After the Train Leaves Town: A Report from Ferguson
By Emmett RensinSeptember 9, 2014
All photographs by Emmett Rensin.
OFF I-70 WEST, north of St. Louis proper, there’s a sign on the side of the highway: “Exit Here for Historic Downtown Ferguson.”
It is a brown sign, not particularly distinguished; the sort municipalities across the country have been putting up for decades. But this one is jarring. The existence of such a place — “Historic Downtown Ferguson” — seems inexplicable. Wasn’t it just a month ago that the town emerged, fully formed, into history? The rational brain says no, of course, but the sign is unsettling because this is precisely how Ferguson exists in the popular imagination: a set of circumstances, of demographics and temperature, carefully constructed like a Rube Goldberg machine sometime in early August. The latest coordinate in America’s ongoing battle with racial profiling and violence: Set the pieces just so, press start, and watch the mechanism unfold. Watch the series of reactions that make the world light up.
“As many times as I’ve been to St. Louis,” I hear one national organizer say to an overflow crowd at the Missouri History Museum, “I never even heard of Ferguson until 16 days ago.”
It’s a common sentiment in the papers; even more so on the ground, even among locals of the St. Louis area. Why would you ever be taking I-70 that way? How can a place that just ruptured into history have one of its own? “Ferguson” has become the title of an event, not a marker of geography. It does not seem the sort of place that got its start in 1855, the namesake of a William B. Ferguson who gave 10 acres of his land to the Wabash Railroad in exchange for naming rights; the sort of place that incorporated in 1894, that headquarters Emerson Electric, that has seven public schools and three private, that is the hometown of Michael McDonald and Harry Tuthill and Ralph Eberhart, the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command on 9/11. Like Columbine or Sandy Hook or Sanford, Ferguson has become the latest object of our strange national fantasy, whereby these towns seem to exist only by virtue of their synonymous atrocities.
It doesn’t seem like the kind of place that has a “historical downtown,” except perhaps the block where Michael Brown’s body was abandoned in the sun.
The train is leaving town by the time we reach the station. It’s August 25, 16 days since Michael Brown’s death. The funeral is today. Protests began to subside over the weekend, and most of the press has left town. Work on the ground is ongoing, but the tear gas has been put away and there’s a sense somewhere between relief and fear that the country is beginning to move on. I’m going to Missouri with Edgar Sanchez, an organizer and activist. He’s looking for relief work, for a way to lend himself to the effort to rebuild. I am shadowing him to see what emerges when it does. We leave from Chicago early morning in a rented car.
The trip has been about a week in the making. Edgar is part of an ad hoc group called The Ferguson Moment, one of the many organizations to descend on the city over the last month. (The list of such organizations is difficult to remember; resolving their conflicting intentions and instructions even more so.) The “Moment” is largely based in Oregon, a consortium of teaching artists associated with the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, but Edgar, who works as an equity actor in Chicago, is attempting to organize local volunteers to head down. He announces the trip to a crowded room of performers on a Monday during the week that coverage is heaviest. About a dozen artists and activists sign up. The line between the two is blurry.
From the beginning, the intention is clear: the group is meant to go the following week, after the worst of it has ended. “What’s important,” Edgar says on one of the several conference calls that will take place over the next week, “is that we come in to offer help, to help them organize and empower the community to move forward. Right now they’re overwhelmed, and we want to help them, not show up to a scene.” He talks fast. Everyone seems to agree, but over the course of the week enthusiasm among the artists wanes as it becomes apparent that the clashes with police have ended and that the work will largely consist of moving boxes in and out of buildings. Edgar’s volunteers do not want to miss jobs, do not want to upend their lives for something that feels less pressing. They do not want to miss the train.The more savvy of these couch their hesitance in terms of not wanting to intrude. They cite conference calls and documents they’ve seen, contradicting reports from the byzantine network of grassroots organizing committees already there, to suggest the need is less dire. I learn that in community organizing, “people on the ground” are holy words, the predication of a point intended to be unassailable.
Three days before we are meant to go, the ground finally calls: the news is less sensational, but the work is ongoing. Help is still needed. But by then most of the party has dropped out. The artists have long since begged off, and the more professional activists must remain in Chicago: two days ago, a nine-year-old was shot on the city’s South Side and there is immediate work to be done there. In the end it is only Edgar and me, a one-to-one ratio of activist and journalist. Perhaps the wary had a point.
“Don’t worry,” he says, “We’ll connect with the organization once we’re there.”
Here’s how it is with Edgar: He is an actor and community organizer, 29 years old, born in the Dominican Republic but raised for the most part in Florida. He came to Chicago nine years ago to attend conservatory and is heavily involved in efforts to organize against the endemic violence on the city’s South and West Sides. He is about five foot eight with a light beard and small eyes.
Edgar’s personality oscillates between a kind of Chris Rock manic energy and the deliberate cadence of somebody trying out the Old Testament prophet look for use in later life. During our five hours down I-55, the turnover is especially rapid.
“I come from a family of politicians,” he tells me, “Even if it isn’t direct work, you know, everyone in my family is in some kind of service.” One of his sisters is a schoolteacher, the other a lawyer in New York. (“I don’t know what kind exactly. She’s been moving up the ranks too fast.”) He tells me that his father was once a mid-level official in the Dominican Republic. “But then one day he’s supposed to take this money, you know, to get something done for somebody. But he refuses to take it.” It’s a family story Edgar enjoys telling: “So that’s kind of the end of his career, you know? You don’t take the money, that means you’re a troublemaker. That means you’re a narc. He got shut out.”
After that, he says, his father resigned and moved his family to the United States. There, he took a job in a factory and later as an ice cream truck driver. “I was born around when the move happened, and actually my dad’s told me he might’a taken the bribe if it hadn’t been for my mom being pregnant with me. He didn’t want to raise his kids in that kind of culture, you know?” Edgar believes the experience made his father cynical. “When I told him I was coming down here, he was telling me ‘people are always gonna hurt each other,’ ‘people are always gonna fuck each other up.’ His thing is, you gotta make yourself a little bubble and try to be happy because the world is a bad place.”
So did he not want you involved in politics? I ask.
“No. He just says, you know, you don’t do it unless you need to, unless something inside is making you do it. Otherwise it’s just gonna wear you down. So he decided to devote his life to raising his family. But I still feel like this is what I’ve gotta do.”
He looks out the window for a moment: we’re deep in Illinois now, and the tall grass is interrupted intermittently only by the odd home every few miles, suburban-looking outfits without immediate neighbors, inexplicably dropped on the side of the highway. “I don’t know,” Edgar says, “Sometimes I think I could just say fuck it and move out here and get a farm or something. Have a family.” He shakes his head, “Not yet though.”
“Kids don’t get shot in the country so much.”
Despite his work in theater, Edgar believes that as far as politics go, he’s better suited for organizing than writing or orating. “I can do other people’s lines, and you know, I do my poetry. But about violence and racism and activism? I can talk about it, but I don’t have the …” He pauses. “My shit is pedantic.”
But, he says, he can think about “the big picture.”
“Part of the problem is people jumping for hot spot to hot spot,” he explains, “Florida, LA, Ferguson. What we gotta do is take that energy, take what we learn during these big events, and take it back to somewhere like Chicago, where this kind of thing happens so much it doesn’t get any kind of attention.” This, in part, is why he is coming to Ferguson despite the more recent shooting on the South Side. “If I connect with some people down there, maybe I can get ’em to bring it back to Chicago. Too many people only care when it’s big in the news.”
He says he knows the daughter of a Chicago alderman who has been in Ferguson for about a week. She’s used her connections to raise a lot of money and done good work with the relief effort. “But I see her putting up these pictures on Instagram,” he says, “That’re like, ‘Here we are protesting in Ferguson,’ but I look at the picture and I’m like, ‘That’s just you and like 10 guys havin’ a party on the block.’ You know, she did good down there, but she’s also getting into being a celebrity and all that. Being part of the scene.” He pauses. “I mean, I say this because I love her. But is she gonna come back and do that work in Chicago?”
On the road Edgar tries calling several of his contacts on the ground. It is still early in the morning and none of them answer. He decides to try again when we are closer to Missouri.
Save Springfield, there is little on the road from Chicago to St. Louis. The occasional house, an exit for a town called “White City.” Further on are advertisements for the “Mt. Olive Monument,” which looks to be a roadside tent revival, and for a store called “Patriot Sunrooms.” Neither of us is quite sure what they sell there. Edgar talks a bit about his love life; evidently, he’s gotten into some trouble with a woman he sees but doesn’t want to let that distract him from the work ahead.
We pass through the country where radio broadcast regions overlap. On one frequency, Pharrell competes with Rush Limbaugh for the real estate between bursts of static. Rush wins out, and we learn how President Obama is only pretending to be checked out so he can lure the country into fresh complacency.
I ask Edgar what he thinks will happen now that the protests are dying down. “People still need help,”he says, “they’ve gotta organize for the future.” Still, he seems concerned that it may all be over. The de-escalation has already begun: one night, and then the next, the protesters, or the police, or both, just haven’t turned out enough to keep the TV cameras rolling. It’s a carefully worded worry I’ll hear from almost everyone I talk to in Ferguson. As much as they condemn the altercations of the past week, they are acutely aware that without the drama, attention will move elsewhere while the underlying traumas remain. The feeling is that this must continue, in some form or another, until something happens.
“This is where I’m from,” Edgar says, talking about Kajieme Powell and the recently released video of his shooting. “Back to normal is how unsurprised the dude shooting that video sounds.”
“Oh,” he adds, “I heard a lot of volunteers have been leaving their trash around the streets. It’s pissing off the locals, so we gotta be careful not to do that.”
We close in on St. Louis. The radio has found a news station, and the announcer begins to talk about Michael Brown’s funeral. The body is in the ground. Edgar turns the volume up, but the anchor has moved on to an earthquake in California. “We missed it,” Edgar says.
It is very hot. Edgar has managed to get somebody named Danny on the phone, one of the network of organizers who is supposed to give us instructions. We get out of the car on Chambers Street in the parking lot of a strip mall. Across Chambers is Greater St. Mark Family Church, a black Baptistchurch that has served as the hub of local relief efforts. I’m told that people have been bringing supplies to St. Mark all week: food, water, razor blades, blankets. They’re sorted and given to protesters; what isn’t handed out immediately is distributed to a network of smaller churches in the area. A woman working in the church daycare center tells me that earlier in the week police seized part of the stockpile, but they haven’t been back since.
Danny, apparently, has returned to Oregon. But he gives Edgar the names of several other organizers who should be able to direct us toward useful work. We should give one of them a call, he says.
It’s humid, enough to produce oil slick mirages on the asphalt. About half the businesses are boarded up, with wide planks held on the backs of glass doors by thicker, horizontal plywood. A few people are outside, standing in the small shade provided by the building. (Smokers, mostly. It is too unpleasant out to leave indoors for anything less than an addiction.) Edgar needs to charge his phone before making his next call, and he asks two men whether a Cricket Wireless shop on the far end of the strip, one of the boarded-up businesses, is open. He does not ask them in the same voice he uses speaking to me, which is in turn not the same voice he uses when speaking to fellow organizers on the phone. Like most people of color, especially those negotiating between the worlds of academic or cultural institutions and the communities they come from, Edgar is an intuitive code-switcher. When talking to locals, his voice is deeper, carries a throatier inflection; he speaks more slowly but the content is less clear than when he is performing eloquence.
“Any ya’ll know if that Cricket store open?” he asks.
“Yeah, they open,” we’re told.
Once in the store, Edgar contacts a woman named Claudia. She was the leader of the Ferguson Moment activity and workshops that took place over the previous week, but she too has now decamped back to the Pacific Northwest. She hasn’t talked to anyone in a few hours, but anyone left likely spent the first part of the day at the funeral she says. She promises to find out where they’re headed now.
I look around the store. It is oddly spacious. In the 30 or so feet between the front door and the cash registers there is only a single display of relatively cheap phone cases and accessories. Nobody in the store seems troubled by this, and after a minute I realize that the absence is deliberate. Normally there are rows of display phones and other hardware in the empty space. This week they’ve been moved to the back room. I don’t comment on this: among the 10 or 20 people we see or speak to in the strip mall, nobody mentions anything out of the ordinary. Everything is still tense, but business continues: in the Subway restaurant next door, an old lady, a cop, and a man in a suit sit at separate tables, eating in silence. On the day of Michael Brown’s funeral, Ferguson is a town of people trying very hard to act normal.
Claudia eventually gets back to us. It is the first day of school, and there’s a walkout planned at Washington University, St. Louis, on the other side of town. “That’s where anybody planning anything is going to be,” she tells us.
We drive down I-70 to Washington University. (This is where I encounter the sign and make another observation: Ferguson has far more hills and is far greener than I’d imagined. From the highway, it is indistinguishable from the tony St. Louis suburbs where college classmates of mine were from. I realize that I had envisioned Ferguson to be entirely flat, paved, and perpetually between the hours of six p.m. and midnight.) When we arrive the walkout is already underway. It goes like this: at noon, students stand, put their hands up, and leave class. Edgar and I watch the aftermath for a while. Students walk down the street. They get on bikes; they stop and chat. They duck in and out of buildings with books and bags and laptops. If the scene differs from undergraduate life on any other campus, it is only in the extra spring of moral satisfaction in their steps as they go about the day.
In a parking lot off the campus main drag we connect with Katie Rubin, an organizer from Edgar’s group who hasn’t yet left town. She’s just come from the funeral, where Lesley McSpadden, Brown’s mother, has called for a day of peace.
“But tomorrow, go ahead and burn the town down, right?” Edgar asks. Katie demurs, but they’re both only halfway joking.
There was going to be a student rally, Katie says, but it’s been canceled out of respect for McSpadden’s wishes. Still: Edgar seems relieved to have finally made contact with his people. Katie gives us a schedule of events planned for the next couple of days and the names of organizations seeking assistance.
It’s difficult to anticipate where the best place to be is, she tells us. “Unless you’re following live, and sometimes even if you are, there’s no saying what’s going on and what isn’t.” It’s an organic movement: you have to swing with it and help out where you can. “Everything here is emerging all the time,” she says.
Here’s something that emerges: At three p.m., a peace march is meant to set out from St. Mark and travel down the road where Brown was shot. We arrive but there is no march to see: the Church is empty, and there is no indication that anything has happened here today — only a sheet of white paper with a green-marker arrow pointing at the name of the church.
“Safe Space,” it says, “No weapons. No alcohol. No drugs.”
We go around the side of the church, where the daycare center is open, and Edgar asks if the march has left already. They don’t know, but what appears to be a home next door is actually an office where local activities have been coordinated and we should check in with them. Edgar goes to knock on the door. I stay and talk with the daycare worker for a minute.
“There’ve been so many people around here this week, I don’t even remember how many,” she says. She thinks the protests are important, but she’s been trying to keep her head down. “I watch folks’ kids. That’s my job.”
She explains that the daycare center is part of a complex with the church. Both are attached to an elementary school next door. With the protests and police barriers, buses weren’t going to be able to reach kids. “It turned out okay though,” she says. She is trying very hard to act normal.
Edgar calls me over to the building next door. The office belongs to Tommie Pierson, the local representative to the Missouri Legislature. Pierson is out but should be back soon, his assistant says. She doesn’t know about any rally but maybe he can help us — in the meantime, there’s some work for us to do. Outside the front door, plastic bags full of fresh supplies have been accumulating over the course of the day: they need to be brought inside and sorted. The better part of the donations today are shampoo and disposable razor blades, evidently in case residents end up taking refuge in the church overnight. The staff is mostly happy that it isn’t more water. They’ve got more than they need, and Edgar hears the overflow is being donated to Liberia. “Or California,” one staffer jokes.
Pierson still hasn’t returned, and we are told to wait at a conference table outside his personal office. We sit down, happy enough to be off our feet and out of the sun.
Despite what we’ve done so far, Edgar is frustrated. Even he is not immune from the sense that he has missed the train, or worse, that the train will leave without anything really changing. After a few minutes he is still sweating. His arms are crossed and he shifts back and forth in his chair. We have been waiting silently for 10 or 15 minutes: “I get the sense people are just tired. They just want to be done with it,” he says, looking at the wall.
On the table is a program from the funeral. I leaf through it: photos, poems, memorial prayers. The cover is a picture of Brown flanked by sky and clouds, the golden gates of heaven opening behind the cutout of his face. Thousands of people attended the service. Beyond the family and friends, the entire local clergy was said to be there, and every sympathetic politician too. But the cover does not have the quality of a political production: the clouds and gate are pixilated, found images; the placement of the photo slightly off. Jesse Jackson and Spike Lee were in attendance, yet the program looks like something a younger sibling might pull together in haste and grief.
A stylish program would be for Michael Brown the event; a service for Ferguson the idea, not the town. This program is for the funeral of Lesley McSpadden’s son. He is dead. He died before Ferguson existed for history. He will remain dead no matter what good comes of what happens here.
Representative Pierson arrives. “They’re looking for a march,” his assistant yells from the next room. “What? Today?” he shouts back.
“We heard there was a peace march leaving from here at three,” Edgar says.
“Oh. Yes. That was canceled —”
“Because of the mother?”
“Yeah, on account of respecting the family’s wishes.”
He walks over to us. Pierson is an older man, neckless and thicker than he is fat. An uneven white goatee constitutes the totality of his hair. When he speaks, he speaks slowly, eyes down and slightly sideways (an affect that produces the inescapable impression that his words are chosen carefully). At bottom Pierson is a black politician, the kind that critics of the president are referring to when they say that the Oval Office may belong to a man who happens to be black, but will never be occupied by a black man.
He sits down.
“This last week — I’ll tell you, I’m tired. I’m sleep deprived. I’m glad they canceled the march, I don’t know if I coulda done it in this heat. If they do it tomorrow and it’s this hot, I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it then either.”
“Yeah, it’s really beatin’ down out there,” Edgar offers.
“Mhm. Counseling’s an old man’s game,” he says, “Go walk’s for the young man.”
(Later, Edgar will remember it as “Go to war.” We argue for a moment over which it was, but then decide it doesn’t matter. That both carry the same meaning in this case is the point.)
Pierson offers us each a bottle of their excess water. When he returns with it (unlike every elected official I have ever sat with, he does not call for his assistant), he looks Edgar and me over. “You two been around all week, right? I seen you both at the protests.” We tell him that we just arrived this morning. “Well, I can’t tell anymore,” he says, “So many people been here helping out, I can’t keep ’em straight.” He pauses. “I am proud of that, though. People came here from all over to change something.”
For now, Pierson believes, the worst is over. School is back in session and things are returning to normal. “Now everyone is waiting to see what happens with the officer,” he says. “Nobody trusts the county. If they don’t indict, and the Feds don’t step in, I think you’re gonna see the streets fill up again.”
He’s thankful for the temporary lull. Pierson wants things to get back to normal, although he’s careful to note that by normal, he means calm, not unchanged. In the long term he believes change will only come from greater local participation in the electoral process. “A lot of poor folks, a lot of African-American folks, they don’t see the point in voting,” he says. (That much is undeniable: in Ferguson, the last mayoral election saw 12 percent turnout among eligible voters.) “Maybe all this’ll change their minds.”
The problem isn’t just the local and county governments, he claims. Pierson sits on the Missouri Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, the Higher Education Committee, the Interim Committee on Education, the Special Standing Committee on Student Achievement, as well as several others. “I see laws passed every day that hurt this community,” he says. “But what can I do? I explain to people all the time: I don’t have the votes to stop it.” Unless members of marginalized communities vote, he never will.
“I’m chair of the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus,” he explains, “We got a handful of representatives and three state senators. That ain’t nearly enough. Even the members we do have …”
He hesitates for a minute and asks us if we need more water. We don’t, and he starts up again. His voice is faster now; he leans in to the table and drums his knuckles against the wood, pointing with the other hand to underline his point.
Listen, the other day we had a meeting with Jay Nixon, the governor, about all of this. Those senators I got — they don’t like the governor. I don’t know why, they just don’t like him. So we’re in the meeting, they’re shouting him down. I say what people have got to realize is that this is bigger than your personal beef. The man’s the governor, he has some power to change things — why don’t we focus on that, instead of using this to make it about your personal stuff?
They don’t have the votes, he says. “I can raise hell, but that don’t stop nothing.”
It is nearly five o’clock, and somebody from the church walks in. There’s going to be a service that night broadcast on SiriusXM, and he wants to know if the representative has any vocalists he especially likes to sing during the commercial breaks. Pierson asks where we parked, and walks us through a series of hallways to the best exit. In the end, we pass through the church itself.
“It’s big,” Edgar says.
“Yeah,” Pierson nods, “Seat about a thousand people.”
We go down the aisle and through the double doors. As we’re leaving, Pierson asks the pastor whether he wants a singer or a whole choir. “Well, it’s in an hour …” the pastor trails off. “I can make it happen,” Pierson says.
Outside there is a man standing on the steps. He too has shown up for a march that is not happening. He is tall, probably 50. He stands very still, and behind sunglasses I cannot tell if he notices us at all.
His sign is made of cardboard: “Stop the Murder,” it says.
The big event that day is at six p.m. on the other side of town. There is a town hall gathering in the main lobby of the Missouri History Museum; the topic is “Moving Forward From Here.”
Several thousand people have turned up. Seating in the main hall is full, as is the overflow room downstairs where a live feed of the proceedings will be broadcast. Edgar and I stand on a balcony above the stage with about 100 other latecomers. A cop is on crowd control a few feet away, but he does not appear a hostile presence. He is middle-aged and fattish, in regular uniform. He’s got the look of a tough-but-fair cop, a going-soft-with-age cop. He looks like the officer who drinks coffee at his desk in the background on television. I suspect he was sent to this event on purpose.
The event is billed as a “community meeting,” but “community” in this case does not refer to St. Louis or Missouri. Nor is it the community of Ferguson or even the “black community” in abstract. Most obviously, it is not the community where the museum itself is located. (As it happens, I will encounter that community later on in a nearby bar. There, two white men named Rico and Josh will become very excited when they learn I’m with the press. They haven’t been able to talk to any reporters yet, they say. They hope I’ll tell the whole story. The whole story as they understand it involves several videos of St. Louis cops playing with black children. Josh will also tell me about his son, who he is on “but not like beating tough.” His son is six and does not know his father has two DUIs, that he would have more if “the cops didn’t have real crime to deal with,” and that he is looking forward to driving to Steak ’n Shake when he’s done drinking for the night.)
The meeting is open to all, but there is an intuitive sense of whom it is meant for. Edgar is a part of this community, I am not, and race is only incidental to the reason.
The evening starts off with a warning. “This is gonna run three or four hours,” the host tells us, “We’re gonna let anyone who wants to speak. If you been to a town hall before, you know how that can be. I’m not gonna pretend this’ll be different.”
Over the course of several hours, we hear from activists and poets, from North St. Louis teenagers and national organizers. One, an activist named Kevin Powell, articulates the dissonance I have been sensing for a week: everyone is tired. Sixteen days is a long time in the streets. But the world has got to change, he says, and this meeting must be about “our desire to shape a new normal.”
He is a professional speaker, and save the particulars of dates and details his speech is one he has given before. “We’ve got to organize,” he says. The protests are dying, but “this is the beginning, not the end.”
He could have said it anywhere, in Ferguson or Florida, in Los Angeles or the Bronx, in any Southern town from Emmett Till up till now. The song remains the same:
“People are watching us to see what happens here.”
“You gotta help people learn history. To understand the experience of black folks in this country. To understand what’s gotta change.”
“Soon the media will be gone. Soon the celebrities will be gone. Then it’ll just be ya’ll. What do you want in the long run?”
“I went through this a year ago with Trayvon Martin.”
At one point, he is quiet. “I love all people, but, man. If another person tell me to just let it go, to just get over it …” The crowd erupts, and his voice gets loud again: “We shouldn’t hate anybody. But there is such a thing as righteous anger.”
It is easy enough to recite a litany of names, from Michael Brown back through the many unjustly killed by racial violence over centuries of American history. It is easy enough to know how many have been killed even in the month since Ferguson, how many will die in the years to come. How many will have protests and rallies and demands for change, and how many won’t even make the headlines?
The racial calamity of the United States is a “storm we’ve been avoiding,” Powell says. “Nobody is gonna do it except us.”
But how many times has he said this to a room, during a moment, at what appears to be a turning point? Shouting in the wilderness is one thing. What must it be like to shout where everyone can hear you, to room after room full of people, to have everyone nod their heads and the newspapers back you and millions rally to your cause and still nothing changes? How many times can you repeat the truth?
Earlier in the night, a local singer took the mic to sing Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Somebody always has to.
The sun is going down, but it hasn’t gotten any cooler. I wander away from the crowd, from the museum staff, and from Edgar, and go out the back door of the museum. As I go, two local artists are performing a poem they wrote. The title is “Black Boy,” and it is immediate and moving and I have heard some hundred versions of it before.
Outside is a pavilion, beyond it grass then trees then water. The Missouri History Museum is on Lindell Boulevard, which is the northern boundary of Forest Park (a “sprawling historical public space” is the best description Google Maps can offer). This is where the 1904 World’s Fair was held. These days a quarter of the land has been turned into a golf course and other sections into tennis courts, but somewhere out there are still several lakes, and an art museum, and a zoo. The better part remains sprawling and public.
There are seven or eight people already outside. The back pavilion is wide, but everyone remains within invisible lines extending from the boundaries of the entrance to the end of the concrete — any farther and you won’t get a blast of air conditioning when somebody opens up the door. I need a cigarette. I look for a potential benefactor.
One smoker is a white woman, probably 27 or so, in thick glasses and bright, rainbow-pattern tights. She is sitting very close to an older black man, although one gets the sense that he was there first. She is from another state, but she’s been in Ferguson all week, she tells him. She’s been protesting every night. “I just think it’s so great what’s going on here,” she says, “I mean, this is like, a real revolution. Like fuck, I’ve been waiting my whole life for this,” she says. The man nods, vaguely, looking off the other way.
Another possibility: Two women, one black, one white, in mutual conversation. One is a writer who specializes in police brutality. The other is a reader; she has been following the other’s work and believes it is important. “We’ve got to keep this going,” they say, “We’ve got to stay in the streets, we’ve got to keep holding rallies, we’ve got to make something happen.” “Otherwise,” one says, “we’re going to have to wait another hundred years.”
Just beyond them is a couple. A black man, 30 or 35, takes a cigarette from his girlfriend. The pack is out: I’ve found my mark. I go over, get my fix, and we talk. They tell me they don’t ever get down to this part of town. I tell them about the “Historic Downtown Ferguson” sign. They tell me that’s their exit.
“I don’t think I’m gonna come to any more of these,” the man says, gesturing back toward the meeting hall.
“Really?” his girlfriend asks.
“What’s it gonna do? Ain’t nobody paying attention to nothing ’cept the tear gas and shit anyway. It’s too hot, and I’m gonna get fired if I keep staying up all night and missing work.”
“I’m tired,” he says, “I just want go home.”
Emmett Rensin is an essayist and contributing editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Iowa City.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Black Americans] have been taught to labor…They have been taught Christian civilization and to speak the noble English language instead of some African Gibberish. The account is square with the ex-slaves”. - Chicago Tribune Editorial, 1891 taken from Ta- Nehisi Coates ...
TO SUSTAIN A FIRE, you need not only fuel and kindling but also some dutiful custodian to routinely prod and fiddle with the pieces. Extinguishing it requires no less added effort. The useless smoldering of an unattended flame, impotent as it ...
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