Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Ferguson: Not what you think

This is a continuation of the transcript of the interview I did for the C-Realm podcast last month. I was asked about the American Conservative piece I wrote, and explained a few things I noticed about the media coverage surrounding my old neighbourhood. I realise this is a touchy subject, and a bit unusual for this blog, but as a native I might have a few useful thoughts. Back to our usual subjects after this week. 

Kaller: When I wrote about Ferguson, though, I didn’t write about any of those things – and I got some criticism from people who thought I was skipping over things like the difficulties of being black in America. But I’m not the person to write about that – I’m not black and I’m not in America. Others have written about it eloquently, and I don’t have anything to add. I could, however, add a few things that other reporters could not, because of my background.

First, I’m from the area, unlike almost anyone else reporting on it, and I was not only hearing from the same media reports as everyone else, but was hearing reports from lots of friends and family on the ground. I’ve given talks in St. Louis with people who have been helping lead the protests, I have friends who went out to spend time with protesters, I have cousins who worked for the county and had their office computers hacked by Anonymous – from people close to the situation on many sides.

Almost all the reports described Ferguson, in one way or another, as “the inner city” or “a black neighbourhood” against white police – they chose that angle. Race is important, of course, but in focusing on that, they gave a misguided idea about what Ferguson is like -- it’s not a desperately poor, inner-city neighbourhood. It’s racially mixed, working-class but not especially dangerous.

East St. Louis, on the far side of the city and the river, is perhaps the highest-crime city in the USA – and possibly the Western World -- with perhaps 100 homicides per 100,000 people per year, and with 50 violent crimes per 1,000 people per year – which is off the scale. But Ferguson has one-thirteenth that crime rate.

Describing Ferguson as this hellish ghetto served everyone’s purposes, no matter where they were on the political map -- depending on where they were people could condemn the rioting thugs from a distance or pity the poor black people from a distance. But no one was thinking of it as something that could happen where they live in the coming years.

The violence and military occupation isn't something that always happens to someone else -- it happened where I grew up, in a normal neighbourhood, and could absolutely happen in your neighbourhood next time. That's an important detail, and most news reports didn’t appreciate that.

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