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Making a federal case out of Ferguson

Sep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Ferguson, Mo.
"I JUST SAW SOMEONE DIE OMFG,” wrote Emanuel Freeman, a teenage rap aficionado who lives in the Canfield Green housing project in Ferguson, Missouri. It was about noon on Saturday, August 9, when Michael Brown, a hulking 18-year-old recently graduated from a failing high school and 10 minutes removed from committing a strong-arm robbery, was shot dead by Ferguson policeman Darren Wilson in the street outside Freeman’s window. Freeman appears not to have seen the fusillade that killed Brown, and no uncontested account of it has emerged. But we can see from the tweets Freeman posted in the following minutes that people drew their own conclusions almost immediately: “Im about to hyperventilate,” Freeman wrote. “F—k f—kf—k. .  .  . Its blood all over the street, niggas protesting nsh—t. There is police tape all over my building. I am stuck in here omg. .  .  . I am not a gangsta man lmaooo.”

AP Jeff Roberson

AP Jeff Roberson

Many of Freeman’s neighbors suspected Brown was the victim of a racist cop. They have found company. Brown’s family has hired Benjamin Crump, a firebrand lawyer who represented the family of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen killed in a confrontation with a neighborhood watchman in 2012. Attorney General Eric Holder has traveled to the scene to comfort Brown’s family and launched a civil rights investigation. Jesse Jackson has called the killing of Brown a “state execution.” Missouri’s Democratic governor has said his state is “reeling from what feels like an old wound that has been torn open fresh.” And yet, two weeks into a series of nightly protest marches in Ferguson, the facts in this case remain almost wholly opaque. By moving so aggressively to take a stand, the White House risks exposing itself to disapproval, the people of Ferguson to disappointment, and the rest of the country to disorder.

Missouri has a checkered racial history. It fought the Civil War as France did World War II: valiantly, for both sides. St. Louis has been a watchword for dismal urban renewal projects—the vast Pruitt-Igoe blocks downtown, completed in 1956 and dynamited starting in 1972, were the biggest failure in the history of U.S. low-income housing. Yet Ferguson has until quite recently been one of the more racially integrated places in the state and perhaps the country. Ferguson was three-quarters white in 1990. It is now two-thirds black. Parts of the city seemed to have managed the transition well. In the heart of “old” Ferguson, near Florissant Road, black- and white-owned houses alternate on the same block. Whether the people of Ferguson were tolerant enough to embrace postracial America or too poor to flee it, the city has been for most of the past half-century a prosperous and pleasant middle-class place for people of all races. The Wabash Cannonball of song used to stop in Ferguson, and the broad-lawned summer retreats built for Wabash executives on hilly Elizabeth Street still stand. The $25-billion multinational Emerson Electric keeps its headquarters here. 

But it may be that the Ferguson we see now is just a snapshot midway through a process of decline. The eastern part of the city, the part where Michael Brown got killed and where the looting and burning and marching have been taking place, looks different. There, along a road that is confusingly called West Florissant, are a half-dozen St. Louis County townships, including one six-block finger of Ferguson. The Canfield Green project, where Brown had moved in with his grandmother, was mostly white at the turn of the century but today is overwhelmingly black. The larger West Florissant strip is depressing. It includes nail shops, multiple payday loan outlets, and the Springwood Plaza, which contains a dialysis service but is otherwise almost wholly abandoned. There is an excellent barbecue joint—Red’s—where the 300-pound Brown was a regular. It survived the protests and looting, barely.

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