FLORISSANT, Mo. -- My daughter deserved a treat. After all, she had just sat through hours of adult conversation as the only 6-year-old in the room. Over the past few months, as I’ve reported on the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, I’ve covered countless protests and community meetings. When I attended the latest gathering of the Ferguson Commission on Monday, which focused on race relations in St. Louis, I dragged my kindergartener along.
Because she was on her best behavior -- and since I felt responsible for her uneventful evening -- I decided to treat her to one of her favorite guilty pleasures, White Castle. After I placed my order at the drive-through and waited in line for the pickup window, I heard some commotion behind me. Two cars back, a white man in a pickup truck had his head out the window, yelling at the black woman in the vehicle behind me as she prepared to place her order. He apparently believed the woman had cut him off.
“Why don’t you watch where the fuck you’re going next time?” the man yelled. As the woman and her daughter placed their orders, the man drove out of line and pulled up beside them to yell some more. It was clear to me he was intoxicated.
He continued to scream at the woman and her daughter. He used the N-word. “That’s all you people fucking know how to do is yell and fight,” he bellowed. “You want some of this?"
The woman remained calm, but the man wouldn’t quit. My own daughter was afraid to look back at what was happening behind us. She started crying and put her hands over her ears.
I heard the woman tell the man she was going to call the police.
“I’m white, call them twice bitch,” the man screamed. Then he circled the woman’s car with his pickup and drove across the street, watching, as the woman picked up her order and parked. I never saw her call the cops.
I was shocked. I’d never seen anyone act that nasty in my life. Given the key role that Twitter has played in coverage of Ferguson, I tweeted about the White Castle confrontation. Those tweets got the attention of the alt-weekly in St. Louis as well as an executive of White Castle, who called me to apologize and promise an investigation.
As extreme as it was, the drive-through confrontation shouldn’t have been entirely surprising. That a drunken white man would believe the police would take his side rather than that of a black woman and her daughter speaks to the massive divide in perception of law enforcement I’ve seen up close as I’ve covered the St. Louis region over the past several months.
Speaking with residents of St. Louis County from all backgrounds at protests, town hall meetings and municipal court sessions since August, I’ve seen a fundamental difference in how black residents and white residents perceive the multitude of police departments in the St. Louis suburbs. Many white residents have had no negative experiences with law enforcement, and tell me nothing bad happens to those who don’t break the law.
But as the Justice Department’s brutal report on Ferguson’s police department makes clear, officers in the city, under pressure to write tickets to generate revenue, focused only on black residents for certain petty violations of municipal codes that don’t qualify as crimes. A Ferguson officer even told federal investigators that “everything’s about the courts,” and the courts' priority was generating money.
In some cases, Ferguson officers punished people who had called the police for help, according to the DOJ report. Police came to the home of a woman who had called for a domestic disturbance, saw what they thought were signs that her boyfriend lived with her, accused her of violating her occupancy permit and arrested her. The woman said only she and her brother lived in the home.
In another interview the DOJ recorded, a man who came to his girlfriend’s side after she was badly injured in a car accident was arrested for five municipal code violations. Instead of tending to the bleeding woman, officers focused on the man for not wanting to leave his girlfriend. He was charged with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, assault of an officer, obstructing government operations and failure to comply. They had his car towed and impounded.
My own family and friends had long warned me to be careful driving through St. Louis County. Even driving with a broken headlight could land me a night in jail, they said. My parents both originally lived in the city, but moved to St. Charles County before I was born to give my sister and I the opportunity to attend better schools. We were some of the only black students in our classes.
In St. Charles County, there weren’t endless tales of aggressive ticketing or police misconduct or municipalities nickel-and-diming citizens to generate revenue. The biggest complaints probably came from my white male classmates who received speeding tickets for driving too fast. But there was never really a possibility that they would go to jail because they couldn’t pay a ticket. The police, generally, were not an entity to be feared.
I knew things were different in St. Louis County. But after I graduated college, I decided I wanted to move there so my daughter could live in a more diverse community.
We made the move this summer. Two days later, a Ferguson police officer killed Michael Brown.
Since then, the stories I’ve heard from fellow St. Louis County residents and the details in the Justice Department report made clear that the problems are worse than I’d imagined.
Of course, the deep mistrust between black residents and law enforcement has developed over decades, and the entrenched problems aren’t going to be fixed overnight. But a wide range of organizations and individuals have brought awareness of racial bias and the need for police and municipal court reform, and there’s potential for some change in the near future. The very meeting my daughter and I attended addressed the same issue we would encounter later that night.
I’m still glad to be a St. Louis County resident. My daughter gets to attend school alongside classmates of diverse backgrounds. The drunken man in the pickup certainly scared her, but she’s still young. She doesn’t understand that the incident had anything to do with race. And if I explain it to her when she’s older, I hope enough will have changed that she’ll never understand how it could have happened in the first place.