Ferguson Inc — a story of money and a movement

Months of research and interviews went into my latest for Politico Magazine, which is on the sustainability of the Ferguson protest movement, the participants of which are struggling to survive:

Ferguson began as a movement led by the people who had lost. Protesters took to the streets not only to rail against racism and police brutality, but also to decry decades of deeper divides: in housing, education, jobs, and the court system. But as the months wore on, the media frenzy built up, and the money rolled in, Ferguson turned into something else. A struggling suburb without a prominent industry suddenly had one: Ferguson Inc., a national protest movement.

In St. Louis, money is in the air—or, at least, talk of money. In the months since Michael Brown’s death, following all of the street violence, tear gas, and press conferences, national money flooded into Ferguson. The problem is no one seems to know where the money is going. They only know who is not seeing it: folks on the ground. Ferguson Inc. may be big business, but its dividends for the average St. Louis protester are few. Three months after the grand jury let Wilson walk, many struggle to simply survive. […]

“Ferguson” has become a buzzword, shorthand for engaged activism or lucrative chaos, depending which way you lean. Twitter splashes #Ferguson across their office walls, Ferguson T-shirts are sold at rallies across the country, and in November, media pumped Ferguson for ratings like they were staging a hunger games. Documentaries of protesters abound, with the documented now complaining that outsiders are profiting off their exploitation. Dozens of online fundraisers drop the Ferguson name to push for everything from community service initiatives to independent journalism to restoring burned-down businesses to riot tourism. National black leaders like Al Sharpton have embraced Ferguson as a cause celebre, much to the dismay of some St. Louis activists, who fear a local movement instigated by youth is being hijacked by an older generation for profit.

Read the full article, Ferguson Inc, at Politico Magazine. And don’t miss the photo gallery by the talented Andrew Moore.


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Why city boycotts are a bad idea

For Quartz, I wrote about calls to boycott Cleveland to protest their stance on the death of Tamir Rice:

To boycott an entire city—particularly a rust belt city like St. Louis or Cleveland with a majority black population—is to strike against an uncertain target. How do you punish those responsible for abuse without making their victims collateral damage?

Cities like Cleveland and St. Louis are often objects of national derision. This is “flyover country,” “the Mistake on the Lake”—places elites would never consider boycotting because they would never considering visiting in the first place. It is easy to call for a boycott of rust belt cities when you do not see their shuttered stores and abandoned malls and long-forgotten factories. It is easy to assume that boycotts carry weight, when the reality is that life here is tenuous, opportunities fleeting and stability low. A boycott means lost wages on your service job, the fastest growing sector in regions still hard-hit by the recession. A boycott means losing the tourism dollars from the few not driven away by your terrible reputation. A boycott means business will go on for local white elites as usual, because racial and class segregation is so deep that residents essentially function in two separate economies—a state of affairs quite different from that of the Montgomery bus system.

Some have suggested that a targeted boycott aimed at a powerful city industry—sports, for example—could sway the powers that be. But this assumes a scale of solidarity that does not exist. If it did, there would be no need for a boycott. The day white St. Louis decides to forgo the Cardinals to show their commitment to black rights is a day black rights have already been won.

Read the full article, How boycotts hurt the cities they are supposed to help, at Quartz

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Best of 2014

2014 was a very hard year – for the world, for my city, and for me. I am grateful to everyone who read and shared my work. Here are the articles that seemed to resonate most:

The peril of hipster economics – Al Jazeera English — 5/28/14

The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back –Medium — 4/14/14

College is a promise the economy does not keep – Al Jazeera English — 5/14/14

The telegenically dead Al Jazeera English — 8/14/14

The Princess Effect – Politico — 7/02/14

Water is a human right, but who is considered a human being?  — Al Jazeera English — 7/23/14

The Adjunct Crisis is Everyone’s Problem – The Chronicle of Higher Education — 10/17/14

How baby boomers ruined parenting forever – Quartz — 11/11/14

Can Minor Languages Make Revolution?  — The Common Reader — 10/1/14

I spent a large part of 2014 writing about Ferguson and St. Louis. The best of that coverage:

“Letter From St. Louis”. Three part series for Politico: Ferguson Won’t Heal (12/1/14)
Burning Ferguson (11/26/14) Ferguson’s Trial (11/25/14)

“I am Darren Wilson”: St. Louis and the Geography of Fear – Quartz — 10/21/14

Why Ferguson has been in a state of emergency for years — Quartz — 11/23/14

The real reason Ferguson is boarding up its storefronts — Quartz — 11/17/14

After Ferguson: St. Louis’s Forgotten Suburbs:  — Politico — 8/26/14

St. Louis’s sons, taken too soon – Al Jazeera English — 8/27/14

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A Bosnian Murder, in Black and White

Umar Lee and I investigated the tragic murder of Bosnian immigrant Zemir Begić for Quartz, and analyzed the case in the context of race relations in St. Louis before and after the Ferguson events:

“What about black on black crime?” is the de facto derailment of conversation on Ferguson. A disproportionate number of homicide victims and perpetrators in St. Louis are black. Like much else in St. Louis, violent crime is segregated, with most crime occurring in impoverished black neighborhoods whose everyday problems are rarely covered by the news. When it is not—as in the Begić case—anxieties about race are inflamed.

For the Bosnian community, predominantly Muslim, race is a complicated subject. Bosnians entered the St. Louis area at a time of deep division. The south city area where they moved upon their arrivalwas populated by two groups: lower-class blacks, some of whom considered Bosnian traditions strange, and lower-class whites, some of whom considered Muslims suspicious—and not quite “white enough.” Bosnians struggled with an uncertain racial identity in a racially polarized community. After 9/11, hostility toward Muslims in the region increased.

“For the time being, probably the most honest answer to the question of whether Bosnians perceive themselves as white is ‘We’re not sure,’” says Jasmin Mujanović, a Bosnian political scientist who notes that American history is full of immigrants—Poles, Irish, Italians—who became “white” only decades after arrival. “I suspect, ultimately, any definitive shift towards ‘whiteness’ among the Bosnian population in the US—when they will self-identify as ‘white people’—will come if or when there is a political need for it, as has historically been the case with other communities here,” he told Quartz.  “Given the recent events in St. Louis, however, that could (unfortunately) change very quickly to a definitive ‘yes.’”

Read the whole thing at Quartz

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No “healing” in Ferguson

My third in a series for Politico:

In order to “heal”, St. Louis has been asked to have “a conversation on race.” This conversation has already been happening, and it is angry and uncomfortable.

The conversation on race is whispered between panicked mothers on the playground, shouted by racists in the night, chanted by protesters on the street. The conversation on race happens every time white families explain they are moving out of a black neighborhood because “it’s different when it’s your own kids,” every time investors announce a gentrification scheme, every time a black man is pulled over on the highway, every time officials tell a grieving community to “calm down.” Michael Brown and Darren Wilson had a conversation on race. Brown’s last words were allegedly: “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting.”

Or maybe they were something else entirely—this city won’t have a chance to settle these questions in an open courtroom.

St. Louis has been having a conversation on race since its foundation. But there has been an element missing. The “conversation on race” that has not happened is the one in which white people listen to black people discuss their own experiences—and believe them. It is not about respectability. It is about respect.

Read the whole thing, Ferguson Won’t Heal, at Politico Magazine.

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Nothing left to boycott

For Quartz, I wrote about the Black Friday boycott in St. Louis:

In the St. Louis metropolitan region, three malls were temporarily closed. The first, the Galleria, is in the commercial suburb of Richmond Heights and is popular with black middle-class St. Louisans. (On a map of St. Louis that went viral in April, this area was referred to as “where black people go to shop.”) The second, West County Center, is in the wealthy town of Des Peres in St. Louis’s affluent West County, and primarily serves white middle-to-upper class shoppers. The third, Chesterfield Mall, is the largest in the state of Missouri. A thriving commercial megaplex, it is even further out in West County, in an area populated primarily by wealthy white conservatives.

There were no mall boycotts near Ferguson, because there are almost no malls left to boycott.

The Black Friday boycott was called to bring attention to how little black lives are valued in America. One look around majority black North County, the area surrounding Ferguson, and this becomes clear. The malls of North County stand vacant, stores shuttered, weeds sprouting in the parking lot. “If we don’t get it, shut it down!” cried the protesters (referring to an indictment), but in North County, commerce was shut down long ago, leaving an impoverished majority black population without resources or job opportunities. This is the landscape of abandonment, where things crumble quietly and communities scramble to survive.

Read the whole thing, In Ferguson, there are no malls left to boycott, at Quartz.

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Ferguson on fire

My latest for Politico:

Darren Wilson will never be on trial. Black St. Louis always was.

For 108 days, there were protests in St. Louis. The vast majority of the protests were non-violent. Looting and arson, limited to the initial August days, became media memes that bore little resemblance to life on the ground. St. Louis is an insular city, and its agony was internal, felt rather than seen. Comparatively few participated in the protests, but everyone shared the dread of the impending decision. Residents woke every day to new emergency procedures, to strategic leaks, to media rumors and lies. When asked why it was taking over 100 days to deliberate over events that allegedly took 90 seconds, officials replied that the road to justice was long. They gave St. Louis a waiting game and let the protesters pretend they were players.

In November, when rumors circulated that a grand jury decision was nearing, the protesters began to prepare. They were fighting the same fight that had brought them out in the early August day: the killing of unarmed black men by law enforcement, and the sanctioning of those killings by the justice system. The preparation meetings were mostly about how to not get killed while pointing this out. Medics, legal advocates, and peace activists gave tips on how to handle tear gas and go limp when arrested. As the media talked riots, protesters talked survival—not only survival of the people they were fighting for, but theirs.

Read the whole thing, Ferguson’s Trial, at Politico.

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Understanding St. Louis and Ferguson (Updated)

In light of the impending Ferguson grand jury decision, here are a few of my articles on the politics, economy and culture of St. Louis. You cannot understand Ferguson without understanding the broader context of the region.

Why Ferguson has been in a state of emergency for years
The real reason Ferguson is boarding up its storefronts
“I am Darren Wilson”: St. Louis and the Geography of Fear
After Ferguson: St. Louis’s Decaying Suburbs 
St. Louis’s sons, taken too soon
The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back
The view from flyover country
The media came to town
Ferguson is not unique

This is a small list. More here. Prayers to STL.

Update: Here are the articles I wrote after the decision was in.

Ferguson Won’t Heal: It’s too soon to turn the page:  (12/1/14)
In Ferguson, there are no malls left to boycott (11/30/14)
Burning Ferguson (11/26/14)
Ferguson’s Trial (11/25/14)

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The boarded buildings of Ferguson

My latest for Quartz addresses the economic and racial issues behind the boarding up of storefronts along Ferguson’s West Florissant Ave:

Since August, the media have described Ferguson in apocalyptic terms. The region has been compared to Gaza and Iraq, and today phrases like“riot-scarred” and “riots that engulfed the city” punctuate mainstream press. The reality is that the violence and looting that took place in Ferguson was limited to a small strip in the commercial district of West Florissant Avenue, with one business, QuikTrip, burned to the ground. The few stores that were looted reopened shortly afterward.

It is debatable whether the August violence, limited in damage and scope, could be classified as a riot. The police response, which included tear gassing residents on their property, was more pervasively destructive than the actions of protesters on the ground. For over 90 days, protests continued with minimal property damage. Ferguson remains a suburb of unassuming homes and faltering businesses, much as it was before. Its scars run deep, but they are largely emotional, not physical.

Some have interpreted the boarding of Ferguson as racist, a sign of business owners’ lack of faith in residents and protesters. But the boarding of Ferguson needs to be examined in the context of St. Louis’s racial politics and economic decline.

It is easy to find other parts of St. Louis that resemble the aftermath of riots. Shattered windows, roofless dwellings, boarded buildings, and stately homes whose bricks were stolen by the poor are all part of St. Louis’s landscape. Blighted suburbs like Wellston, Pagedale, Berkeley, and Kinloch bear the burden of decades of white flight, municipal corruption, and resource denial. Drive down the once thriving Page Boulevard, now a thoroughfare between crumbling majority black suburbs, and you will find sites like a forsaken VCR repair shop with shattered windows, a sign affixed to the front advertising a Democratic electoral candidate. The election was in 2010.

This is not the legacy of riots. This is the legacy of apathy and abandonment, which has harmed St. Louis more than looting ever has.

Read the whole thing, The real reason Ferguson is boarding up its storefronts, at Quartz

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The crash of the helicopter parents

I have a viral article in Quartz about the rise and fall of “helicopter parenting”, an elite practice peddled as normal that most parents could never afford:

About 25 years ago, when the era of irrational exuberance allowed enough disposable income for irrational anxiety, the concept of “helicopter parenting” arose. A “helicopter parent” micromanages every aspect of his child’s routine and behavior. From educational products for infants to concerned calls to professors in adulthood, helicopter parents ensure their child is on a path to success by paving it for them.

The rise of the helicopter was the product of two social shifts. The first was the comparatively booming economy of the 1990s, with low unemployment and higher disposable income. The second was the public perception of increased child endangerment—a perception, as “Free Range Kids” guru Lenore Skenazy documented, rooted in paranoia. Despite media campaigns that began in the 1980s and continue today, children are safer from crime than in prior decades. What they are not safe from are the diminishing prospects of their parents.

In America, today’s parents have inherited expectations they can no longer afford.The vigilant standards of the helicopter parents from the baby boomer generation have become defined as mainstream practice, but they require money that the average household earning $53,891 per year— and struggling to survive in an economy in its seventh year of illusory “recovery”— does not have. The result is a fearful society in which poorer parents are cast as threats to their own children. As more families struggle to stay afloat, the number of helicopter parents dwindles—but their shadow looms large.

Read the whole article, which my editor subtly titled How baby boomers ruined parenting forever, at Quartz

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