A day in the life of St. Louis’s most dangerous neighborhood

Last week my colleague Umar Lee and I spent some time in College Hill, known as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in St. Louis, and talked to people about their lives. For the Guardian:

“We Googled the worst place in America to live, and St Louis came up,” says Johnel Langerston, the president of Urban Born, a nonprofit youth organization. “So we expanded our program to College Hill almost three years ago.”

Located in St Louis’s impoverished north side, the neighborhood of College Hill is known as the most dangerous in the city. Shootings and homicides are a regular occurrence. In a year that has seen homicides in St Louis rise nearly 60%, College Hill was declared a crime “hot spot”, prompting an influx of 80 extra police officers in February – most of whom have since departed.

In College Hill, houses without roofs or windows stand next to long-boarded businesses and churches. Piles of bricks lie on the sidewalks, sold by desperate residents for a small profit. Teddy bears lie in rows outside abandoned homes, marking the sites of slayings.

Ninety-two per cent of College Hill’s roughly 1,800 residents are black. But the people of College Hill are tired of being treated as statistics. As the murder rate climbs, residents are struggling to find ways to protect the neighborhood’s youth and create opportunity in a region left to rot.

“We’re surrounded by murders,” says Langerston. “We hear gunshots going off all the time. That’s normal here. The children of the people being murdered are in our program, so we deal with it a little more intimately than the average nonprofit.”

Read the whole article at the Guardian

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A rerun of a nightmare

My latest for Politico is on the nightmare of tension that is life these days in St. Louis:

St. Louis is in a rerun of a nightmare. Protesters are still being arrested by the dozens, with 144 arrested on Monday alone. Officers still patrol the streets with riot gear and pepper spray, deploying smoke bombs in an effort to break up demonstrations whose very existence points to the lack of change. The Oath Keepers, a largely white paramilitary group, have returned, perching on the rooftops of Ferguson’s West Florissant Avenue with rifles in hand while police stand idly by. On Monday, St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger proclaimed a “state of emergency” reminiscent of the one enacted last fall, once again prompting school cancellations and other disruptions of daily life.

We are living August 2014 again. We are living November 2014 again. We are living in a place where the only lesson learned seems to be how much people can get away with.

It has been a year since the killing of Michael Brown and the violence that erupted in the aftermath of his death. In August 2014, the protests and the outrage were spontaneous. Today, protests are organized by professional activists in advance, and the police response is equally choreographed. The national media swarm the streets, some arriving only after the shooting and looting on Sunday signaled a ratings bonanza in wait. Ferguson is a national story, but what is missed is that the police response is intended for the people of St. Louis.

Read the whole thing, “Ferguson’s Never-Ending Nightmare”, in Politico

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Ferguson, one year later

For the New York Daily News, I covered what Ferguson is like on the ground one year after the killing of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson. I limited my interviews about Ferguson to people who actually live in Ferguson. An excerpt:

“It feels like they just shuffled the chairs on the Titanic around. They replaced people with others who have the same attitudes,” Rice told me the next day as we sat in a Quiznos next to the police station. A white officer from the nearby town of Jennings entered the restaurant and greeted Rice warmly. Rice noted that there are some officers who want to do right, but they are not the majority.

“Officials haven’t made changes on their own,” he says. “All the changes that have been made were because they were dragged kicking and screaming to make them. When did they extend the olive branch, or make a good faith offering? No one is doing anything just because it’s the right thing to do. When that happens, then I will know that they have learned.”

But despite a violent and tumultuous year, both Rice and Hudgins say they do not want to live anywhere else. The problem, they say, is not the people of Ferguson but those who create and enforce community policies, often ignoring the plight of the black population.

“People in Ferguson love each other,” says Rice. “I mean, neighbor to neighbor. Every door we knocked on for the recall campaign, people would tell us how much like liked the guy next door. ‘They’re my friends, they have the keys to my house.’ It’s a neighborly community, there’s no getting around that. In a way, it’s right that Ferguson doesn’t have a race problem — it doesn’t. City Hall does. The community does not need policing. They need a better relationship with the police.”

“I love Ferguson,” says Hudgins. “There’s definite possibility here. I’m still optimistic. If blacks had the political power they should have, this would be a very interesting place.”

Read the whole thing at the New York Daily News

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Knitting for black power

For the Guardian I profiled the Yarn Mission, a group of black St. Louis women fighting racism through knitting. Yes, knitting:

In a coffeehouse on the south side of St Louis, a group of women discuss how to knit, purl and dismantle white supremacy.

They are The Yarn Mission, a collective formed in October 2014 in response to the violence and police brutality in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.

The Yarn Mission seeks to “use yarn to promote action and change to eradicate racism, sexism, and other systems of oppression”. The group, founded by CheyOnna Sewell, a PhD student in criminology, seeks to spark conversation about race and police brutality by engaging with curious passersby as they knit, all while providing a comforting activity for beleaguered activists.

“As a black woman, you’re invisible,” says Taylor Payne, a member of the group. “But knitting makes people stop and have a conversation with you. If someone asks me what I’m doing, I say, ‘I’m knitting for black liberation.’ Sometimes they respond and sometimes I just get ‘Oh, my grandma knits,’ like the person didn’t hear me. But at least it opens the door to talking about my experiences.”

Sewell and Payne are protesters who have been active in the Ferguson movement since it began last summer. According to Sewell, the Yarn Mission forces local citizens to see Ferguson activists in different ways.

Read the whole thing, Ferguson’s radical knitters, at the Guardian. And check out their website too!

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Central Asia’s stand against corruption

My latest for Foreign Policy is on how Central Asians are using the internet to document and battle a familiar scourge — corruption, particularly that of the police:

In Kazakhstan, activists are mounting dash cams to cars to film traffic police and showcase their shakedowns on YouTube. In Uzbekistan, renegade lawyers are dispensing online advice on how to lawfully deal with crooked cops and shady bureaucrats. In Tajikistan, a viral video of a driver who ignored a command to pull over by a policeman and then drove forward as the cop clung to the hood of his car spurred national discussion of corruption among traffic police. In Kyrgyzstan, activists from the banned religious group Hizb-ut Tahrir are posting bloody selfies taken after harsh interrogations by security services.

According to Central Asian analysts, corruption is endemic in the region. “Corruption is at every level here,” political analyst Dina Baidildayeva says of her native Kazakhstan. “Be it education, healthcare, road accidents, kindergarten. The majority don’t believe they can change anything and don’t really want change because they are used to corruption from a very early age. You can finish school by buying your diploma. You can bribe your professors to pass exams. As a result we don’t have qualified teachers, doctors. Most people even think that it’s normal for officials to steal public money. Who wouldn’t?”

Until recently, Central Asians had little recourse to address this devastating problem. Not only are organizations that criticize state institutions banned or highly discouraged, merely noting a civic problem — like bribery, crime, or police brutality — can be considered an affront to authorities, who will deny the problem’s existence and likely punish the individual who exposes it. Since state surveillance is an ingrained practice and laws that protect citizens exist more on paper than in practice, any attempt to challenge corruption invites a swift — and brutal — crackdown.

Read the whole thing, Dashcams for Freedom, at Foreign Policy

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Covering Ferguson

I have covered Ferguson since August 9, 2014, tweeting about a then unidentified teenager being killed by police within hours of the tragedy occurring. Below are the articles I’ve written over the past year. I will have a few more to add soon.


Ferguson, Inc. (3/4/15)
Ferguson Won’t Heal (12/1/14)
Burning Ferguson (11/26/14)
Ferguson’s Trial (11/25/14)
After Ferguson (8/26/14)

Al Jazeera

St. Louis’s sons, taken too soon (8/27/14)


In Ferguson, there are no malls left to boycott (11/30/14)
Why Ferguson has been in a state of emergency for years (11/23/14)
The real reason Ferguson is boarding up its storefronts (11/17/14)
“I am Darren Wilson”: St. Louis and the Geography of Fear (10/21/14)

New York Daily News

Fight breaks out at Ferguson meeting one year after shooting (7/31/15)
Spotlight shines on Ferguson, MO, but racial conflicts grip many US cities

The Guardian

Ferguson’s radical knitters (8/6/15)
Hey neighbor! A ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign on your lawn is an act of solidarity (6/1/15)


The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back (4/14/14)

(Predates the violence in Ferguson, but concerns North County and majority of interviews took place in Ferguson)


NPR, “Cashing in on Ferguson”, On the Media  (3/13/15)

NPR, On the Media, “The Media Came to Town” (8/22/14)

This Is Hell, “After Ferguson” (9/5/14)

Al Jazeera English, Listening Post, “Ferguson: Riots, race and the media” (11/29/14)

McGraw Show, KTRS, “Ferguson and the Politics of Fear Debated” (10/24/14)


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Ferguson fight

Last night I attended a community meeting in Ferguson featuring controversial Mayor Knowles, unaware that it would devolve into a full-fledged fight:

A packed community meeting in Ferguson, Mo., descended into chaos Thursday night after name-calling gave way to an all-out brawl that highlighted the simmering racial tensions still present nearly one year after an unarmed black teen was shot and killed by a police officer.

At least three people were arrested outside the Ferguson Community Center after an informal question and answer session between locals and Mayor James Knowles III was interrupted by protesters.

The tense meeting broke up early and Knowles quickly bolted when a physical encounter turned into a fight.

I co-wrote a piece on it for the New York Daily News. Read more here.

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The Cult’s Eye View: On ‘The Professor Is In’

My latest for the Chronicle is on “The Professor Is In”, a career counseling service that paradoxically highlights the worst elements of academia while encouraging people to join it:

Imagine you meet an escapee from a cult. Having recently fled her confines, the escapee is full of anguished tales from the sequestered realm she once inhabited. She has learned its tacit rules and analyzed its internal logic. She shares this information with an intrigued public, many of whom are members of the cult themselves. The escapee issues dire warnings. The cult is brutal and unfair. The cult is both powerful and rotting from within, its leaders scrambling to assert their relevance through a series of punishing rituals and loyalty tests. The escapee is relieved to have gotten out.

Now imagine the escapee offers to help you join the cult if you are willing to pay her hundreds of dollars.

This is the business model of The Professor Is In, a career-counseling service for would-be academics launched by former professor Karen Kelsky in 2011. An anthropologist, Kelsky quit her job at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign after years of disgust with the conformity and exploitation of academe. “The culture of higher ed is increasingly soulless,” she writes. “Academia is a kind of cult, and deviation from the normative values of the group is not permitted or accepted within its walls.”

Read the full article, The Paradoxical Success of the Professor Is In, at the Chronicle of Higher Education

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Uzbeks: “We are not afraid”

My latest for Foreign Policy is on a group of Uzbeks who are using social media to fight back against a ruthless regime:

“Today the main disease of Uzbek society is fear,” says Kudrat Bobojonov, an Uzbekistani journalist exiled in Sweden. “Our group aims to deliver people from fear with positive information, with the most important form of positive information being a flash mob of Uzbeks posting photos of themselves.”

Bobojonov is one of the moderators of “Qorqmaymiz” — or “We are not afraid” — one of the most popular Uzbek Facebook pages. Launched in August 2014, Qorqmaymiz has grown to over 12,100 members, an enormous number for an Uzbek group. (To put it in perspective, Sayyod, Uzbekistan’s premier gossip and entertainment group, has around 30,000 members.) The success of Qorqmaymiz is all the more remarkable since everything about the group — from its criticism of the government to its circulation of censored content to its dissident-fueled camaraderie — is illegal in Uzbekistan.

While popular as a discussion site, the main purpose of Qorqmaymiz is for Uzbeks to post photos of themselves holding signs that say “I am not afraid” — meaning they are not afraid of the government of Islam Karimov, who has been Uzbekistan’s president since it became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. Karimov’s government is regarded by human rights groups as one of the most brutal in the world.

“This is a page [for] Central Asians who believe in liberty,” says the site’s description. “Our slogan: ‘I am not afraid of dictators!’ We kindly ask members of our group to [post] their photos with words in their language: ‘I am not afraid!’”

In Uzbekistan, “I am not afraid” is a subversive statement, punishable by a nebulously defined state law which makes “slandering the regime” a crime. Like most dictatorships, Uzbekistan markets itself as a paradise, boasting of uniformly happy citizens who adore their leaders. Proclaiming that one is not afraid of the government is a dual affront: it implies that the government is fearsome and hurts its own citizens, a view for which one can be arrested in Uzbekistan; and it shows that Uzbeks are willing and able to speak out against the authorities.

Read the full article, ‘We Are Not Afraid’, at Foreign Policy

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A tale of two signs — and two cities

My latest for the Guardian is on the “Black Lives Matter” and “We Must Stop Killing Each Other” signs that are planted on lawns throughout the St. Louis metropolitan region. An excerpt:

St Louis has become a region awash in signs. In the impoverished, majority black north, block after block of houses post signs with a stark message: “We must stop killing each other”.

In the region’s racially mixed, wealthier center, houses post signs with another message: “Black Lives Matter”.

Together, the signs tell the story of a region struggling to deal with questions of race and violence in the aftermath of the Ferguson events and a spate of homicides.

On the blighted city’s Page Boulevard sits Better Family Life, a nonprofit organization whose vice-president of community outreach, James Clark, spearheaded the “We must stop killing each other” campaign.

“One day I walk into the gas station, and a young man says: ‘With all this crime and violence going on, man, we got to stop killing each other,’” Clark recalls. “Next day, walk into the office, a young man is standing at the front table: ‘Mr Clark, man, my cousin got killed last week. We got to stop killing each other.’ Walk into my office after about an hour, a grandmother calls: ‘Mr Clark, my son didn’t come home last night. We don’t know where he is. We got to stop all this killing.’ For about three days, that message came to me.”

After years of a steady drop in crime, homicides surged in St Louis in 2014, up more than 30% from the year before. The trend continues in 2015, with incidents including two rolling gun battles on the highway, a toddler shot in a park, and a homicide near the baseball stadium in broad daylight. Most of the victims were black.

The violence has prompted more than 2,000 homes in the St Louis region to place “We must stop killing each other” signs on their lawns since April.

According to Clark, “we”, in St Louis, is everyone.

Read the whole thing at the Guardian

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