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In St. Louis, changing a history of violence ‘has to be grassroots’ but can’t end there

After Michael Brown Jr., an unarmed Black teen, was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, months of protests and calls for police reform followed. While no officer was charged in Brown's case, the city and surrounding cities like St. Louis, saw some reforms. Yamiche Alcindor examines the reforms and the trends from historical events, like the East St. Louis riots, that still haunt Missouri.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The murder of George Floyd ignited those enormous waves of anger, frustration and demands for change.

    But the movement was growing well before that, with the deaths of other Black people at the hands of the police.

    That included Michael Brown, who died in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis.

    Yamiche Alcindor looks at what's changed since Brown's death and whether St. Louis can overcome its long, fraught history around race.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    It was a cloudy day on August 9, 2014, here in Ferguson, Missouri, when a Black unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, was shot and killed here on Canfield Drive by a white police officer, Darren Wilson.

    Out of that, a protest movement grew that lasted months. They demanded that the officer be charged. Ultimately, the officer was not charged.

    Other changes did come. Ferguson got a new mayor and a new police chief. In St. Louis city, a new prosecutor, also a new mayor. But people want to see more. They hope that St. Louis, which has a history of racism and violence against Black people, that this city can learn lessons that may help the rest of the nation.

    It was the launching point of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the gateway to the West, the home of Budweiser and the Cardinals, St. Louis, a city steeped in American history. But the long legacy of racism here continues to shape the city.

  • Dhati Kennedy:

    We're approaching Bond Avenue, where a lot of the Black families lived.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In 1917, Dhati Kennedy's family was living on the other side of the Mississippi River in East St. Louis, Illinois. At the time, it was an industrial city experiencing tensions between Black and white residents.

    That year, Black laborers were recruited to work in one of the city's major factories after the white workers went on strike.

  • Dhati Kennedy:

    Rumors were spread that these Negroes are coming from the South, and they're going to take our jobs, they're going to steal our way of life.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In July, that hostility turned deadly, and into one of the largest race riots in U.S. history.

  • Dhati Kennedy:

    White mobs moved into the neighborhoods, firebombed a lot of the houses. And they would stand around the house and wait for somebody to run out so they could shoot and kill them. If you were caught on the street, you were lynched.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Dhati's grandfather went missing during the massacre and was presumed dead. But despite the police and mobs blocking two bridges to safety, the rest of the Kennedy family escaped.

  • Dhati Kennedy:

    My grandmother was able to get her family, my father, our uncles, and all of them to safety across the Mississippi River on a raft that they built and fashioned out of burnt-out doors and everything wooden they could find.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Dhati says this legacy of dehumanizing and driving out Black people didn't end with what he calls the East St. Louis race war.

    Why do you think it's so important to keep that history alive, when we think about what happened in Ferguson, what happened to George Floyd, what's happening to African Americans and Black people all over this country?

  • Dhati Kennedy:

    Well, the massacre itself was fueled by a trope about Black men: They're rapists. They're thieves. They're murderers. They lie. They cheat. And they're lazy.

    That idea, in many, many different forms, still exists today.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    No one really knows just how many people died in the massacre here at East St. Louis. But for the people who were lucky enough to make it out, a legacy of violence and racism followed them.

    Across the river, many made a new home in St. Louis in a neighborhood called Mill Creek Valley.

    Walter Johnson, Author, "The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States": To me, it represents the depth of the history in St. Louis.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Harvard historian Walter Johnson is a Missouri native and author of the 2020 book "The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States."

    The book details the city's role as a center first of Native American removal and later of exploitation, violence, and the forced migration of Black people within the city and beyond.

    Following the massacre, Mill Creek Valley became a hub for Black homes, businesses and culture.

  • Walter Johnson:

    It's about 500 acres; 20,000 people lived there, 800 business and cultural institutions. Mill Creek Valley was destroyed by urban redevelopment and real estate speculation. But I think they left five or six buildings standing.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    It's now filled with highways, municipal services and many empty lots. As Black people were cleared out of that neighborhood, many were forced north into the Pruitt-Igoe housing project.

  • Walter Johnson:

    Pruitt-Igoe was one of the largest housing projects in the United States, and certainly the most famous and the most notorious.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Johnson took us to the site, where 33 11-story buildings once stood. It is now an overgrown lot.

    Pruitt-Igoe was advertised as safe, affordable housing for the city's working class and poor. But Johnson says it was neglected almost immediately. Over the years, it became a place to unfairly target Black people through experimental policing.

  • Walter Johnson:

    The experiment was to pull over, to randomly target as many young Black people as they could, and then to identify those who they thought might become offenders and arrest them on pretextuous charges.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    What you're describing then is racial profiling tied to housing.

  • Walter Johnson:

    Absolutely.

  • Man:

    Raw sewage bubbles out of the ground like a malevolent spring.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    With a focus on policing, instead of maintenance, conditions at the housing project deteriorated. And after just two decades of occupation, it was demolished.

    Once again, Black people were pushed further north, some beyond city limits, to Ferguson, Missouri.

    Walter Johnson argues, Black people here have been regularly exploited through disinvestment and police harassment in the form of fines and fees, all while major tax subsidies are given to corporations in this community, like Emerson Electric.

  • Walter Johnson:

    How is it that you have a community, a city, where the police are farming Black motorists for traffic tickets, when you have a $24 billion corporation in the city limits?

  • Protester:

    Hands up!

  • Protesters:

    Don't shoot!

  • Protester:

    Hands up!

  • Protesters:

    Don't shoot!

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In 2014, those decades of segregation, police harassment, and violence against Black people came to a head when Michael Brown was killed by officer Darren Wilson. Protesters, activists, neighbors poured into the streets, demanding change. The protests lasted months.

  • Protesters:

    No justice, no peace!

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But what has actually changed since then?

  • Man:

    Get back!

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Five years ago, the Department of Justice entered into a consent decree with the city of Ferguson. It's an attempt to reform the police department's policies and practices.

    As of 2019, traffic stops of Black people are down nearly 50 percent from 2014, and ticketing of Black residents is down 60 percent. And over the past five years, progressive Black candidates won a handful of races, most recently for St. Louis mayor.

  • Tisharu Jones:

    I, Tishaura O. Jones…

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    A native of North Side St. Louis, Tishaura Jones is the city's first Black woman mayor.

  • Tisharu Jones:

    The activists see this election as their chance to finally have someone on the inside that will not only work with them and listen to them, but also implement some of the strategies that they have been calling for.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    One of the people who kept that momentum going is Kayla Reed.

  • Kayla Reed, Action St. Louis:

    We're still dealing with and learning the names of folks who are being killed by police. We're still seeing most instances of that not resulting in any sort of charges or conviction.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In the months following Michael Brown's killing, Reed threw herself into organizing. She eventually started Action St. Louis, a grassroots group that advocates for racial justice.

    What's the connection you see between Michael Brown and George Floyd?

  • Kayla Reed:

    The movement that was sparked in Ferguson, I see remnants of it and legacy of it and continuations of it and new iterations of it happening in these other cities.

    And I think that we're still in that movement. We're still perfecting the demands. We're still perfecting the policies. And we're going after power now.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    She is confident, though, that these new political leaders are a helpful step in that transformation.

  • Kayla Reed:

    The win is not representation. The win is action. It's not just getting someone in the seat. It's ensuring that, once they're in their seat, that they do the things that we know are going to transform our communities.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In the month that Mayor Jones has been in office, she's defunded the Workhouse, a medium-security facility long criticized for its inhumane conditions. And she reallocated 2 percent of the police department's budget to social workers, counselors, and a housing fund.

    It's a move that some have criticized, as the city continues to struggle with violent crime.

  • Woman:

    Homicide numbers in the city of St. Louis paint a bleak picture.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Last year, the city saw its highest murder rate in 50 years.

  • Tisharu Jones:

    Number one, we need to declare gun violence as a public health crisis, but, also, crime and violence doesn't stop at our borders. We have to look at the entire region, which also includes our neighbors to the east in East St. Louis, our neighbors to the west and north in St. Louis County.

    We have to bring all the people to the table, because our destinies are linked and shared, and we have to address this as such.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But in the years since Michael Brown's death, police killings in St. Louis haven't gone down.

    One report says that, of the 100 largest cities, St. Louis police have killed the most people per capita since 2013. Mayor Jones' 13-year-old son is a reminder of just how much work still needs to be done.

  • Tisharu Jones:

    We were having a conversation about what the mayor does. And when I got to the police, he says: "Oh, well, mommy will be over the police?"

    I said: "Yes."

    He said: "Well, that means I will be safe."

    And it hit me like a ton of bricks, because it gave him a false sense of security, in my opinion, that he thought he would be safe because I became mayor.

  • Kayla Reed:

    St. Louis has a high poverty rate, St. Louis has a high violence rate, and St. Louis has a high police violence rate. We have to address the fact that, where violence happens, there's a lack of resources, there's historical neglect, and there's complete disillusionment with the system.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Jones is hoping a $500 million infusion of federal stimulus money for things like housing, broadband and work force development will also help address the lack of resources.

    She and others find hope in St. Louis' long history of activism. Throughout the 20th century, Black demonstrators led protests over fair pay, working conditions and hiring practices.

    Dhati Kennedy believes, to be successful today, there are important lessons from that past.

  • Dhati Kennedy:

    It just can't be legislative or just political. It has to be grassroots, but it can't just be grassroots. It's going to have to be a lot of things to come together. Put all of those cogs in the wheel together, and we can move forward.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And to those seeking change here in St. Louis and around the country, Kayla Reed says it will take a lifetime commitment.

  • Kayla Reed:

    This is a long-term work plan that we all have to commit to. There is real human cost to getting this right. And we have to get this right, because we're going to keep losing people if we don't.

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