The Ferguson Commission released its digital report this week, a shrewd combination of data and narrative that describes the dire situation facing black and white St. Louis. The interactive document represents the Commission’s “experiment in inclusive democracy,” nearly a year’s worth of on-the-ground efforts to dig up what underlies St. Louis’s seemingly intractable racism.
“The report is so vast,” writes Atlantic staffer David A. Graham, “as to raise questions about its utility or even its point.”
But if you're from St. Louis and you dare spend time with Forward Through Ferguson, you will know from your own life that the Commission’s findings are as concrete as words can be, and you will know that you are implicated by them.
“To soften the edges, to try to polish up the rough spots and to just present the stories and statistics that put St. Louis in a positive light, would be a disservice to those citizens who spoke up, and even more so, a disservice to the future of the region,” the Commission writes.
But this has been the St. Louis way. We leave the unmentionable unmentioned in the name of civic pride. Take the current cover story of St. Louis Magazine, rosy profiles of our founding families, a piece so tone-deaf, in this particular moment, you could almost take it as a joke.
I am a product of St. Louis privilege. My mother grew up in a mansion on gated Hortense Place in the Central West End in the 1950s. She remembers the neighborhood children hiding out in old, brick ashbins in the alley, throwing rocks at passing cars.
Her father was a businessman, a member of what activist group MORE calls the “St. Louis 1%”. His company manufactured fractional-power gear motors. Think adjustable hospital beds. When he built their next family home in Ladue – a brand new suburb at the time, today one of the wealthiest in the U.S. – he designed the swimming pool with a floor that rose and fell to change the depth.
I grew up in Ladue, like my mother before me, wondering why we had bus stops. When she was young, she explained, you used to see the help there in their uniforms.
I attended both Mary Institute and John Burroughs, the two most notoriously wealthy of St. Louis’s prep schools, shoulder to shoulder with the children of power. I went on summer-long backpacking trips, and – no joke – I had a pony.
And yet, when I left St. Louis for Yale in the fall of 1997 – academically prepared, no student loans, all the tools I needed in my backpack – I knew that if I ever came back here, it would mean that I had failed.
“If you live in a safe suburb, and you’ve got a good job, and you’ve got health insurance, and you never worry about your kids’ schools, and you don’t wonder if you might get pulled over because of the color of your skin, then maybe the status quo is working just fine for you,” the Ferguson Commission writes.
It was working for me, growing up, and for nearly everyone I knew, and yet, at 18, I understood that life in St. Louis had its limits, even if I couldn’t name them, and that to make good on all my “promise”, to capitalize on the vast investment that had been made in my person, meant getting out.
When I broke down and moved back here, then, in 2009 (from New York via southern California), a few years married and fresh out of graduate school, those first winter months, I drove the streets in a perpetual déjà vu, nauseated by old feeling.
Why, I wondered, should being here make me feel sick? Here, where I could own a life I envied: comfortable home, easy commute, closeness to family, access to nature and music and art?
I tried to dismiss this anxiety as juvenile and status-driven, born of ideas of success I do not endorse. I tried to dismiss it as personal, an echo of family secrets, anger, and divorce.
But I haven’t been able, in all this time, to shake the feeling that something vital is missing here, and it isn’t a start-up incubator or a concert hall or a cancer center or a football stadium.
Though my ancestors have toiled here for generations, I keep on asking myself: why do I have so much trouble calling St. Louis “home”?
This past year – the killing of Mike Brown, the State of Emergency, Ferguson October, the Grand Jury, Moral Monday, and now the Ferguson Commission report – these have been the clearest answers yet.
In March, I visited my father at his winter home in Phoenix. After my children, his grandchildren, were in bed, I tried to talk to him about “the movement”. Why all the unrest? I described the military staging ground set up in my neighborhood when the Darren Wilson ruling was expected, such that my son could admire the Humvees from his stroller. I mentioned the armed guard in my pediatrician’s waiting room.
Granted, my father has heard me go on about injustice since I was teenager, but somehow, as I’ve matured, earned degrees, lived across the country, traveled the world, he has yielded nothing to my point of view. All the education he paid for? He doesn’t trust it.
“Margaux,” he told me in Phoenix, both of us tired, “you need to look out for your own family.” I didn’t know how to explain, if he really couldn’t see it, that that’s what I was doing.
The Ferguson Commission report legitimizes my St. Louis experience, tells the stories I have known to be true, but that many in my privileged circles, in my own family, will deny.
And of course, I know full well why. St. Louis isn’t a small town, but moneyed St. Louis is. You never know whom you might offend, or how that offense may come to haunt you. Probably, that’s why it’s taken me so long to write this, because I know with each sentence I am risking my own access, privilege, inheritance.
The Ferguson Commission report lays out 189 policy “calls to action”, organized by theme and prioritized by urgency, listing for each the government and other agencies positioned to act. For this reason alone, I would argue the report’s utility (though I won’t deny the “path forward” it articulates is long).
The Commission tells us, though, that its “primary audience” is not our leadership, but “the people of the St. Louis region.” That it has chosen plain language instead of jargon. That it has chosen the internet instead of print. It’s a document for the people, and what it can do for us – what it does for me – is offer up new stories, sad and infuriating as they may be, because if we keep telling ourselves the same ones, if we keep telling them to our children, we are going to find ourselves wishing we could send them away from here.