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What's changed? In the year since the Kirkwood shootings, lots of talk and a little action

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: We know the time, the place, the people killed and the person who did the killing on Feb. 7, 2008. Those moments remain in the minds of those present that night and those present for the retelling after. But what about the moments that followed? What’s happened in Kirkwood and around St. Louis since Charles “Cookie” Thornton opened fire at a Kirkwood City Hall meeting, killed five and wounded the mayor, who died months later? Organizations have formed, essays have been written by school kids imagining a prejudice-free community, and remembrance ceremonies are planned.

But what have people learned? What’s different now, inward and outward, since that night that we all know so well?

Change is slow, but it‘s happening

Ron Hodges has lived each of his 54 years in Kirkwood. His mother was born here, his lifetime spent here. There’s a lot of history between blacks and whites in the city, he says. But there hasn’t been a lot of talking about that history, or what it means, or what role it might have played on the events leading up to Feb. 7. Not until after that day, at least.

Then, Hodges and other community members formed the Community for Understanding and Healing, of which Hodges is the chair.

Since, the group has worked to bring people from both races together to have a safe place to talk to each other about race and culture. In the dialogue sessions they’ve had since, they’ve discussed issues of race and class, among others.

“It’s working,” says Hodges, who is black and retired from the Air Force. “It is a slow process.”

Josie Chambers, a Meacham Park resident, has attended those sessions, met white neighbors she never knew and formed friendships as well.

“It has humbled so many people’s hearts and brought us closer together — families and people that we didn’t even know from Kirkwood,” says Chambers, who is black and retired. 

Now, she says, people are working to speak to each other about race and to understand that no one really knows where their neighbors are coming from.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of that process came at the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association’s Winter Celebration, held in January. In the past, the celebration for the historically black neighborhood has had maybe 30 or 40 people, Hodges says.

This year, there were 300, it was sold out — and the crowd was both white and black.

Blacks and whites have very different experiences

David Brown has lived in Kirkwood for 30 years. Margaret Bommarito has lived here for about 26. But in the last year, Brown, a retired software developer and Bommarito, who is self-employed, have realized there was a lot they didn’t know about some members of their own community.

“I have learned that they get discriminated against in a lot of really subtle ways that you wouldn’t really expect,” says Brown, who is white, of his black neighbors.

“I didn’t know a whole lot about what a lot of people live with,” says Bommarito, also white.

Both are steering committee members of the CFUH, and through the group, they’ve heard first hand stories, taken part in discussions and read books in the group’s book club, such as “Why are All of the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” Those books and discussions have illuminated a world always present but never understood.

“There are just advantages,” Brown says of his own race. “And they are very subtle, and they didn’t start with just us. They go back several generations.”

Though he has had black coworkers and friends over the years, “what I’ve really come to learn in the last year is there’s a black culture that black people are very proud of.”

And, he says, he never learned about that culture before because of white privilege -- which means in part he doesn’t have to think about the world he lives in, he just lives in it. But black people do have to think and adapt, he says. They have to live in a white world, work to fit in and embrace white culture to succeed.

Along with Hodges, Brown and Bommarito attended the Meacham Park Neighborhood Association’s Winter Celebration in January. It was the first time for both.

And actually, Bommarito says, before then, she’d never even realized they even had the celebration.

This could happen anywhere

In January of 2008, Jason Schrader moved to Kirkwood from a small town in Indiana. One month later, he sat in his home, listening to the sirens of police cars as they raced down his street.

“Surely nothing’s going on,” he thought. “It’s just Kirkwood.”

Then, he turned on his TV.

At Kirkwood Church of Christ, where Schrader, 27, is an evangelist, there was more disbelief.

“They couldn’t believe it happened because Kirkwood has always seemed to be a pretty peaceful place,” says Schrader, who is white.

But those are the first kinds of things Charles Adams says he hears after such tragedies.

“You can never say never,” says Adams, chief of police in University City.

After the Kirkwood shootings, police departments and governments began looking within in many cities, including his.

“It makes us all take a look at what we’re doing and how we do it,” says Adams, who is black.

In University City, that meant acknowledging that the Kirkwood shootings could happen anywhere and trying to make adjustments. He can talk about some and won’t talk about others, but one overt change, he says, is now people pass through metal detectors in the court.

“We have taken several precautions,” he says.

In Hazelwood, police chief Carl Wolf says people now use just one entrance into City Hall, other doors are kept locked.

“I think the biggest thing we’ve learned is for everyone to be more cautious,” says Wolf, who is white. “It just made us more aware of our surroundings.”

And of the people in those surroundings.

“Everyone’s trying to be more cautious,” says University City mayor, Joe Adams, who is black. “Everyone is probably listening more to what unhappy residents or citizens may be saying and trying to figure out whether they are a powder keg ready to explode.”

Mayor Adams remembers speaking with Kirkwood’s mayor, Mike Swoboda, about Thornton, though Kirkwood’s mayor never used his name. And he remembers a previous mayor who was concerned about another often vocal citizen.

Now, before city council meetings, Mayor Adams tries to establish calm and reminds people to be respectful. He doesn’t want anyone to say something they don’t mean.

“It can happen anywhere,” he says. “And that’s the scary thing.”

Some things just don't make sense

“People don’t like to hear that,” says Mike Holley, a retired high school teacher who grew up in Kirkwood and played basketball with Thornton. Thornton played forward. Holley was the benchwarmer.

He knew Thornton, worked with him and found him gregarious.

Thornton always said, “Have a blessed day, Holley.”

People want an explanation, says Holley, who is white, they need to find a way to understand evil. But maybe it’s not so simple, he thinks.

“It’s easier to fall into the default categories of race or class or city hall’s heavy handed,” he says. “Here was a guy that for the most part functioned fairly well in society, and yet I think he did a horrible thing.”

Maybe it all defies explanation. For now, that’s the only explanation Holley has.

More needs to be done

Life is precious -- that’s what Schrader, the young evangelist from Indiana, has learned in the last year. This summer, his time in Kirkwood will be up and he’ll move on to Tennessee.

But back in Kirkwood, for nearly every lesson learned and change made, much more waits.

Harriet Patton, president of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, has a book full of complaints from her neighborhood compiled for the Justice Department. “Half of the story has never been told,” she says.

Of Kirkwood’s 27,000 residents, Hodges says about 1,300 participated in the CFUH. “We haven’t reached the capacity of people we wanted,” he says.

The group hasn’t decided what comes next for them, and attendance has begun dwindling, Hodges says. He’s currently working with the U.S. Justice Department and says sessions are planned to discuss race in some Kirkwood churches.

White people need to understand what’s gone wrong in the past, he thinks, and some black people won’t believe in changes until they see them.

“I think it takes patience,” Hodges says. “And I think it takes work on everyone’s part.”

Brown has put in some of that work and sees his community differently now.

“I think that most of Kirkwood is unchanged from what it was,” he says. “Whether there’s another Cookie out there lurking, I have no idea.”

Many whites in Kirkwood think race isn’t an issue, Brown says. “You don’t have to think about it if you’re white.”

And likewise, many black Kirkwood residents don’t trust the white residents, suspecting they’ll soon tire of all the talking, and in the end, nothing will change.

“Actually,” Brown says, “nothing has to happen going forward. Old generations will die, new generations will continue on and things will change.”

Maybe there won’t be another event like this one, he says. But it would be better for everyone, Brown thinks, if people keep talking, keep reaching out and keep trying to understand where their neighbors are coming from.

“This is a slow healing,” says Chambers, “but it’s slowly, slowly healing.”

Kristen Hare

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