“I am Darren Wilson”: St. Louis and the geography of fear
The following piece is from Quartz. It was written by Sarah Kendzior.
By: Sarah Kendzior
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—“I am Darren Wilson.”
The slogan is all over the St. Louis metropolitan area: on T-shirts worn by soccer moms, on rubber bracelets worn by police officers, on signs held by their wives. “I am Darren Wilson,” they proclaim, in a show of affinity with the white police officer who shot black teenager Michael Brown to death in the street in Ferguson, Missouri on Aug. 9. “I am Darren Wilson,” they affirm, as St. Louis waits for a grand jury to rule whether the most infamous police officer in America will be indicted.
Everyone in St. Louis is afraid. The discrepancy in what they fear is tearing the region apart. Ferguson protesters—and much of black St. Louis—fear the police. They fear officers like Wilson, whom they believe view black men as inherently threatening and deserving of lethal force. Since Aug. 9, protesters have proclaimed “I am Michael Brown” and mimicked the “hands up” gesture he allegedly made before he died. “I am Michael Brown” is the grim corollary to their other rallying cry: “Black lives matter.”
Those who claim “I am Darren Wilson” say they stand in solidarity not just Wilson, but also with law enforcement. To support Darren Wilson, the refrain goes, is to support law, order and due process. But underlying the phrase “I am Darren Wilson” is a different kind of fear. It is fear of disenfranchisement, chaos, and criminality. It is a fear of black youth and black self-determination. This fear structures not only the geography of St. Louis, but also the regions beyond.
Today the base of Wilson support comes not from St. Louis, but rather neighboring St. Charles County, where white St. Louisans began to migrate en masse at the turn of the 21st century following the arrival of blacks in suburban St. Louis. The Wilson case is the culmination of decades of the racial politics of fear, which dictate everything from where people live and how they treat each other to whom they view as the antagonist in the Ferguson events. While the grand jury has until mid-November to rule on an indictment, rumor is that it will happen soon. St. Louis is a region on edge, united only in anticipation that the worst is still to come.
Social media and segregation
On Oct. 10-13, St. Louis hosted a “Weekend of Resistance,” during which thousands of activists descended upon the city in support of Michael Brown and his family. That same weekend in St. Charles, supporters of Darren Wilson held a bowling night to support Wilson’s defense fund. They announced the event on a Darren Wilson Facebook support group with over 80,000 members. It is one of many Wilson support groups with membership in the tens of thousands.
Social media is one of the few spaces in St. Louis not subject to segregation. This raucous online debate often stands in contrast to what area residents are unwilling to say to each other in public.
Die-hard Wilson supporters share a specific terminology. The protesters are called “terrorists,” sometimes “treasonous terrorists.” Groups of black protesters are described as a “lynch mob” targeting whites. Looting, which has been rare during the months of protest, is emphasized. The characterization of the protesters by Wilson supporters reflects both whites’ rationale for fleeing St. Louis and Wilson’s for killing Michael Brown: fear of black crime.
One Wilson supporter, a lifelong North County resident who is white and asked to remain anonymous, explained his perspective in an email:
“Demanding Wilson’s arrest before that process is completed is akin to a lynch mob and would circumvent our sacred process of actual justice. All the racist chants, death threats, harassment, interruption of travel and commerce and general terror have become an insurrection and must be stopped… Interrupting commerce and disrupting normal working citizen’s lives is not what the founders had in mind when our right to protest was protected. They also didn’t envision mobs of people screaming racist vile [sic] and chanting death threats against our police.”
“I felt I made the right decision as soon as I came out here,” says Carmen Mannino, owner of Mannino’s Market in Cottleville, MO. “People came in the store and welcomed me with open arms. I came here in 1998. When I moved, people said, ‘Why do you want to move to Cottleville? There’s nothing out there.’ There were no businesses out here. And now look at it.”
“We had old-timers who respected my dad so much,” Mannino recalls. “They had respect for people. The people were just amazing back then. But I saw a lot of the change when I was there. I started being afraid to leave my mom or my wife outside the door. There were drug deals and fights and we looked at each other and said, ‘We have to get out of here.’”
Mannino’s is one of many North County businesses that fled to St. Charles County following the demographic shift in the 1980s. Others include Faraci Pizza—whose owners at the remaining Ferguson branch have clashed with protesters—Old Town Donuts, Pironnes Pizza, and Fritz’s Frozen Custard. Families who grew up in a white North County are reliving their childhood memories in a white St. Charles.
Geography of fear
The geography of St. Louis is carved by racial politics. Many of the residents of St. Charles County—where Wilson claims his base of support—grew up in St. Louis’s North County, the series of suburbs north of the city, which includes Ferguson. Once a white, blue-collar hub, North County underwent a dramatic demographic shift in the 1980s and 1990s as black St. Louis families fled the decay of the inner city.
As St. Louis County became more black and saw its population stagnate, the white population of St. Charles County surged, from 144,107 in 1980 to 360,485 in 2013. The population of O’Fallon, Missouri rose from 8,677 in 1980 to 82,209 in 2010. Nearby Wentzville rose from 3,193 in 1980 to 29,070 in 2013. Wentzville is now home to a General Motors plant that created hundreds of jobs in 2014, in contrast to the closed-down factories whose rusting skeletons loom over St. Louis’s majority black neighborhoods.
As St. Louis endures a seemingly eternal recession, St. Charles County is booming. Drive down its main roads and you see open farmland on one side and construction sites on the other, with far fewer of the payday loan stores and pawn shops that line St. Louis’s streets. To many, St. Charles County, located across the Missouri River, looks like the promised land.