Transcribed from This is Hell! Radio’s 5 September 2014 episode and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
“It’s not so much a question of whether the media should be there or not. The media should just do a good job. We should be respectful of residents’ privacy and dignity and should practice basic research before writing something up.”
Chuck Mertz: One of the most recent additions to our team of irregular correspondents is Sarah Kendzior. We’re proud to have gotten her as a correspondent. Sarah, good morning!
Sarah Kendzior: Good morning, how are you?
CM: Good! Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis-based columnist for Al Jazeera English and the Chronicle of Higher Education, but her writing is popping up everywhere, including her most recent work at Politico.com: After Ferguson, St. Louis’s Decaying Black Suburbs Are About to Be Forgotten. Again.
You start by going to a barber shop that you describe as being “two blocks from where 18-year-old Michael Brown had been gunned down by officer Darren Wilson nine days before.” And you quote a barber saying, “What we want to know is where has the media been? Because these problems aren’t new.” You add, “Police had long been harassing the black community, they said. One customer reported seeing officers taking backpacks from young black men and emptying the contents on the ground. When asked if officer Darren Wilson, who shot Michael Brown, was among those officers, the gentleman said, ‘Yes.’”
Diane Sawyer calls places like Ferguson “hidden America.” Who is this America hidden from, and why don’t the actions of police officers that people like Diane Sawyer would never tolerate if they were done to her—why don’t those actions make the news, Sarah?
SK: That’s a great question, because it’s not really hidden. If it’s hidden, it’s hidden in plain sight. And the problems that have been going on in North County have been discussed here, vocally, for a long time. Now that there’s an international spotlight on them, wealthier, whiter segments of the population that were reluctant to really weigh in have more directly confronted with these problems. But this has been going on for a while, and I think if the races of the Mike Brown and Darren Wilson case were reversed, you’d see not only a different outcome but a different kind of discussion surrounding them.
CM: Earlier on this morning’s show we were speaking with Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report, and he was saying that the common salve that politicians put on these situations whenever racial tensions happen between police and the community, is “well, all we need is a few more black police officers and this won’t be a problem.”
If a black police officer had gunned down the unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, would we have avoided all these problems?
SK: No. Because the problems in the St. Louis police department go a lot deeper than that. There’s a general exploitation of the community of North County, which is increasingly a black community. A lot of the profits and money that the county makes are from warrants and fines among a very impoverished population. There have been a lot of good reports on that.
I think that some people were very quick to defend officer Wilson, and assume that he had done nothing wrong and that Mike Brown must have provoked him in some way. And I think that assumption comes from officer Wilson being white and Mike Brown being black, and I don’t know if that same audience would be so quick to instantly forgive a black officer.
The problems that exist in the police department do have to do with race, but much more with regard to who they’re targeting, rather than the officers in question.
CM: When there are reports of abuse by police, they seem to be immediately met with skepticism. First by the media, which is fine because in journalism we should be skeptical of everything. But the same media does not seem so skeptical when they are hearing evidence that might provoke the public into demanding our country—I don’t know, something crazy—go to war.
Why are we more skeptical of those who claim police abuse than those who claim WMDs in Iraq, or that forty thousand troops are amassing on an ally’s border?
SK: I think people are uncomfortable with the idea of white people being those unjustly targeting others instead of being the subject of some kind of threat or persecution. It’s easy for people to believe that the U.S. is threatened by WMDs or something like that because we want to protect ourselves.
I think it’s very hard for people to imagine that those who are supposed to serve and protect us, officials like the St. Louis County police, are those that are antagonizing and harassing and—especially in the last few weeks—terrorizing the black community, under very racist assumptions.
That’s just hard for people to face, because white Americans and black Americans have different experiences with the police. There’s been an effort in the protest movement for everybody to do the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot,” which was said in honor of Mike Brown (who had his hands up when he was shot on the street). But in reality it would be very unlikely for that to happen to a white person, and I think that there’s a lack of empathy, a lack of understanding, and a kind of defensiveness.
But I think we need to be less defensive, and more honest and more supportive of this community as they are struggling for justice.
CM: Let’s talk about the media reaction, not just on the air but on the ground in Ferguson. You write about this amazing encounter that you have with the media, and I want you to tell our audience about that. But what that event reminds me of, what it echoes, is something that we were reading on the show a couple weeks ago.
When we were talking to James Loewen, who wrote the book on sundown towns, we told him about a piece by Ryan L. Schuessler on not returning to Ferguson because of the actions of the media. But Jim Loewen mentioned the abuse of journalists by police, and argued they were doing a great job, because they were covering the story, not ignoring it.
How difficult is it to find that ground where it is not exploitation, but more about informing the world of an injustice, its causes and consequences?
SK: That’s a great question. First, Ryan is somebody who I know personally, and his work on not just St. Louis but the Midwest is very good, and he’s been covering these issues for a while. So I trust his judgment on that and encourage people to check out his work.
In terms of how he describes the media presence in Ferguson, I think he’s absolutely right. There was a lot of nonsense going on, like people were filming me getting in and out of my car. CNN used my co-writer Umar Lee when we were in the barber shop and Umar was just getting a beard trim. This beard trim went on for twenty minutes, because they wanted a cool, realistic background shot. While they were interviewing the barbers, the barbers were very patient, very understanding, even as their own clientele is vacating the store because they didn’t want to be part of the media. The other guy getting a haircut just wanted a haircut.
So there’s a very invasive, intrusive presence. That was a problem for local residents in Ferguson and nearby areas, of course. But the biggest problem I saw with the media was the lack of curiosity into the broader political and historical context of St. Louis, and of North County in particular. They went in with assumptions like, “this is a small town,” or “this is a ghetto,” and, especially in the early days, wrote a lot of things that were just inaccurate, and that simply reading a book or looking up basic information would have rectified.
“The majority of people I’ve spoken to think that the city will burn.”
On the other hand, I agree that it was very important for the national media to be there, especially during the nights of police brutality when they were teargassing people, when they were attacking protesters on the ground. That needed to be recorded, and it would have concerned me much more if the media had been absent and all that had gone on with few people noticing.
So in that sense it’s good. It’s not so much a question of whether the media should be there or not. The media should just do a good job. We should be respectful of residents’ privacy and dignity and should practice basic research before writing something up. I think that’s really all Ryan and others were getting at.
CM: What were some of the biggest pieces of misinformation that were put out originally about Ferguson, trying to fit it into a narrative that the networks wanted but didn’t really reflect reality?
SK: I think one of the main ones is the continual referencing of “the ghetto.” Anyone who has been to Ferguson would dismiss that out of hand. It’s not a small town, either, because it’s not isolated. It’s part of this continuum of fairly small municipalities that are part of St. Louis County, which is made up of ninety municipalities.
Some of these municipalities have like 500 people. But Ferguson is on the larger side; it’s about 22,000 people. It’s a city where poverty has increased rapidly in the last twelve years, and there’s been a huge fluctuation of demographics because a lot of poor black families were leaving North County—which actually does in many ways fit the description of a “ghetto,” or a severely impoverished and crime-ridden area.
Ferguson is not. Ferguson has a very low crime and murder rate. Officer Wilson killing Mike Brown in the middle of the road was the first violent crime committed there in a long time. I think there is a tendency to see a majority black area as being inherently plagued with violence—which is a very dangerous assumption to make when the violence is actually coming from the police.
CM: How is Ferguson seen by people in St. Louis? Do they see what’s going on in Ferguson as happening “out there in Ferguson,” and not reflective of St. Louis? Are there people who are rationalizing it, compartmentalizing it, saying this is something that happens “over there?”
SK: I think that initially that was true, and that tends to be true, generally speaking, of any kind of violent action that happens in a majority black area, whether it’s by the people who live there or by the police. I think it’s harder for people in St. Louis to accept that. I think people are realizing that the city and the county are connected whether they like it or not.
St. Louis is a city of white flight, but what most people don’t understand is how deep that white flight goes. We’re at the point now where people who have fled St. Louis city for St. Louis County are now fleeing all the way out to nearby St. Charles county, and even to Illinois or western Missouri—basically so they can get as far away from living near black people as possible. That’s just the cold hard reality of it.
There’s a lot of reluctance to confront these issues directly. But I’ve talked to people all over the city; I have yet to meet anybody who’s black who doesn’t find familiarity with the situation, who hasn’t known somebody who has been harassed by police, and who doesn’t grieve for Mike Brown and for his family.
That’s something that people are missing: this isn’t just a political or ideological issue. It’s a very emotional time for people in St. Louis. People hear the name Mike Brown and their eyes will well up with tears, and the city is very afraid. The city is shocked and hurting.
And I think that’s true of a lot of the white population as well. There are many who are sympathetic to the Brown family, even if they’re not openly expressing that, and I think the one thing that’s bringing everybody together is fear of what’s to come. Fear of what’s going to happen if officer Wilson is not indicted. The majority of people I’ve spoken to think that the city will burn.
CM: That was a really depressing moment of your article, when you mentioned that.
You write, “North County, originally a quiet area of blue collar communities became an escape route from St. Louis’s job loss, social unrest and decaying infrastructure.” I think this might reveal something about Ferguson. Were the residents pushed there by gentrification, by the problems within the inner city, or were they pulled there by the promise of what they saw in Ferguson?
SK: I think it depends on what time period you’re looking at, whether it’s before 2008 or after. Gentrification in St. Louis has been very slow, which I think is a good thing, because it will hopefully prevent St. Louis from making the mistakes of New York and San Francisco, depriving long-term neighborhood residents of economic opportunities. So it wasn’t really a matter of that.
For people I’ve talked to, they were going there as families to get away from violence and lack of basic resources in North St. Louis. In North St. Louis, a lot of schools have closed. It’s hard to find grocery stores in some areas. In many ways it’s a terrible place to raise a family, and most of the people I’ve talked to are people trying to raise children. So they went there to get away from a bad area, but also hopefully to benefit from the better situation in North County.
The problem is that North County, before 2008, was in a lot better shape than it is now. It was very hard hit by the mortgage crisis. A lot of people lost homes. There’s been a lot of transience, families moving from apartment complex to apartment complex throughout the county. Which is why it’s misleading to focus primarily on Ferguson, because this is really a larger issue.
I think a lot of people who left the city for North County have been disappointed by what they’ve found there.
“There’s nothing really unique about Ferguson. This could have happened in other parts of North County, and it could happen in other parts of the U.S. These broader structural issues of police brutality, loss of economic opportunity, and exploitative practices are happening everywhere.”
CM: There’s this saying that when there’s a recession in the white community, there’s a depression in the black community. If there is a shrinking middle class within the white community, I would assume that the black middle class is nearly gone. And when you add in that kind of transience and there isn’t anybody in the middle class, then you have less and less stability within the community, which is a problem for it to progress.
You write that you met a “32-year-old waitress who lives in Jennings, a majority black town southeast of Ferguson where 28% of children live below the poverty line. Her children attend school in the Ferguson/Florissant district, which meant school was canceled [the first day of protests] for safety concerns.” Then you quote her saying, “‘they say school’s canceled because of safety, but the real reason is that they can’t walk to school in these conditions, and there isn’t any bus service.’ There has never been a school bus service in Jennings.”
Did the media make this story about poverty, in your opinion? And if that’s the most important issue that needs to be discussed in Ferguson, why wasn’t it discussed?
SK: First, I do want to say that there is a black middle class in St. Louis, and like the middle class anywhere they’ve been very hard hit, but I think that that middle class is declining. But it is there, and it’s there in North County, too. And it’s important to support that.
On the other hand, I do think that poverty and lack of economic opportunity—lack of jobs, lack of resources, and lack of public transit—has been a huge problem in North County. In the city, it tends to be addressed a little better, especially since the land of the city has newly been declared valuable for gentrification purposes, so people have been examining that, talking about building new transportation options, things like that.
But there are a lot of people in North County who talk about what it’s like. It’s waiting for a bus to show up, to take them an hour to the other side of town so that they can work for a minimum wage job, and then waiting to take a bus back. People can’t afford cars. People can’t afford daycare or healthcare or anything like that. And the public institutions in that part of the city are deprived of resources as well.
And I definitely think that is an outcome of this becoming a majority black community. Because when that happens, people are denied resources—especially if it’s in a suburban area that doesn’t have the kind of romance and nostalgia and glamor that the city has. What I hope will come out of this is that resources will be reallocated to North County, and all those groups that are advocating for long term change will get the financial and material support that they need.
CM: I do think poverty is one of the most misunderstood things. But is the most misunderstood thing in the white community, when it comes to incidents like Ferguson, that whites are treated by police completely differently than the way blacks are treated, as you mentioned before?
SK: Yeah. I think it’s impossible to understand. I say this as a white person. I will never understand that feeling. But what everyone needs to do is trust that people are telling the truth. It’s like you were saying before, that there’s this reluctance to believe that this could actually happen, and I think that’s because the experiences are so vastly different.
I live in a mostly black neighborhood, and when I walk through the park, which is filled with black families who are barbecuing, playing on swings—you know, it’s a nice neighborhood—police will actually stop me—white police—and ask, “Are you alright? Is anybody bothering you? Is anybody harassing you?” So that’s the perception, that I must be lost and potentially in danger.
That’s the really deeply-held problematic issue that we need to contend with, to be more open-minded, less defensive, and not make assumptions of somebody’s criminality based on their race—which, unfortunately, not only St. Louis but in the entire U.S., happens all the time.
CM: One last question for you, Sarah. Did you expect this to happen in Ferguson? Did you think that this was inevitable, that sooner or later that there was a simmering kettle that was about to boil over?
SK: Yes. To a degree. I didn’t expect the intensity of the situation. I didn’t know that the cops would be using militarized weapons on the people of Ferguson, but I wrote an article back in April about minimum wage workers who live in North County, and most of the people who I interviewed live in Ferguson or the neighboring town, Florissant. The McDonalds that I attended strikes at was in Ferguson. So there has been protest and frustration and unrest in Ferguson for a while.
And I don’t think that it’s surprising at all that, when the police kill an 18-year-old boy, people from that community will come out to grieve and protest. I think that’s a completely normal reaction.
And I have been saying throughout this that there’s nothing really unique about Ferguson. This could have happened in other parts of North County, and it could happen in other parts of the U.S. These broader structural issues, particularly having to do with police brutality, with loss of economic opportunity, with exploitative practices like people raising money through warrants and fines that target a minority community—this is happening everywhere. If we want to prevent situations like this you’ve got to address those core issues.
CM: Sarah, thanks so much for being on the show with us again, and take care. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.
SK: Thank you for having me. You too.