Twenty years ago, I packed my gold Chevy Nova and drove across the Mississippi River toward Madison, Wisconsin. Like so many others who uproot from their hometowns, I did so for a better gig.
In my case, that gig was working as an editor-writer at a magazine, and I jumped at the chance. As a 29-year-old writer, I didn’t see any opportunities for growth in St. Louis. This was a town, after all, that had slowly sucked civic pride right out of me. Underneath its veneer of friendliness, St. Louis felt like a dystopian world in which everyone is in play or being played by forces known and unknown.
It was a place, in fact, where a group of CEOs and wealthy elites working under the mantle of “Civic Progress” made the real decisions about the city’s direction. The benefits of said “progress” never extended to me or other members of my community—not in terms of adequate jobs, housing, education or anything else that would offer us the opportunity to thrive.
On August 9, 2014, these tensions between the powerful and the disregarded boiled over when an 18-year-old black teenager was shot by a 28-year-old white police officer. I was in St. Louis at the time, celebrating my mother’s 70th birthday with families and friends. Our joy quickly turned to sorrow, frustration, and anger. We gathered around the television and watched as police officers, dressed for war, met protesters with batons, tear gas, and rubber bullets.
These events added to the sense of exclusion and disaffection that I had experienced during my years growing up in St. Louis—feelings that persisted until this September when I downloaded the 16-person Ferguson Commission report. Instead of burying the institutionalized racism and poverty my community has struggled with, the authors state an unequivocal truth: “We know that talking about race makes a lot of people uncomfortable. But make no mistake: this is about race.”
In painstaking fashion, the report details how multiple municipalities in the region use poor, black citizens as veritable cash machines, collecting fines and fees from them to fill the city coffers. The Commission adds to the findings of an Arch City Defenders report, which had revealed that one town, Bel Ridge—about the size of a square mile with a population of 2,700 people, 81 percent of whom are black and 42 percent in poverty—filed almost 8,000 cases in municipal court. Almost a quarter of the city’s revenues came from court fines and fees.
For me, reading the report evoked a memory going back some thirty years when I watched the police try to arrest my mother.
My father was out enjoying his morning routine, grabbing coffee at White Castle and reading the paper, when two police officers—one older and gruff, the other younger and visibly apprehensive—came to the door and announced that my mother was under arrest for amassing parking fines; fines that were all incurred in front of our house, mostly for alternate-side parking violations. Forking over cash for fines just didn’t rank as high as other needs like paying the mortgage and buying food.
Neither officer was expecting Angela Davis, but that’s what they got. My mother sat on the staircase in the foyer and said she wasn’t getting up. They threatened her and tried to pick her up, but she pulled away and yelled. Things escalated when the older police officer shouted at my grandmother who was slowed by a stroke and trying to calm the situation. The front door was open and a crowd gathered.
The older officer unbuttoned the holster to his service revolver and placed his hand on the grip. My mother said, “Well, it’s a good goddamned day to die.”
Thirty years later she tells me she has never been more scared—or more defiant—than at that moment. Like so many others who have had similar experiences—some of whom are included in the Ferguson report—her resistance was not rooted in hatred of the police. Her brother, her father, two of her uncles—they were all in law enforcement. This was about respect. My mother offered to pay the fine in person on Monday, but the officers wanted it their way.
Just as I thought the arrest was about to become terrifyingly violent, my father came home. I remember how he shifted from confusion to fear to anger.
Now that I am about the same age as my father was then, I realize he had felt what so many black men feel in situations like that: emasculation. My father, the Marine, the civil engineer, with no criminal past—the man who talked philosophy with friends and could handle himself around roughneck construction workers—was forced to navigate a path that a white man of the same socio-economic status would likely not encounter. They didn’t have that history of police harassment; black male subjugation in the face of a baton or gun; and the gut punch of knowing that the man behind the badge has total control over you.
Thankfully, a higher-ranking police officer, who was black, arrived on the scene. He sorted it out and reprimanded the lead officer. The next day my parents paid the fine with a little help from a family member. If my mother had been arrested, the cost to my parents—bail, a lawyer, court fees, the fine itself—would have financially crippled us.
The Ferguson report demonstrates that my family’s experience was not unique, and that the truths laid bare in the document don’t just apply to Ferguson, the St. Louis area, or Missouri. In fact, the report is an indictment of a country that is breaking the backs and hopes of the poor and people of color.
But the report also offers sweeping reforms that would help us move beyond the current, unjust status quo—actions raging from police training and consolidating police departments, to court and sentencing reform, to increasing healthcare coverage for the poor and addressing hunger, to raising the minimum wage, ending predatory lending, and investing in quality job training for disconnected youth that leads to employment.
In recognizing the lived realities of African Americans—and offering reforms that speak to those experiences—the Ferguson report is a blueprint on how to tear down the racial wall that divides us. Now we need to respond with action, until young black people no longer have to leave repressive hometowns in search of opportunity as I did.