How Ferguson happened

August 18
As protests raged, officials began inquiries into the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

No civil unrest arises out of a single factor. It emerges instead from a series of frustrations that eventually reach a breaking point. As protests and clashes continue in Ferguson, Mo., there's been an increasingly close look at the underlying tensions in the city. The shooting death of Michael Brown was a catalyst. What follows are what those best familiar with the area consider the underlying elements.

Political power

Jeff Smith, a former Democratic state senator from Missouri, wrote a piece for the Times outlining the recent electoral tension in St. Louis County, the area just northwest of the city of St. Louis that is home to Ferguson. As we noted last week, Smith argues that the rapid shift in Ferguson's demographics from majority white to majority black outpaced the ability of the political infrastructure to represent the community.

The change in the density of St. Louis County's black population between 2000 and 2012.

Data from the Census Bureau showing the percentage of census tracts that is black. White outlined tracts overlap with Ferguson. Darker reds indicate a higher percentage of black residents.

For the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb looks at two recent political moves that he's heard people in Ferguson mention as symptoms of the overarching problem.

Late last year, the largely white school board (it has one Hispanic member) fired the district's black superintendent. Then, less than two weeks ago, Charlie Dooley, the incumbent county executive was beaten handily by St. Louis city councilmember Steve Stenger. Stenger is white; Dooley black. According to Cobb, black residents of the county saw opposition to Dooley as racially tinged. The arguments against Dooley, like this one, featuring county prosecutor Bob McCulloch, focused on accusations of corruption.

"McCulloch would also be responsible for determining whether to charge Darren Wilson," the officer who shot Michael Brown, Cobb notes.

Police activity

Frustrations around police activity pre-date the Brown shooting. There are numerous anecdotal examples of incidents in which Ferguson residents complained of being targeted by the police. But there's also direct evidence of it.

Smith, in the Times, explains why police stops are important to local law enforcement.

The region’s fragmentation isn’t limited to the odd case of a city shedding its county. St. Louis County contains 90 municipalities, most with their own city hall and police force. Many rely on revenue generated from traffic tickets and related fines. According to a study by the St. Louis nonprofit Better Together, Ferguson receives nearly one-quarter of its revenue from court fees; for some surrounding towns it approaches 50 percent.

In Ferguson, according to data from the Missouri state attorney general, traffic stops have been on an upward trend, though the number dropped last year.

Any perception that the application of the traffic stops is uneven is justified. Blacks are far more likely to get stopped, which makes sense in part since they are a larger percentage of the population. (Though, as we noted last week, they are overrepresented in those stops. Over 80 percent of stops in the past five years have been of black drivers, despite blacks only comprising about two-thirds of the population.) But once stopped, blacks are more likely to be searched -- and less likely to be found carrying anything illegal.

Economics

St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist David Nicklaus notes another point of tension.

The unemployment and poverty rates for blacks in St. Louis County are consistently higher than those rates for white residents. Only one time between 2007 and 2012 has the poverty rate for blacks been less than three times that of whites, according to Census data (which is only available through the latter year). The unemployment rate is two-to-three times higher, and, as of 2012, had grown worse while it grew better for whites.

What's more, those figures disproportionately affect younger residents. Nicklaus pulls out a subset of Census data: "47 percent of the metro area’s African-American men between ages 16 and 24 are unemployed. The comparable figure for young white men is 16 percent."

The strains of economic hardship don't need much further articulation. But it also means that the disruptions that are occurring due to the current state of emergency are likely to exacerbate problems. For example, there are calls for increased donations to a local foodbank because the announced school closures, meant to keep people off the streets, will also mean that kids who rely on school meals aren't getting them.

There are many reasons to hope that Ferguson returns to normal -- or, perhaps, better-than-normal -- as soon as possible. But few are more pressing than the recognition that many local residents were struggling even before their town's disruptions became front-page news.

This post has been corrected to fix the origination of the foodbank donation request.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.
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