who knows the neighborhood and the city, though, I can tell that pundits around the world, left and right, are seeing in this tragedy whatever they want to see. Black activists see police racism, libertarians see a failure of big government, liberals see a need for better social policies, law-and-order conservatives for more … you get the idea. Whoever you are, this tragedy just proves you were right all along. And when the violence in this St. Louis suburb dies down, Americans of all political stripes might walk away having learned all the wrong lessons.
Many important aspects of this situation have been covered admirably elsewhere: that unarmed suspects seem to be apprehended elsewhere without being shot several times; that local police in this small town were equipped to become soldiers occupying enemy territory; that authorities are restricting the Constitutional rights of protesters; that news feeds seem to be downplaying this story inside the USA. Rather than add hot air to those issues, though, I want to point out how often the coverage, intentionally or now, portrays Ferguson as a poor, black, violent hotbed of racial turmoil.
In fact, a ghetto erupting would not be as remarkable; Ferguson is important because it is—or was—a reasonably safe, racially diverse, working-class suburb; its ethnic makeup and incomes have changed in the last 20 years, but my friends in the area said they thought of it as a stable community.
A number of reports have mentioned that St. Louis is one of America’s most violent cities—but somewhat unfairly, as casual data-sifters are misled by a quirk of its geography. The municipal city of St. Louis itself is tiny and demographically impoverished— a literal “inner city”—while almost 90 percent of the population lives around it in the vast metro area. Some regions around St. Louis do have staggering crime levels; East St. Louis’ 50 violent crimes per 1,000 people per year makes it the most violent and dangerous city in the USA. Ferguson, however, had only 3.77 violent crimes per 1,000—one-thirteenth that of East St. Louis.
While some writers tried to squeeze Ferguson into one box, others tried to squeeze the rest of the area into another—as Julia Ioffe did in the New Republic article “White St. Louis Has Some Awful Things to Say About Ferguson.” Treating a handful of loiterers in an upper-class neighborhood as representatives of two million “white St. Louis(ans),” Ioffe snarked that “people here were disdainful and, mostly, scared—of the protesters, and, implicitly, of black people.” Judging from their actual quotes, however, the respondents’ anger seemed directed at the rioters, not African-Americans in general or Ferguson overall. When her respondents attributed the violence to “outside people coming in,” moreover, they were entirely correct—the Washington Post reported that some looters “have arrived by bus and by car from Chicago, Detroit, Brooklyn and elsewhere,” and that “a large number have addresses listed in Illinois or in Texas.”
Reports from my acquaintances in the area give me much more hope than news reports do. Even when their office computers were hacked by Anonymous or their schools or businesses shut down temporarily, they have helped each other out and volunteered to clean up debris. Most protesters remained peaceable, some guarding businesses to keep them from being looted. Rather than being an oppressed underclass or idle hoodlums, most Ferguson residents—black and white, liberal and conservative—seem to be the victims of a tiny number of people, most of whom rolled into town like a motorcycle gang.
Portraying Ferguson as a broken ghetto serves the purposes of many factions in the USA right now, allowing everyone to pass judgment about something almost everyone dislikes from a safe political distance. The reality is much more disturbing: What happened in Ferguson could happen where you live, for while race and poverty are important, this tragedy seems to have fed off more pervasive flaws in the culture.
To explain, allow me to back up a moment. When my acquaintances here in Ireland see images of Ferguson, they marvel at the ordinance—here most police don’t even carry guns—but they also tell me Ferguson doesn’t look poor. They grew up here when this country had a fraction of America’s wealth—again, GDP-per-capita—but also a fraction of its crime rate. Like people in many countries or historical eras, they were poorer than Americans today, but also less fearful.
Why they weren’t afraid has many possible answers, but I can suggest a few. Most people knew their neighbors, including local police, and that web of trust cushioned the weight of the world. They enforced most community standards through social pressure, without police. Young males were usually occupied with physical labor rather than mischief. Guns were unknown except for hunting in season. Most people had the skills and infrastructure to provide the rudiments of life for themselves, rather than being financially dependent on strangers. People’s perception of each other was shaped by their interactions, rather than a sensationalist mass media.
I use traditional Ireland as an easy example, but you could say all the same things about most traditional societies, or most American communities as recently as several decades ago. Such communities—poor but scraping by, close-knit, self-reliant—are the rule in human affairs; they are what normal looks like.
Most Americans I talk to live far from family and do not know or trust their neighbors. Most went deeply into debt to afford an education, car or house, and must travel long distances to buy food or get to jobs. Their economic relationships—the means of getting food, water, clothing, warmth, and shelter—are vertical, to strangers in distant and possibly unaccountable institutions, rather than horizontal, to others nearby.
Low incomes carry a social stigma, yet traditional means of saving money or being more self-sufficient are often socially discouraged or even legally prohibited. Many Americans feel their main emotional connections to and through electronic media, and they are the most heavily medicated people in history. Perhaps these things seem irrelevant to police vs. rioters in Ferguson, but that’s the point. When something like this happens, the left and right argue about how to change institutions’ top-down policies toward handling people, not to give people less cause to be handled.
This weak social infrastructure makes most Americans highly vulnerable to crime, and they know it. In working-class neighborhoods like Ferguson, neighbors look with dread at the violence and social breakdown of places like East St. Louis, and fear it coming to where they live. Liberal commentators often dismiss such fears as simple racism, and sometimes that plays a role. I know many people, however—black and white—who reach across color lines and who still fear violent gangs.
Fearful and mistrusting people respond in all kinds of counter-productive ways. They move further and further away from urban centers, to places where they are even more isolated. They absorb themselves in specialized media that appeals to their fears, and their preparations for emergencies tend to involve guns. They demand more and more from governments they trust less and less, and surrender legal rights to police that are a) heavily armed, b) frequently attacked, and c) human. All of which could work out just fine, as long as nothing ever goes wrong.
What I’m getting at here is this: don’t make the mistake of pitying Ferguson from a distance, as something that happens to someone else. Many social problems have to already be in place, undiscussed and unresolved, for a tragedy to spiral out of control like this, and those problems don’t just exist in black neighborhoods, or working-class ones, or in the Midwest. With a weak social infrastructure and a fearful populace, any neighborhood might erupt like this, given the right shove. And many things will shove our communities in the coming years. Most Americans, across the political map, know it; even if they disagree about what the cause will be, they sense tough times ahead.
So here’s a thought experiment: Imagine the neighborhood where you went trick-or-treating as a child, hurt your knee falling off the jungle gym, or went on your first shy date. Now imagine seeing it yourself one day, the eerily familiar backdrop occupied by violent mobs facing off against troops in camouflage amid clouds of tear gas.
Don’t think about what someone ought to do to prevent it. What are you going to do?
Brian Kaller grew up in Florissant, Mo, and lives in rural Ireland. He has written for First Things, Front Porch Republic, Grit, Mother Earth News and other publications, and blogs at http://restoringmayberry.blogspot.ie.