I didn't plan to go to Ferguson, or consciously connect it to Memphis and Harlem on my road trip. Some things just work out like that. Honestly, I went back to Memphis for the barbecue. Perhaps in the back of my mind, I've been looking to reconcile what we as a nation haven't. That the racial divide in this country is real, omnipresent, and firmly entrenched into American society. If that's true, there's fewer clear examples than St. Louis, Missouri.
I pulled into St. Louis, and the town of Ferguson, mere hours after the city lifted the State of Emergency placed on the area. Protests and some violence began to break out the weekend before as residents and activists remembered the anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting. Ferguson that Friday night was eerily calm as dusk settled. Protests had moved to downtown St Louis that night, focusing on the St Louis Cardinals baseball game. For the night, it appeared that residents had returned to their day to day routines.
No one in the news tells you that there are two Fergusons. When you turn off the I-270 and make the 2 mile drive into downtown, it looks like any other small town in the Midwest. Red brick houses, a church every few blocks. It's rural, even for being a suburb of St. Louis, it's quaint. There's a water park next to a man made lake. Restaurant patios are filling up. A small outdoor pavilion has live music with residents seated in lawn chairs. But something's amiss. Cop cars dot the main drag. They don't fit this picturesque puzzle.
Head due east about 5 minutes and you uncover the other side of town. Crossing over some railroad tracks and passing by a few industrial buildings you arrive on West Florrisant Avenue. A group of black teenage boys cross the street, behind them a run down strip mall houses a Family Dollar and the Nail Trap. There's some boarded up commercial buildings, one has "Ferguson in this bitch" scribbled on the side. The "bitch" is sloppily buffed out. Another group of young men hang just off the highway down from the McDonald's. One young man has his shirt off with a black bandana over his face, a striking image from last years riots.
Two and half miles. That's it. Two and a half miles separates the haves and have nots. Black from white. Economic infrastructure from instability. Opportunity from desperation.
This is true for Ferguson, and the rest of St. Louis. The separation even reduced to a city block, in what is known as The Delmar Divide. A section of the city that on one side of Delmar Avenue sits beautiful mansions and on the other, run down abandoned homes. There are actual gates off of Delmar that restrict entry into some of the middle class neighborhoods. It's surreal, yet at the same time, a widely accepted reality acknowledged by both sides. The psychology it takes to build an invisible wall like that, is incredibly tough to comprehend.
An invisible wall perhaps is the perfect way to describe the condition and state we've created. We'd all be lying to ourselves if at some point in our towns, our cities, we didn't see the racial divide. In silence, ignorance, and acceptance, we've all been complicit, we've all laid a brick in the wall, granted some more than others. It's an uncomfortable truth, but one I believe must be acknowledged if we ever hope to move forward as a nation in good conscience.
I don't want to discuss answers, here. I just want to tell you, that having explored these neighborhoods, these cities, this divide, it doesn't FEEL right. It doesn't FEEL just, to see one man sit on his stoop in poverty, and a mile away, see his neighbor sit on the couch in his million dollar home. Before we approach solutions, I would ask everyone to FEEL something. Let the decisions you've made to accept or reinforce this racial divide fill you up inside.
If we can do that, I think we can begin to find the best answers. But we ALL, must FEEL something. Pointing fingers through televisions, conceptualizing conditions, and making enemies out of one another has gotten us nowhere....but here.