The events in Ferguson have now been dissected from just about every angle by just about every opinionator in the country, but the really telling efforts are those by local observers. Bill McClellan, columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has written two columns to date about the events surrounding the killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. He’s usually a subtle and unassuming writer who often gets to the heart of the matter. However, these two most recent efforts have an effect more like a kick in the shin and go a long way to explain why the St. Louis area has been the scene of the recent furor.
The title of yesterday’s opus, “All Killings Should Spark Outrage,” expresses, on the surface, an unexceptionable sentiment. Or maybe not. The column hinges on the undeniably true observation that not all of the many urban murders that take place regularly spark violent protest. But although McClellan gives a tip of the hat to the “racial angle,” his story rests on the assumption that the murder of Michael Brown doesn’t differ in important ways from other criminal deaths, that it can be divorced from the the systemic racism and resulting police brutality that the protesters, with very good justification, perceive as a uniquely significant factor in Brown’s death and an ever present factor in their own lives.
McClellan asks, “why did this victim’s life matter more than the lives of all the other victims?” Of course, the answer is obvious; it didn’t and doesn’t,” and I’m willing to bet that almost nobody protesting his death, peaceably or violently, would think that to be the case. Many, I’m sure would be insulted by this effort to compare apples and oranges and come up with something other than a putrid mess. Brown’s death is different. It’s not more significant, but significant in a different way.
McClellan, usually described as liberal, drives this all-violent-deaths-are-equivalent vehicle onto the road marked with the rightwing signage we are becoming so accustomed to, specifically that favorite, the “black-on-black crime” signboard. He asserts that:
It is not condoning police shootings to point out that they constitute a minuscule fraction of the shootings that ravage black neighborhoods. It’s not the cops, and it’s not the Klan. It’s the residents themselves.
Well, duh … but what exactly does this have to do with the price of beans? Michael Brown, unarmed, hands raised, was shot dead by a police officer, and it is the manner of his death with all its unique baggage that is the topic of the moment. But wait, there’s more:
If the black community would come together on those shootings and say, “No more,” there would be no more. …
I’m willing to bet that the majority of white crime victims are also shot by folks who are not the cops or the Klan. So does that mean that McClellan thinks that if white people “would come together on those shootings,” every thing would just be hunky-dory? What does “coming together” actually mean? Lots of the folks out in the streets of Ferguson would tell you that that’s just what they’re doing. When a community, and by community I mean the entire St. Louis area, continues to turn a blind eye to abuses, the “coming together” can be expected to take a somewhat more forceful turn.
McClellan does pays some rather perfunctory lip service to the fact the situation is a lot more complicated than what is implied by all the tired and frequently just plain wrong tropes associated with the black-on-black crime narrative. But by emphasizing that particular theme, he has reduced the impact of the poverty, the failed inner-city educational system, our indifferent and often even hostile governing elite, and, lest we forget all those armoured vehicles on the streets of Ferguson, the frequently brutal and brutalizing police presence that lies at the heart of the specific anger we have seen on the Ferguson streets.
Which brings me to McClellan’s latest column, reassuringly titled “Memo to the world – we’re fine.” McClellan seems to be of the mind that all the agonizing he’s been reading in the national press is just the preening of a lot of liberal drama queens. The reporters and politicians who were arrested and gassed were just glory-hounds who have an incentive to inflate the moment:
It was foolish to arrest them, I’d say, but it gives them some status. Fifty years ago, they would have stood up to Sheriff Bull Connor and his dogs and his fire hoses in Birmingham. It is not their fault they are reduced to loitering too long at a fast-food restaurant.
In his mind, while the Ferguson and St. Louis County police have mishandled the situation, they are also victims of bad optics. “Two heavyset white guys with silver hair expressing their faith in each other does not inspire confidence with a skeptical young black audience,” and “perceptions matter,” McClellan tells us. I don’t know about perceptions, but I know that dead kids do really matter, and kids killed by folks entrusted with power over their life and death matter in a special way.
Constitutional and civil liberties violations also matter, even if the historical significance doesn’t rise to the level of Bull Connor and his canines. When such violations occur, the fact that the individuals victimized, like most humans, may have mixed motives is what doesn’t matter. Snide digs at those who had what it takes to go to Ferguson and see what was going on first-hand only makes McClellan look small-minded and doesn’t in the least diminish the importance of what they saw and reported.
While McClellan acknowledges that “we are not in great spirits,” he wants the nation to know that the violence is small in scope. A friend who lives near the scene of the riots, he reports, was out of town and didn’t know anything was happening so close to home. Well Whoopee! I can assure him that lots of folks all over my mostly lilly white West County neighborhood are also fine and, except for tsk-tsking about all the looting and bad behavior, are basically untroubled. Unlike many people in Ferguson who believe, correctly or incorrectly, that their young men risk a death similar to that of Michael Brown’s every day.
This separate but unequal experience seems to be characteristic of life in St. Louis. And its impact is only reinforced when influential local columnists like McClellan characterize the outpouring of anger in Ferguson as “farce,” deplore the failure of black citizens there to stamp out violent crime by the force of their will, and try to claim that all is really “fine” as long as nobody in St. Louis takes the criticism of outsiders to heart. This is the St. Louis I have slowly come to know and not to love so much.
McClellan seemed to find Leonard Pitts’s characterization of Ferguson as a “scream” to be risible. He wrote:
I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention my colleagues. They’ve waded into the midst of things to get their stories and their photos. Some really great photos, too. My favorite was of a guy with sagging pants jumping through a store window with a bottle of wine in each hand.
As Pitts would say, it was a portrait of Ferguson screaming.
And, McClellan’s amusement aside, it was. The man with the wine may not have known it either, but it was.
* Text slightly edited for clarity; (8/16, 2:15 pm.)