Letter From America 2014: the #Ferguson Problem Tree

Peter Ramsden

By Peter Ramsden, on October 7th, 2014

> Read Peter Ramsden's articles

The riots in Ferguson Missouri over the past months following the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer Darren Carter illustrate the extent to which cities are a powderkeg.  It is easy to look across the pond to America and judge them to be lacking, but in Europe we have had riots in places as different as Stockholm, London and Paris over the past decade.  Most of our riots have not had the extra burden of slavery and Jim Crow but they are tinged by colonialism and racism.

After four nights of rioting, peace arrived on the fifth night in the shape of traffic cop Ron Johnson who showed that riots are as much about how the police behave as they are about the crowd.

He mingled with the crowd and ordered police to take off their riot gear and body armour.  The fifth night was widely described (on National Public Radio and the press) as having a festival atmosphere.  How quickly things can change if you get the social relations right.

On the sixth night a protest got out of control again. The National Guard was called in and a curfew imposed.  The city was locked down.  Police had the riot gear because of 9/11 and because there is a glut of military material coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, but they had never been trained in its use.  They fired on innocent bystanders and into neighbourhood gardens of local people.  A second death followed.

Putting Ron Johnson, an African-American traffic  police chief to  take over seemed to  calm things down more than a neat speech by wordsmith Obama.

“Now is the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson.  Now is the time for an open and transparent process to see that justice is done”

It shows that deeds not words make the difference.  Also that over-the-top reactions stoke the fire rather than putting it out.  You can’t

talk to people when you are wearing breathing gear.  Instead the police looked like escaped extras from  Hollywood.


St Louis and Pruitt Igoe

Students of urban regeneration will know that Ferguson is a suburb of St Louis and that St Louis was the location of the infamous Pruitt Igoe housing project designed by Yamasaki (who also dsigned the Twin Towers) was demolished in the mid 70s after becoming unliveable and segregated.  This symbolised the end of modernism and foreshadowed the end of the high rise era (although municipalities in Western and Eastern Europe continued building the for another decade)

Unfortunately, although they demolished the buildings they failed to deal with the underlying  social and economic issues in the St Louis metropolitan area that caused poverty and alienation among the black community.  Most critically Ferguson shows that ethnic segregation continued apace.  The municipality swung from being majority white to being 70% black over a decade.



The Ferguson Problem Tree

Ferguson problem tree

The problem tree helps us to distinguish between symptoms and causes: is youth unemployment a symptom or a cause?
Here are some of the symptoms:

  • Police were using vehicle fines to raise money for a municipal budget that was inadequate to fund services. Most of their stops (90% reportedly) were among the 70% black community.
  • Black kids on the street were likely to be stopped and searched, many had been stopped multiple times leading to resentment and abuses
  • Youth unemployment is very high in the black community (reportedly around 45% for males aged 18-25) this also meant that a lot of youth were wiling away their days on the streets.
  • High school drop out and low qualifications

And some of the underlying causes

  • Weak economy and high unemployment (low labour demand)
  • Population change, Ferguson is now 70% black. The city is highly segregated aided by (see below)
  • White flight and the use of covenants on the deeds of property in some white areas that prevented African Americans from buying (this would be illegal in much of Europe).
  • Racial discrimination in employment (no statistics available) but the youth unemployment speaks for itself

The police force is 5% African American and their only senior black policeman is a traffic cop in a different service. But Baltimore has a largely minority dominated police force and anyone remembering the iconic police series of the 1990s ‘The Wire’ would know that cops are cops. A more integrated police force might help but it would only be scratching the surface of the problem.

The wider problem for the USA is that there are many Fergusons waiting to blow up. So far, this unrest is limited to one location. In 1968 riots spread like wildfire to nearly every Major city. Obama has two questions to address: How to deal with a killing by a policeman; and how to give opportunity to a tenth of his population that have every reason in his sixth years of presidency to look to him for some answers.

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