Reflections After Ferguson

Against the Current, No. 177, July/August 2015

Bob Hansman

Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negroes in the South I said, “That’s their business, not mine.” Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all. — Mamie Till, 1955

I BEGAN THINKING about this article during the period between Mike Brown’s funeral (which I attended — one of a handful of white people) and the November 24, 2014 non-indictment of Darren Wilson. As each subsequent event unfolded, I found myself revisiting what I had thought, what I had planned to write. Some things became clearer to me, others less so. Some of my earlier thinking was reinforced, some was challenged — or it expanded to include more question and nuance, and even contradiction and paradox, until my thinking belonged to me, and only me, and matched no one’s ideology.

The one person whose thinking my own thinking generally matched was my son.

I am a white man with a Black son. I did not have or get him young and fill his head with illusions of diversity and colorblindness, the way some white parents do. I met him when he was a young teen, living in the housing projects, well on his way to having a reality-based world view built around the urban litany of poverty, gangs, drugs, murder, jail, dysfunctional schools and police abuse — and very much not about diversity and colorblindness.

I grew up in St. Louis and, except for a few years elsewhere in the Midwest, have lived here my whole life. My family was of the generation that moved out of the City via the GI Bill: my parents first, then my grandparents, though we still, for a time, anyway, had friends and family back in the City. But after a few decades, everyone in the family had left the City for the county – or for smaller towns, more homogenous towns, farms, lakes, mountains. Almost alone among my family peers, I returned to the City, dismayed and mystified that our families had ever left it, and dismayed at what that leaving had wrought for those who did not or could not leave.

Years later — a quarter century ago now — and through a wholly unexpected chain of events, I came to be a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, which actually straddles the City and two counties.

Not long after starting at Washington University, and through an equally unexpected chain of events, I found myself teaching a summer art program in the Clinton-Peabody housing projects just south of downtown. This was, in retrospect, the summer when St. Louis’ murder rate was at its highest, the crack wars were peaking, and the projects I was in were largely controlled by Bloods, with a substantial presence of Crips on the western edge. There was a murder the first week I was down there.

Almost immediately, those two threads of my life — the University and the projects — began to intertwine.

The other major intertwining would be between my personal and professional lives. Far from crashing and burning, as expected, the summer art program took root; the next summer I was back, and during the rest of the year I spent more and more time there, as well. Just as the third summer was about to get under way, Jermaine Roberts, the boy I had become closest to — the boy who was my bridge to the other students, the boy who, I said repeatedly, I wished I had a son just like — died.

In the wake of that, one of the moms, who understood instinctively the depth of my grief and how lost I was without Jermaine, suggested I move into the projects with them. And Jovan, one of the other boys, who looked to Jermaine for the family he wished he had, and who was lost without him, asked to move in with me. My personal and professional lives fused. In many ways, instead of ending, life began then.

Eventually, at his initiative, I adopted Jovan. He is now 34, and running the program he was in as a child. But in the intervening years, he and I grew alongside each other, navigating the world and each other’s worlds, which increasingly came to be the same. I learned firsthand the nauseating fear that the parents of young Black men live with every time they walk out the door. And Jovan, in turn, taught me how to navigate my own anger, how to keep my outrage in check, how to keep from getting myself hauled off to jail.

We endured frequent stops by police who assumed we were a drug deal in progress, not a father and son, and who, when we tried to explain our relationship, told us, “You don’t have to get smart with me.” One time Jovan had an art opening a few blocks from our home; he never made it to his own opening, spending it instead on the sidewalk, handcuffed, while police ran checks. Another time police surrounded me in the projects, paddy wagon and all, cursing obscenities at me and threatening to “find something” in my car if I didn’t shut up. After I testified to the Board of Aldermen about police abuse, some of my kids in the program were targeted.

Our relationship with the police in the projects has changed, for the better. We still have to endure (and survive) the newbies, who get assigned there and have to act out all their own fantasies at our expense. But we now have the older police to protect us from the younger ones.

In any event, together, Jovan and I got him and me through his teen years, the years that Michael Brown would not live through.

The evening of the non-indictment, just hours before the announcement, Jovan and I were sitting in a restaurant, on the phone with some members of the national television press who were arriving in Ferguson. They had contacted us, interested in having us on for what they felt would be a unique and reasoned and thorough perspective. They told us, however, that should all hell break loose, they would cover that instead. All hell did break loose, and that was that.

We wondered what people would have thought about what we would have to say. We knew people who were protesting out of a deep and righteous pain; we knew protestors who saw this on the continuum of civil rights struggles dating back years, decades, generations; we knew protestors who would go on to be on the Ferguson Commission; and we knew protestors who hoped to get their picture in the papers in order to give them street creds and boost sales of their rap cd’s. We joked that Jovan would probably piss off some Black folks, and I would probably piss off some white folks. We knew that people on either side would spin this complexity into their own simplicity: Leave out the parts that don’t support your viewpoint, emphasize the parts that do. Look for proof that you are right.

We knew there were no one-liners, but where, we asked ourselves, did voices like ours fit in? On one hand, many of our criticisms of the police would be met with dismissal and contempt; on the other hand, many of our thoughts about the demonstrations/looting would also be met with dismissal and contempt — just from different quarters. Some people would paint us as blindly ideological; others as betrayers of ideology. Would people even listen long enough to get to complexity and paradox and contradiction?

Walking home from the restaurant, we saw a crowd of people a few blocks away, holding signs and shouting to passing cars. We veered over to see what was going on. As we got closer, we could see that the people were all white. I joked to Jovan that the white folks must be afraid to demonstrate where any actual trouble might take place. Two Black folks stood across the street, also holding signs — signs that said, basically, don’t jump to conclusions. The main group was rallying in support of Darren Wilson and police in general, and doing so in front of a television station that they felt had not behaved fairly. The two Black folks were not so much against anything — except blindly opposing or supporting anything.

But it all seemed so simple to the white folks — something, even, to encourage passing drivers to honk their horns and fist-pump over. I walked over to the two counter-demonstrators, thanked them. I was in no mood to try to talk to the crowd across the street, but I so wanted to ask them: Let’s say your child shoplifted, or shoved a clerk, or lipped off. And the police shot and killed him. Of course, your reaction would be to say, “Oh, well then; clearly my child wasn’t perfect; clearly my child was a thug, so no problem. It’s fine that you shot and killed him”?

You have some people to whom everything comes down to personal decision-making: If I have a better life than you, it is because I made better decisions than you did. To others, everything is structural: You got inherited structural advantages I never had. It’s one or the other.

But we look at our own family: My son’s older brother spent much of his life in prison for robbery; his younger brother, for murder. And Jovan clearly is, well, Jovan: a local and even somewhat national hero of sorts. If you only look at him relative to his brothers, you could conclude that it all comes down to the quality of one’s personal decisions.

But then you look at Jovan relative to his father, to me — and to conclude that the explanation for the difference in our outcomes is that I made better decisions than he did is ludicrous, obscene. I had choices he never had. People make personal choices, but they make them in a larger structural system that determines who gets what choices.

Yet something that obvious is all but absent in our public — and legislative — discourse. Our Missouri legislature, in particular, seems to be more interested in being punitive than helpful, as if you can threaten people out of the problems of poverty. What is the role — or even the survival rate — of complex, nuanced thinking in such an environment? — when so many people look at reality only long enough to find the place where it intersects with their ideology, and disregard the rest?

When we walked outside after Mike Brown’s funeral, we were confronted by a mostly white group of protestors across the street, dressed very differently from the folks coming out of the church, and holding banners about police abuse.

And there was that damn complexity again. Part of me (and others) felt this was inappropriate, disrespectful, co-opting a family’s heart-wrenching experience for one’s own political agenda. Another part of me (and others) understood the idea that “This is larger than you.” Who did this belong to? Who could it not belong to? Who could give it? Who could take it? Is it yours or not yours?

I also attended the Black People’s Grand Jury (again, one of the only white people there), which provided, among some serious speechifying, an alternate way of seeing some of the evidence. Even without that, however, I could easily have imagined myself in Mike Brown’s position, having a gun drawn or ready to be drawn on me, instinctively pushing it away…thus putting my prints on the gun….

So much comes down to voice, and power, and access to voice. I was unexpectedly appalled when I read Jeff Smith’s article in The New Republic, supposedly written to give us the historic facts about Kinloch and Ferguson, to help us understand Ferguson ( His basic premise is actually correct, but there were so many wrong “facts” in the article that one could be forgiven for assuming that his conclusion was as invalid as his “facts.” Any detractors who know their facts could use Jeff’s errors to call into question the otherwise valid thrust of the article. And, sadly, these “facts” are the only ones that even sympathetic readers will have access to, because Jeff Smith had the power to be published, and believed.

But I am hopeful about the Ferguson Commission. I have attended a number of the meetings, and the nay-sayers who charge that they are just window dressing are simply — and destructively — wrong. I know a number of commissioners personally, know them to be good people — even better people now than they were before. They are serious, driven, complex, working on many fronts simultaneously, connecting the dots, listening, and pushing tangible and specific policies to all the significant entities — educational, political, cultural. They are unrelenting, and they have the will and the ability to  accomplish things. And luckily, they have voice.

Of course, having voice is only part of the equation. Other people need to listen. And they need to not hear things that are not there. They need to get over the urge, after hearing “Black lives matter,” to say, “ALL lives matter.” It’s not that that isn’t true; it’s that it’s not the point. Nothing in “Black lives matter” excludes anyone else’s lives from mattering — just as nothing about Black Power excluded other demographic powers. They are simply affirmative statements in a place where we often get denigration instead.

Everything isn’t about everything; saying that one thing is true does not imply that other things are not. But one thing that too many white folks are good at is scaring the crap out each other. That’s why, of course, things like the Stand Your Ground justification — that you merely have to say you were frightened — are so frightening.

At a recent meeting here at Washington University in St. Louis, my friend and colleague Jason Purnell asked: What would be a kind of “anti-FHA” policy today? — meaning what could work at that scale, what could redraw the geographic and spiritual landscape of our country today?

It’s the right question — structural solutions to structural problems — and also the hardest question. Changing hearts and minds without the scale of policy can become merely anecdotal in its effect; but changing policy without also changing hearts and minds will never take root.

The Ferguson Commission seems to work at this intersection of scales and disciplines better than any group I have seen so far. And they are not alone. Many entities are rethinking their work, at whatever scale and in whatever area they work. Churches are working on that part, at that scale. Businesses are working on that part, at that scale. Families are working on that part, at that scale. Very few entities are not doing something that is appropriate to their scale and abilities. There is a pervasiveness now (it’s not always connected, but it is fairly pervasive) that is probably the best hope for things changing for real.

But even here there is a potential danger: that Ferguson becomes, ironically, the latest reason to continue to ignore the other parts of St. Louis. This is something that the Fer­guson Commission, despite its name, understands better than much of academia. Other municipalities have already told of a 20% drop in services flowing to them, as so much gets diverted to Ferguson now.

We don’t need courses on Ferguson the place, as much as we need courses on Ferguson the idea. There are Fergusons all over St. Louis (and the United States). Indeed, many places here in St. Louis are more Ferguson than Ferguson.

What will we do next year, when Ferguson is no longer the photo op du jour? Everyone is pimping Ferguson now. Where will we lead rather than follow?

Board-ups as Metaphor

Some of the enduring images of Ferguson (and South Grand) are of the board-ups painted over with doves and hearts and “positive” messages. Articles were written, photos taken, books published. I found the whole thing just a bit galling.

During the early weeks of November 2014, as the looming non-indictment hung palpably in the air, I had my students up in Ferguson — to connect the past to the present, but also to do something simple: patronize the businesses. Simple solutions, everyday solutions — like supporting the communities on their own terms, like helping their businesses survive — are accessible to everyone, something you can do by yourself, with friends; today, tonight, right now.

In early November the businesses renting space in a couple of the strip malls right across the street from the Ferguson Market and the McDonald’s were being told, by the property owners, to board up, in preparation for a potential second round of violence if Darren Wilson was not indicted. If they did not board up, and at least attempt to protect the property, insurance would not cover any subsequent damage.

Charles, who runs the Ferguson Burger Bar, decided not to board up; he felt it sent a bad message, and he would take his chances. The other businesses agreed to board up but were concerned: they had already lost up to 80% of their business; boarding up could be the final nail in the coffin. They talked with the students, and the students designed board-ups that looked a bit like actual store-fronts. Not only did the businesses look open, they looked cared about.

When the non-indictment came down, buildings all around the two strip malls were vandalized, looted, and burned to the ground. Those two little strips were untouched. One should beware of drawing too direct a line, anywhere; no single narrative explains the outcome. A number of factors could have played a role: attention directed elsewhere, implicit or explicit protection, Charles’ principled stand, sheer chance…and the obvious care that was represented by the board-ups: board-ups done “preemptively,” without publicity, to try to save the businesses, not coming in after the fact, publicity in hand, painting band-aids.

What, exactly, was the message there? And who was it for? Board-ups as metaphor. Different uses, different meanings, different messages.

Other messages might be relevant here, as well: basing one’s actions on the community’s needs, not your desires; and, paradoxically, seeing yourself as a citizen, not a consumer. A mere consumer will spend as little as possible; a citizen will spend as well as possible, even it means spending a bit more. If we think conscientiously about where we spend our money, every day, for 70 years….

And develop a collective sense of oneself: your welfare does not stop with your skin, or your blood family. What good is it to give your children a good education and a good career…in a world that is going up in flames of injustice? Indeed, as an adoptive parent — especially of a son whom, according to our cultural narrative, I should never have even met, unless it was as a victim of his crime — I now look at every person as potential family.

I’d like to wrap this up by saying a few words against diversity. Against diversity. Diversity, like color-blindness, but in different ways, can be dangerous. It can be a screen to gloss over, and even celebrate, injustice and inequality. There is also the trap of seeing in diversity a kind of equal-opportunity oppressed status. History, as well as the present, has proportion, proportions.

I have had privileged students, raised in the blindness of color-blindness and diversity, accuse me of lying when I took them to parts of North St. Louis that contrasted, horrifically, with what their parents had told them about the world, about what people deserve, about what they themselves deserve. I have had privileged students suggest to me that they understand discrimination — even systemic, generational discrimination like slavery — because they have food allergies, and can’t always find something they can eat when they go out.

The Test of Success

As I finish up this piece, Michael Brown Sr. is taking down the makeshift memorial of teddy bears and stuffed animals in the middle of Canfield Drive. It will be replaced by a plaque embedded in the sidewalk:

MAY 20, 1996 – AUGUST 9, 2014

Someday perhaps, all those stuffed animals and balloons can start going to our children while they are living, not to memorials after they’re dead. I take all of this very personally. Too many of “my” children — our children — make the transition from a living child to an image on a T-shirt with a sense of business-as-usual that is beyond description.

I bury children on a regular basis because of things that other people either deny, or are ignorant — pitifully ignorant — of. Yet I remain hopeful. I have devoted my life to that hope — and that work.

And my test for “success” is a very personal one, as well: When our “solutions” give my children in the projects a real chance at the same life that I have; when there are no projects — whatever form they take; when our “solutions” give my son a better chance of not being shot, well, then I’ll believe that we are about more than just talk, and I’ll believe we have achieved some kind of maturity as a species.

But not until then.

July-August 2015, ATC 177