Is racial unrest in St. Charles County reality or perception?
The shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson last August has sparked an ongoing discussion of race in St. Louis – and that discussion is crossing the Missouri River.
The “Ferguson effect” is raising untidy questions and causing people to wonder whether what happened in North St. Louis County is destined to repeat itself in St. Charles County.
Looking for evidence? Some may be heard in the harsh words spoken in recent YouTube videos and by the man who made them. Some of it can be heard in how local residents talk about race relations. And some of it can be heard from the county’s leading elective official talking about “the lessons of Ferguson.”
“You can’t stop the revolution,” says a speaker in one of the videos. He accuses the county and residents of trying to re-establish “Jim Crow west of Missouri River.”
The speaker claims the county and its residents opposed, on the grounds of racial bias, the expansion of MetroLink light rail and the transfer of Normandy School District students to Francis Howell. He claims people moved from North St. Louis County to “white flight country St. Charles County.”
St. Charles County, he says, is a land full of “racism” and he adds, “as long as residents are harassed, we’ll be out here.”
“They can’t get no justice, you can’t get no peace,” the chant continues as the video ends.
This wasn’t a street confrontation in front of a police line with a hint of tear gas wafting in the air. It was filmed from the deck of a suburban home in the Manors of Glenbrook subdivision in an unincorporated area near Lake Saint Louis. It was filmed at a backyard barbeque.
Ferguson protester and former cab driver Umar Lee had been invited to the subdivision after a neighborhood dispute – involving a predominantly African-American family and barking dogs – escalated until racial accusations arose.
Lee posted the videos on his Facebook page, and later, in an interview, he said he was there to help a family document their story. Among the videos posted is a clip where Lee is asked for identification by a St. Charles County police officer who Lee calls a “redneck racist cop.”
“How am I a racist?” the startled officer asks.
When Mid Rivers Newsmagazine asked Lee why he lashed out at the cop, he said he has a quick temper.
“I have a short fuse. My ex-wife used to say I don’t have a short fuse, I have no fuse,” he said.
But, he said he and his family have received death threats and threatening emails from St. Charles County residents and has been harassed by police.
“St. Charles County tends to be the epicenter of the pro-Darren Wilson set of the population,” Lee said. “There are some people who you can be diplomatic (with) and those people who can’t be, so you sometimes have to take a confrontational approach to get the issue out there.”
Confrontation is nothing new for Lee, who was a fixture during the Ferguson protests. Bearded and white, Lee, 41, has been an activist for years, largely involved with Muslim religious protests and other causes until Ferguson came along. But Lee also is a North County native who saw his old stomping grounds change. He grew up in Glasgow Village, Black Jack and Florissant, and said he was a wrestler at McCluer North High School. Growing up wasn’t always pleasant or accepting for someone who converted to Islam at age 17. But his outlook and world view reflects his blue-collar roots, he said.
“In some ways, I felt traumatized growing up in North County,” he said. “There is not a lot of freedom to be different, not a lot of freedom to be independent, not a lot of freedom to pursue other things in life.”
He said he has lived in Brooklyn, Queens and Washington, D.C., and has a trace of an eastern accent when he speaks.
“They said I talked like I was from the south,” Lee said.
North County was a good place in the 1980s and 90s, he said. But it had changed when he came home. Stalwart businesses such as McDonnell-Douglas Corp., the Ford assembly plant and other smaller business had fewer jobs, had disappeared or had left the area, he said.
“I quickly noticed that almost all the white kids I went to school with … were out in St. Charles County. They were in places I had never heard of, like Dardenne Prairie and Cottleville,” he said. They were followed by a large number of North County businesses, he added.
Signs of discontent in North County also were brewing – all white school boards were overseeing school districts that served mostly African-American students. And some community leaders and organizers weren’t paying much attention, he said, claiming “they just wanted to focus on the city.”
“The funny thing about Ferguson (is) if you had told me this was going to happen in North County I would say somewhere else,” Lee said. “I would say it could happen in Dellwood, it could happen in Jennings, because Ferguson had the reputation of being a little more progressive place.”
While some argue with Lee’s approach, confronting race isn’t a bad thing, some residents say.
“I think what Ferguson has done is make people more aware of racism,” said the Rev. Beverly Stith, pastor of Grant Chapel African Methodist Church in Wentzville. Stith’s congregation of 70 members is largely African-American.
“I think people who were afraid to smile at a different race and afraid to say anything to people are becoming more intentional about communications, and I think that’s a very good thing,” Stith said.
Of the estimated 379,493 people who live in St Charles County, according to the 2014 U.S. Census, 90.7 percent are listed as white. Roughly 4.7 percent of the county’s population is estimated to be African American and 2.5 percent is Hispanic.
Wentzville historically has had a small African-American population. St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, who wrote the book, “Crossroads, A History of St. Charles County,” said some families in the city can trace their roots to 1858 when a white tobacco plantation owner freed 25 slaves. About 6 percent of Wentzville’s population is listed as “black.” The city is one of Missouri’s fastest growing with an estimated 33,912 residents according to 2014 census data.
Stith said she and her congregation are visible in the community and have worked closely with police and city officials, including former Mayor Paul Lambi and current Mayor Nick Guccione. For the last decade, Stith has been among the community volunteers who have organized an annual Martin Luther King celebration each January. Guccione said police have always, and especially after Ferguson, tried to reach out to the community, particularly in neighborhoods such as Wentzville Heights.
“It’s about communicating,” Guccione said. “If people don’t talk to each other you don’t know if there is a problem.”
Stith and other county residents interviewed by Mid Rivers Newsmagazine agreed race relations have gotten better. The key may be education, they said.
“I moved to St. Louis from Huntsville, Alabama, and you might think that means that I’ve seen a lot of prejudice, but that was not the case,” Earline, a local, white mother, said. “Huntsville is a very well educated community, and I think that’s the key – education.”
Earline said she thought educated people are less likely to be prejudiced and that people move to St. Charles County because the access to education is better. “I don’t think people in St. Charles would allow (the looting and destruction of businesses that has taken place in Ferguson) to take place here,” she said.
Her daughter, who is married to a local police officer agreed, saying the county didn’t stand for it when protesters tried to block the Blanchette Bridge on Interstate 70 during the Ferguson unrest.
“For the most part, I think St. Charles County is color blind,” she said.
Another daughter, whose husband is African-American, said, “There will always be prejudice, but I really haven’t experienced it much in St. Charles County.” She said her husband stopped watching news reports about Ferguson because he said the actions of the protestors and looters reinforced stereotypes and gave people like him an unjustified bad name.
From North County to St. Charles County
Whether the recent unrest in North County has accelerated the movement of people into St. Charles County remains unclear.
Guccione, whose city is experiencing a major upswing in single-family housing development, said he has seen a lot of transitioning from North County to O’Fallon, St. Peters and Wentzville in recent years.
“I’m from North County and I transferred out here 13 years ago because it was closer to work,” Guccione said. “People could have a perception that ‘he transferred out here because of white flight or something’ – that’s what people may say but that’s not true. It was like getting a raise because of the cost of gas and being closer to work.
“I loved North County, I grew up in Dellwood, Jennings and Florissant, and I never had an issue with anybody.”
Even Lee, who thinks development of the county was detrimental to the region, says there is no turning back the clock. “As the disinvestment came to North County, just like a farmer, people are just looking for greener pastures,” Lee said.
Stith said one reason people are moving further out, particularly young people in their childbearing years, is because schools are better. “That’s a fact,” she said.
“Two, you can get more bang for your buck, that’s why we’re out in St Charles,” she said. “We were thinking about moving back to St. Louis County but we couldn’t afford St. Louis County.”
The migration of whites and African-Americans in and out of parts of the St. Louis region is decades old. But critics say the region may have become the poster child for growth patterns that reinforced racial separation. And Lee, and others, say St. Charles County could follow suit. Within the county there is already migration out of the city of St. Charles and St. Peters, which developed earlier than areas such as O’Fallon and Wentzville, Lee said.
“If St. Charles County doesn’t learn the lessons of North County it’s going to look exactly like North County in 15 to 20 years,” he said.
Ehlmann disagrees. In a mid-September interview and in a presentation to the St. Charles County Council at its Sept. 28 meeting, Ehlmann talked about the “lessons of Ferguson.”
He said St. Charles County may not be destined to repeat St. Louis County’s past, because of the way the county has developed. In St. Louis County, most rich people live along the central corridor, along Interstate 64, and poor people live largely to the north, Ehlmann said. In St. Charles County, that’s not the case.
To prove his point, Ehlmann looked at home values in both counties, noting that North St. Louis County home values were significantly less than those in West and South county. However, Ehlmann said, “The value of property in northeast St. Charles County is only about $1.50 (per square foot) more valuable than property in the southwest part of the county.” Generally the county doesn’t have areas where all the poor people live, he said.
Having just six large municipalities as opposed to 91 small ones in St. Louis County was cited as another St. Charles County positive as was student attendance rates in the district’s five school districts, which ranged from 89.2 to 93.1 percent.
Still, Lee said the county has to change.
“They have to look at this in a sober way, we can’t be an isolated part of the region, they can’t be this city on the hill,” he said, adding that St. Charles County needs to be less isolated and “more open minded place that doesn’t view diversity as adversarial.”
Stith, who has two sons, tells them that there are still unwritten rules that African Americans have to abide by in dealing with police. Prejudice remains, she said.
“We’re going to come out of this because our millennials are going to make us come out of it,” Stith said. A younger generation is less tied to old attitudes, are more educated, and have many interracial relationships.
For Lee, the need to confront racism and injustice hasn’t wavered since the unrest in Ferguson. But social activism has a price. Filming in St. Charles County cost Lee his job as a cab driver with Laclede Cab Co. Still, a new chapter of life may be opening – he may become a man of the people.
Lee, who lives in St. Louis’ Tower Grove South area, said last week that he is planning to run for mayor, which eventually may pit him against incumbent Mayor Francis Slay. He’s running as a Republican.