Why are we still talking about Ferguson?

By William H. Freivogel

Ferguson is the most recent chapter in the longest and most important story of American history - how the nation makes good on its founding promise that “all men are created equal.”

Two hundred forty years ago that was an audacious, even hypocritical promise for a country where blacks were slaves, women couldn’t vote and Native Americans were being driven off land and killed.

But as Aug. 9, 2014 dawned, many Americans felt good about the progress toward equality.  America had its first black president and the civil rights laws and court rulings of the 1950s and 1960s had transformed the country.  Racism still existed, but mostly hidden rather than institutionalized in law.

The tumult that followed Michael Brown’s death showed the nation has a long way to go. Cities, such as St. Louis, are segregated. Racially isolated schools, like Brown’s, are inferior. Policing, like Ferguson’s, falls heaviest on black citizens. Unemployment is much higher among blacks and wealth accumulation much lower.  Many states still try to decrease the number of blacks who vote, even if the effort is dressed up as ballot integrity.

As the two-year anniversary of Brown’s death arrives, the national conversation about race and policing is at the center of the presidential race and was an important talking point for Republican candidates for governor in Missouri who talked about “Ferguson burning.”

The stories in this special report trace the enormous power social media exerted in telling the Ferguson story to the world and creating a new civil rights movement.  The stories show how:

- Tens of millions of tweets and other social media posts reached over the heads of less passionate, less agile traditional media to tell the Ferguson story largely through the eyes of protesters.

- Social media connected a new generation of civil rights activists who are now in the forefront of Black Lives Matter, the face of the new civil rights movement.

- The first tweet about Brown’s death came a minute or two after he crashed to the pavement. Social media had sent thousands of tweets before the first news report in traditional media and hundreds of thousands before cable got to the story.

- Social media created the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” narrative that initially dominated news coverage.

- Traditional media reports, apparently influenced by the social media narrative, used terms like “hands up,” “shot in the back” and “executed,” with rare mention of Brown struggling for Officer Darren Wilson’s gun.

- Social media posts, eyewitness accounts and traditional news media reports often turned out to be false or unreliable.

- Although the Hands Up narrative turned out to be a myth, it was a powerful myth that contained important truth about the excessive use of deadly force in Missouri and nationwide.

- The Justice Department investigation - while clearing Wilson - showed an appalling pattern of unconstitutional policing targeted almost entirely at African-Americans who were mistreated by a municipal court system aimed at cash rather than justice.


Social media not only connected Black Lives activists but also led in St. Louis to formation of a loosely organized group of activists - sometimes referred to as the Organization - which meets monthly to plan protests and reform activities. One tangible result was the election of a new prosecutor in St. Louis who promises to use special prosecutors in police brutality investigations.

In addition to the Organization, another loosely organized table of progressive groups meets to plan their reforms. For the Sake of All, for example, presses for reforms to address the impact that poverty has on health.  Poor residents of some parts of St. Louis live almost two decades less than those in affluent parts.

Finally, this special report tells the story of long-time reformers whose efforts got new attention and energy from the reform impulses that emerged from Ferguson.  The most obvious example is ArchCity Defenders and its legal allies who have achieved some reforms in the municipal courts that wreck people’s lives by locking them up even though they haven’t committed crimes.  These reformers say they continue to contend with a Missouri Supreme Court slow to act and with municipal court judges who harbor offensive attitudes toward African-Americans.

The Ferguson story is complicated. But there are undeniable truths:

- Better police tactics - community policing and deescalation, for example - could save the lives of young men such as Brown, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

- The lowest rung of justice - where people who have not committed a crime are jailed for failing to pay tickets or appear in court or make bail - is a scandal that had not been fully appreciated before Ferguson and has not been fully reformed since Ferguson.

- Convicting police officers of federal or state crimes is difficult because of the high burden of proof required in all criminal prosecutions and because the Supreme Court is deferential to police judgments. There is no prospect of that changing.

- The expansion and improvement of police licensing could keep bad apples from moving from department to department.  Almost one-quarter of police are not licensed mostly because of opposition from police unions. Also, there is no comprehensive federal database of officers who have lost their licenses, the way there is a database for doctors.

- Racially isolated schools, such as Normandy where Brown graduated, provide an education that is separate and tangibly unequal.  There are no promising reforms in the works to fix the problem.

- St. Louis remains a racially segregated community without powerful forces to encourage residential integration.  A plan to improve the living conditions of those in Canfield Green didn’t get the political support to get built.

- There are no comprehensive figures on police use of force making it hard to come up with meaningful reforms.

And underlying everything is the conversation about race. St. Louis’ racial history makes this community a logical place to restart this conversation.

The Missouri Compromise, Elijah Lovejoy, Dred and Harriet Scott, the East St. Louis race riots, the Fairground swimming pool riot, a string of nationally significant housing discrimination cases and the nation’s largest urban-suburban school desegregation program — all of these events make St. Louis an epicenter of the nation’s racial struggle.  Sometimes for good, sometimes bad.

The housing discrimination cases from St. Louis ended legally imposed housing segregation, even if they didn’t create integrated communities.  The inter-district school desegregation program brought higher graduation and college-going rates for tens of thousands of students in the program. It was successful enough that in 1999 a remarkable political consensus emerged to extend the program indefinitely.  But this successful effort did nothing for racially isolated schools such as Brown’s Normandy High School.

St. Louisans born in St. Louis or Normandy are equal before the law to those born in Kirkwood or Clayton, but they don’t get an equal education, can’t expect to live as long, mostly live in segregated communities, face a sometimes hostile police force and don’t accumulate as much wealth.

This has to change if America is to fully redeem its founding promise and become that shining city on the hill. 

Publisher's note

By William H. Freivogel

For many veteran reporters -- including me -- Ferguson was the biggest story of our lives.  Tony Messenger, the Post-Dispatch’s former editorial editor and now columnist, told me this spring about the “anger” he feels about the issues of race and justice surrounding Ferguson and added he expected to write about Ferguson for the rest of his career.

I agree.  It seemed everything I had written about over more than four decades came together in that one explosive moment on Aug. 9, 2014: police brutality, petty court corruption, civil rights, housing discrimination, job discrimination and school desegregation in St. Louis. 

As historic as it was to elect the first black president, the national back-patting that followed blinded us to the deep racism that remained.  The events in Ferguson pulled the blinders from our eyes.

GJR is publishing this special report because Ferguson is a seminal moment for the influence of social media and the reinvigoration of the civil rights movement. And it is a moment for St. Louis and the nation to search their souls about the racial history that echoes loudly down the centuries and confounds us in the present.


Race has been for me a subtext of my life in St. Louis since I entered Frank P. Tillman elementary school in Kirkwood in 1954, the first year that the Kirkwood public schools desegregated.  Kirkwood is an upper- middle-class suburb about 18 miles south of Ferguson, along the tony western corridor out of St. Louis. 

The fact that Kirkwood schools desegregated didn't mean there were black students in kindergarten that year.  There weren't.  Kirkwood was desegregating not because it chose to, but because it was the law of the land. 

I remember only one black student at Tillman and then North Junior High.  I can still remember her name, Jackie. She asked me to dance during elementary school dance classes.

 I hated dance classes, was embarrassed to be asked to dance by a girl and was especially embarrassed to be asked by a young black girl.  It probably showed.

The dividing line for attending North, the almost all-white junior high school, was down the middle of our street.  Our house was on the north side of the line.  My parents wanted to buy a house they liked across the street, but that meant I'd be going to Nipher, the junior high school with black students.  So they didn't buy the house.  Our graduating class from Tillman felt sorry for those in our class who had to go to "dangerous" Nipher. (Somehow, the girl who became my wife survived the experience.)

I don’t consider my parents racists.  They favored civil rights and my dad was proud of having hired a black postman to work in his service station in Maplewood.  He also was proud of a young African-American who was attending Washington University Law School, Harold Whitfield. My dad gave him cheap gas, a favor still remembered by the man who became Kirkwood's first black city councilman in 1972.

But Bull Connor's fire hoses were one thing; sending their only child to Nipher was another.

There was a larger proportion of black students when I got to Kirkwood High School.  But I don’t remember having any of them in my classes, other than gym. Many of my friends called black students “gars” in conversation - a shortened form of the racial epithet. 

It was a time of easy privilege and casual, unexamined racism even though the Civil Rights Movement was at a crescendo. 


My freshman year in college was the year that the Rev. Martin Luther King and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated.  Casual, unexamined racism had no place.   

As I became a professional journalist, every decade of my professional life was centered around police brutality or race or both.

One of my first city desk assignments at the Post-Dispatch in 1972 was to investigate the death of Joseph Lee Wilson in police custody.  St. Louis police claimed that Wilson, who was white, had suffered seven broken ribs and massive internal injuries because of a fall from a barstool. Mike Royko, the clever Chicago columnist, said the barstool must have been atop the John Hancock tower.  St. Louis Circuit Attorney Brendan Ryan confided to me that a police officer almost certainly was responsible.  One could almost see the imprint of a shoe on Wilson’s smashed chest, he said.  But there wasn’t enough evidence to charge any particular officer.

In January 1977, a Maplewood policeman shot and killed Thomas Brown in the police station. Brown was a developmentally disabled man who had been arrested on a check charge.  Colleague Paul Wagman and I found a pattern of police brutality. One officer, Lt. Joseph Sorbello, played Russian roulette with suspects. Sorbello and the police chief lost their jobs in Maplewood. But soon Sorbello turned up in Breckenridge Hills.  But soon Sorbello turned up in Breckenridge Hills. While off-duty, Sorbello fatally shot an unarmed suspect in the back.  That led to a long and partially successful crusade by my friend, Saint Louis University law professor Roger Goldman, to license police officers to keep the bad ones from hopping from muni to muni. 

Covering the Justice Department and United States Supreme Court in the 1980s, I wrote about President Ronald Reagan’s reversal of civil rights policies in an effort to end affirmative action and court-ordered school desegregation.

I got a taste of the prejudice when I went to Sen. Strom Thurmond’s hometown early in the 1980s to report on the continuing disenfranchisement of blacks and the history of the Red Shirts brutalizing freed slaves during Reconstruction.  An older gentleman stopped me on the street and asked me if I was the reporter in town. When I said I was, he waved a thick walking stick at me and told me to get out.

Missouri Attorney General John Ashcroft turned up at the Justice Department shortly after Reagan’s election to persuade the administration to reverse its prior stance in favor of inter-district school desegregation in St. Louis.  It did.

Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon was a different political party from Ashcroft, but his opposition to the St. Louis urban-suburban transfer program was every bit as zealous.  As an editorial writer, I likened him to a Southern politicians standing in the schoolhouse door. Nixon’s history of opposition to the Kansas City and St. Louis school desegregation programs, his poor relations with black politicians and his lack of understanding of race were poor preparation for taking center stage after the death of Mike Brown.

By 1998-1999, civic leaders led by Dr. William Danforth had concluded that the inter-district program program had not only desegregated schools, but also resulted in higher graduation and college-going rates.  A federal judge blocked Nixon’s attempt to end the program and appointed Dr. Danforth to work out a settlement. Danforth came together with a bipartisan group of state legislators and civil rights lawyers to extend the transfer program indefinitely. 

After an editorial campaign by the Post-Dispatch, St. Louis voters miraculously passed a property tax to extend the life of the program. It continues to this day. 

When John Ashcroft was nominated for attorney general in 2000, I argued on the editorial page - without success - that he should not be confirmed because of his poor civil rights record, including his politically opportunistic opposition to elevating Ronnie White from the state supreme court to the federal bench.


The issues of race, privilege and policing came home to Kirkwood in 2008 when Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton killed two white police officers and three city officials during an assault on City Hall.  The mayor, Mike Swoboda, was grievously wounded and died some months later.  He was a friend.

Thornton had been an African-American leader and volunteer at Tillman, the elementary school I had attended years earlier.  But Thornton became disaffected, claiming that city police and officials unfairly targeted him for thousands of dollars of parking tickets for his demolition vehicles.  He also thought the city reneged on demolition contracts for the redevelopment of Meacham Park.

In the city-wide reconciliation process that followed the city hall murders, longtime black residents told long-festering stories of racial prejudice that opened the eyes of white neighbors. Harriet Patton told about a teacher ripping up an English paper at Nipher because the teacher thought it was too good for a black student and must have been someone else’s work.  There was also discussion about “white privilege,” but few Kirkwoodians seemed willing to admit to its existence.  


Before Michael Brown’s death, I viewed the civil rights movement as proof of the phrase that President Obama and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King quoted so often, that the arc of history “bends toward justice.”

Blacks, women and whites without property were denied the vote at the time the Constitution was adopted.  None of those barriers remains.  Blacks were slaves and then second class citizens segregated by law until 52 years ago.  Women couldn’t vote 100 years ago.

But the journalist and thinker, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has challenged the claim that the country is inevitably moving toward justice.  “I think it bends toward chaos,” he told Jon Stewart.   Michael Brown’s arc ended that day on Canfield Drive.

Coates, in his letter to his 15-year-old son, Between the World and Me, explains why he couldn’t comfort his child who went to his room after hearing that Officer Darren Wilson had not been indicted in Brown’s murder. He recalls his 15-year-old son waiting up late in expectation of an indictment and then, crushed, going to his room to cry.  

“I didn’t hug you you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you.  I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay.  What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.  I tell you now that the questions of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream, is the question of my life.”

Coates writes that any nation that claims the exceptionalism that American leaders claim should be held to a high standard.  “America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization.  One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error.  I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.  This is difficult because there exists, all around us, an apparatus urging us to accept American innocence at face value and not to inquire too much.  And it is so easy to look away, to live with the fruits of our history and to ignore the great evil done in all our names.  But you and I never truly had that luxury.”

Percy Green, the leader of ACTION who had fought for civil rights for half a century, is similarly blunt.  There is no progress as long as “no white policemen have been convicted and jailed.  My barometer is when I start seeing white policemen…charged, convicted and jailed for their abuse.  I also feel the same about prosecuting attorneys.”

Nor is community policing the answer, he said.  “I see how the Establishment has come up with all of these gimmicks….of having sandwiches or having breakfast with the policeman… They call it now community policing.  But all they want to do is to turn the community to be bigger snitches….to be community snitches….You are seeing black folks in the black schoolteaching in the schools respect for the law; myrespect for the law is if a policeman gets out of hand he is going to be indicted and sent to prison.”

Even with community policing, “the policeman still going to have the right to shoot you and claim they were in fear of their life but you don’t have no justification to shoot the policeman out of fear for your life.….You put the badge on and he then has the patent for being in fear of one’s life. You, John Q., who has been the victim of these killings, you have no reason to be fearful and shoot a white policeman….  (Yet) history will show….that you have more right to be fearful of a white policeman, than he does…A black person has more of a reason to fear for his life when he comes upon a policeman.” 

When one reads the racist texts exchanged by officers in San Francisco’s “textgate” scandal, it’s hard to disagree with Coates and Green.  The texts are beyond belief. Here’s just one:

Original text from officer: “I hate to tell you this but my wife [sic] friend is over with their kids and her husband is black! If is an Attorney but should I be worried?”

Response from second officer: “Get ur [sic] pocket gun. Keep it available in case the monkey returns to his roots. Its [sic] not against the law to put an animal down”

 Original texting officer: “Well said!” 

Response from second officer: “U [sic] may have to kill the half breed kids too. Don’t worry. Their [sic] an abomination of nature anyway.”

My German ancestors had nothing to do with slavery.  My parents worked hard to turn a gasoline service station business into a small fortune.  I’m a first generation college graduate. But I have come reluctantly to acknowledge that my life in Kirkwood has benefitted from white privilege.  I’ve never had to give my children the lecture about what to do when stopped by police.  I took it for granted that we were welcome wherever we went.

America has made great progress toward justice and equality.  But the stain of slavery and segregation doesn’t wash out in 50 or 100 years.  It is with us today in racially isolated schools, high inner city unemployment rates, racially segregated cities such as St. Louis, unconstitutional police tactics such asFergusons’ and San Franciso’s, municipal courts run like debtors’ prisons and the inability of most black families to pass along wealth to the next generation.

I’m sorry to tell my children and grandchildren that our generation doesn’t have enough time left to fix all of these problems. We do have the responsibility to try our damnedest.

Note: I regret to announce that our stalwart St. Louis editor, Terry Ganey, has concluded his regular role at GJR after four years on the job.  He has other pressing obligations. During his four years as St. Louis editor, Terry has written about the untold stories of Anheuser-Busch, the Post-Dispatch’s editorial page cutbacks, how Deb Peterson unearthed the interview with the troubled August Busch IV, Rex Sinquefield, Paul Y. Anderson, Dana Loesch, Bill McClellan, the Beacon/KWMU merger, Ted Link, the statehouse press corps' troubles, and conditions at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch 10ten years after Lee's takeover. He finished strong with four stories to the Spring issue that included the saga of Melissa Click and the career of Betsey Bruce.  Terry is a special friend and colleague.  We worked together for decades at the Post-Dispatch and especially closely during our 2000 investigation of the deaths of Branch Davidians at Waco.  I’m happy to say that Terry is open to writing occasional pieces for GJR in the future. No replacement has been chosen.