For many, the scenes of conflict from Ferguson, Missouri this week were a reminder of an era of racial conflict many Americans had hoped was far behind them — particularly in the era of the first black president.
A peaceful night of demonstrations on Thursday was preceded by four nights of unrest in which the people of Ferguson attempted to protest the slaying of an unarmed 18-year-old black teenager, Michael Brown, and were met by battle-clad local police armed with military equipment.
The police had sniper rifles pointed at peaceful protesters, used tear gas and rubber bullets, detained journalists and dismantled a filming crew’s camera equipment. The St. Louis suburb had become a war zone.
On August 5, 1966, Martin Luther King Jr., and about 700 protesters marched through an outer Chicago neighborhood called Marquette Park to protest housing segregation, an ignominious endeavor in which the Second City may well have earned first place.
The ethnic whites who lived in Marquette Park had no patience for King or his message. One of them, according to the Chicago Tribune, proudly displayed a sign that said, “King would look good with a knife in his back.” The sentiment was shared by many of his fellow citizens, and King was dead less than two years later.
But blacks moved into Marquette Park anyway, though it was never truly integrated: unable to stop the influx, the whites simply left. Today, the neighborhood is only about 5% white, the Eastern Europeans having long decamped deeper into the suburban mosaic, ever farther from the lakefront city with its restive dark masses.
Ferguson, Missouri, is about a five-hour drive south from Chicago. The muddled legacy of King’s last campaign—not only to end institutional discrimination, but to persuade the races to live together in comity—is apparent as you travel through North County, the suburbs to the northwest of St. Louis that, like Marquette Park, were once white but are now largely black: Florissant (which the locals pronounce fluorescent), Jennings, Berkeley, Dellwood.
The people here are not exactly poor, but many fear they will be. And so they seek salvation from churches and payday loan windows, both of which are numerous, as are fast-food places that give no sense of regional flavor. You could be in central California, western Pennsylvania.
But you are in Ferguson, where 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson, in a high-noon confrontation on what should have been just another languid summer day.
The details of the incident remain maddeningly unclear, and the reluctant revelations by the police only obfuscate further: Was Brown a robbery suspect? Were his hands up when he was shot? Did he receive appropriate emergency care?
Nobody seems to know, so long-standing fears and suspicions bubble to the surface. The kindest thing you will hear about Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson is that he is a fool; the more cruel speculation accuses him of conspiracy and cover-up.
BIG NEWS! Walt Whitman Award winners will now be published by and receive an all-expenses-paid six-week residency at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Italy. Submissions open September 1, and poet Tracy K. Smith will judge.
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