Umar Lee. Photo by Robert Cohen - St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Getting up early in the morning and taking a shower I would often walk from my grandparents home to the 74 Florissant bus stop in order to get to the mosque for early morning prayers. Once in my regular seat at the very back of the bus, I would daydream about better and more exciting places. If the weather was warm I would open the window and memorize the signs and sites along West Florissant. At that time there were only two mosques in St. Louis and neither of them were close to where I lived. Each day on that bus I passed the site where Mike Brown would be killed over two decades later.
I could not wait to get out of St. Louis as a young man. Growing up in North St. Louis County, I yearned to escape the deeply-embedded racial turmoil, fading blue-collar dreams of vanishing union jobs, poverty, crime and hostility to change. When I did finally leave, I tried to explain my experience of social and economic life in St. Louis to people, but very few understood. St. Louis isn’t sexy. It isn’t Brooklyn, Los Angeles or even Chicago. St. Louis is just another once-great-city that collapsed under the weight of white-flight, de-industrialization, the decline of workers-rights and crime.
So, life in St. Louis always remained static and predictable. In some ways things got better, in other ways they got worse, but mostly just stayed the same. Learning about what my former school classmates were up to later in life seldom brought surprises. The ones I thought would be doing good were doing good, the ones I thought would be dead or in jail were dead or in jail, and the ones who were mediocre kids became mediocre adults.
I went to school in the Ferguson-Florissant school district which was originally created by a court order to desegregate schools in the 1970’s. The schools of the historically African-American municipalities of Kinloch and Robertson were merged with the white schools of Ferguson, Florissant and Berkeley (which were already experiencing heavy white-flight). The effort was a liberal academic’s dream come true. We didn’t have school busing, but instead a complete merger. By the time I got to school, they were a few years in to implementing this court order. From my kindergarten to my senior year in high school, I attended school with blacks and whites. The initial objective of the court order was to create integrated neighborhoods in North St. Louis County and permanently integrate the schools.
But like everything else in St. Louis, in matters of race, too, little changed. While I grew-up in an era where black and white kids listened to the same rappers, wore the same Jordans and Starter jackets, laughed at the same jokes, and interracial friendships and dating became common there was always underlying racial tensions. Instead of embracing diversity, whites began moving in droves across the Missouri River to St. Charles County and further points West. As whites moved out of historically white communities such as Ferguson, Florissant and other communities in North St. Louis County they were replaced by a large influx of African-Americans.
Most white families I knew opted not to send their children to integrated schools and instead sent them to heavily-white districts in St. Charles County and beyond. Meanwhile school districts in North County went from being majority-white to majority-black and some even almost entirely black. The high-minded social-scientists and education reformers didn’t get what they were looking for.
When Mike Brown, Jr. was killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the Canfield Green apartment complex his death didn’t occur in a vacuum. Brown recently graduated from Normandy High School, a school notorious for its association with violence. It made the news for all the wrong reasons in a district that lost its accreditation from the state of Missouri. The exact site of the killing sat on the border between the Riverview Gardens school district and the Ferguson-Florissant district. Riverview Gardens (where both my parents attended) went from a thriving blue-collar district and an entirely white school in the 1960’s to a district full of vacant homes, empty storefronts and an unaccredited district that was almost entirely African-American on the day Brown was killed. Next door, Ferguson-Florissant was still reeling from the controversy of their all-white school board firing a popular African-American superintendent in a district that is around 80 percent African-American.
Before leaving his ex-wife, Darren Wilson was living in the city of Troy in Lincoln County, Missouri. West of St. Charles County and about an hour drive from Ferguson, Troy sits at the edges of the white-flight pattern from North St. Louis County. Living in Troy and attending St. Charles West high school before that Wilson would have been immersed in the culture of white-flight and tales of escaping North St. Louis County.
Wilson was a police officer in Jennings before he was hired in Ferguson. The police force in Jennings had a far worse track-record of abuse and harassment than their counterparts in Ferguson. In fact it wasn’t uncommon to see motorists add time to their commutes just to avoid Jennings. The Jennings department was eventually disbanded after many scandals, after which Wilson found a job with the Ferguson department.
While Ferguson is around 70 percent African-American, the remainder 30 percent white population were the higher percentage of homeowners, and the higher percentage of voters for municipal elections. This means that hiring practices for the police department, similar to the school district, are more reflective of 1980’s demographics than the reality in 2014.
Before the media and professional protesters arrived from out of town, the reaction from Ferguson was an organic eruption from the community over the latest police killing of an unarmed African-American. Generations of anger boiled over and things got heated. That heat turned into a moment and the moment turned into a movement.
So with my deep knowledge and history of race relations in Ferguson and areas surrounding it, I looked for other ways to also ask if there could be a Muslim angle to the events unfolding in Ferguson. I have previously highlighted the prominence of American-Muslims within the protest movement ( including Tribe X co-founder Talal Ahmad, livestreamer Bassem Masri, State Senator Jamillah Nasheed, community activist Anthony Shahid, Anthony Merrill and others), but I also ask if a Muslim angle the stories of the protesters inspired by a Prophetic model of community organizing and social-justice? Is the Muslim angle African-American Muslims who rejected the “religion of the slave masters” for the religion of their African forefathers? Or is the Muslim angle the story of Senegalese hair-braiding shops looted, Palestinian convenience stores burned or the Muslim brothers I saw looting Foot Locker?
There is no single Muslim narrative because, like everything else in this area in St. Louis, there is no single Muslim community. One needs to only look to the murder of Bosnian Muslim Zemir Begic in the Bevo Neighborhood of South St. Louis, which is home to the largest Bosnian community in America. In the 20 years since this community was established, this community built mosques, businesses and a strong presence. Begic was beat to death by teenagers with hammers and three African-Americans and one Latino was arrested. There was immediate speculation this was racially motivated and connected to the Ferguson protests. In response, Bosnian Muslims took to the streets and marched and protested. A few were calling for revenge and verbally directed their anger towards African-Americans. Most simply called for more police and more aggressive measures. This happened as Muslims in the northern part of the metropolitan area called for less aggressive and more humane police.
Perhaps the real Muslim angle is all of the above. The reality is, outside of Islamophobia and Palestine there may not be a whole lot that unites all the various Muslim segments socially and politically. That everywhere you look you will see Muslims. Sometimes they may be on different sides of issues and sincerely both believing Allah is on their side.
For me, actively joining the Justice for Mike Brown movement and Ferguson protests was natural. I grew-up in the area, most of my Muslim friends did as well, and the aspect of universal brotherhood is what drew many of us to Islam. We marched with shared memories of multi-cultural iftars, the words of Malcolm etched in our hearts and a sense of enjoining the good and forbidding the evil.
Ferguson both brought me closer to my Muslim brothers and sisters while at the same time driving me further away having to listen to the stale, irrelevant Friday sermons as the city burns.
But on a larger social level, in this city that is static and predictable, it’s no question that things need to change.