What will we learn from a week that will weigh heavy on the hearts of St. Louisans for years to come? These tumultuous days have changed the way we see each other and the way the world sees us.
The fury that unfolded after a police officer killed Michael Brown in Ferguson laid bare some of our area's underlying fault lines. It raised questions we usually leave buried. And it presented to the world an image of our region that those of us who live here didn’t always recognize and might rather not see.
Most prominent among the fault lines was race. It’s a factor in virtually every issue facing the region, but we seldom talk about it frankly. This week, the subject could not be avoided.
At the center of events was a young black man who ended up dead on the pavement. At the center of the controversy was the fact that young black men are disproportionately among those stopped, arrested and killed by police. Brown’s death temporarily made St. Louis ground zero in the national debate about the causes of and appropriate responses to this reality.
If you are white, as I am, you may choose to ignore reality – at least temporarily. If you are African American, you have no choice but to deal with its implications. Yet we saw this week that none of us can ignore reality forever. Problems that primarily afflict some in our region eventually touch us all.
Much concern focused on what happened in the moments before Brown died. No doubt, it's essential to find out and to follow through appropriately.
But regardless of who was at fault when Brown was shot, the problems between police and African Americans need to be addressed -- in Ferguson, throughout the region and beyond. Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson acknowledged as much and said he hoped an adviser from the Justice Department would help the community make progress. Currently, Ferguson's population is about two-thirds African American, but the police force has only three African-American officers on a force of 53. That's one place to start.
Sadly, it's no surprise that racial tension might erupt in the St. Louis area. Even so, the escalation from protest to riot happened with stunning speed. Faith leaders, political leaders and even the family of Michael Brown pleaded for peaceful protest, yet violence continued night after night.
One of the looters, in an interview with a Post-Dispatch reporter, justified his actions as fighting back against injustices. We can challenge reasoning that rationalizes looting of the very businesses that help sustain a community. But we can’t simply dismiss the existence of people who feel so disenfranchised that looting makes sense to them. We can’t expect to build functional communities and a thriving region on a foundation riddled with despair.
That means we have to pay attention to factors that feed despair. Schools in several north county districts have been struggling for years to maintain or regain accreditation. Housing values took a severe hit in the Great Recession and recovery still lags. Incomes are lower and unemployment higher than in the county as a whole. White flight has resegregated parts of north county that used to be heavily white.
Still, Ferguson in many ways has been a beacon of hope. This week, residents stepped forward to clean up their community. In recent years, they’ve stepped up to build civic pride and a lively business district. The fractured image that the world saw of Ferguson this week is not the whole picture of that community or of our region.
Until this week, St. Louis was known as the place where the unrest of the '60s did not lead to riots. Some here have wondered over the years whether muddling through the minefield of racial issues without an explosion inadvertently made it harder to recognize and clear the mines. Now, the question is the reverse: Will the detonation that finally happened distract attention from the minefield of issues we still need to defuse?
Eventually, the significance of what happened this week will be measured by how well we clear the mines. Soon, the national media spotlight will move on. Our reporters will be here, providing coverage we hope will help people confront the issues that are no longer buried. For us, this is not just an important story. This is home.