Two months after Officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, St. Louis remains at the vortex of a media whirlwind of live streaming video, social media, traditional media, national media and slanted cable and online outlets.
For this journalist of four decades, the coverage of such an important national story in our hometown is by turns exhilarating, anarchic, frustrating and frightening. Sometimes it seems like a shining example of a community working through deep, festering problems in a democratic fashion. At other times it feels like a mob as nasty Tweets on multiple hashtags fly by faster than they can be read.
The shining democratic response was the rapid steps to reform the municipal court abuses highlighted in the weeks surrounding Brown’s death.
But many in crowds on Twitter and in the street demanded the immediate arrest of Officer Wilson in the name of civil rights, unmindful of Officer Wilson’s civil right to due process of law.
Almost all of the breaking news was reported first on Twitter or some other social medium. Almost all of the fiction was transmitted there too.
Citizen journalists such as Alderman Antonio French and “Patricialicious” Bynes sometimes had the most accurate on-the-scene reports. But citizen journalists with Anonymous reported, falsely, the name of the officer who shot Brown and even the got the name of the police department wrong.
National media got things wrong too. Fox and Ann Coulter reported, falsely, that Brown had broken Officer Wilson’s eye socket. Meanwhile, Chris Hayes of MSNBC preened on the streets of Ferguson, national reporters made the story more about them than Ferguson and a New Republic reporter helicoptered in to peg St. Louis as racist based on a chat with a table of white folks at a barbecue joint.
As the second month drew to a close, the protests touched on two venerable St. Louis institutions – the St. Louis Symphony and the St. Louis Cardinals.
On Oct. 4, as the symphony returned from intermission to play Brahms’ “A German Requiem,” a racially mixed group of protesters rose from their seats to sing the union protest song made famous by Pete Seeger, “Which side are you on?”
The protest received a polite response from the patrons and musicians. Some clapped. Others said they wished the protesters had stayed for the performance.
It was smart-phone media that brought the protest to the world via Youtube.
Two nights later, a less genteel social media event was portrayed in the liberal social and online media as proof the St. Louis Cardinals fans are racists.
Argus Streaming News — an underground, internet radio outfit born of the Ferguson protest — recorded a few drunk, boorish Cards’ fans yelling disrespectful, racist comments at the small group of mostly African-American protesters after the game.
The protesters were yelling “Justice for Mike Brown” and “we gonna shut the shit down.” Later, the protesters chanted, “Who do we want? Darren Wilson. How do we want him? Dead.”
Nearby Cards fans responded with a “Let’s go Cardinals” that morphed into a “Let’s go Darren” chant carried on by a handful of people.
“If they’d be working, we wouldn’t have this problem,” an older man said of the protesters. “We’re the ones who fucking gave all y’all the freedom that you got,” a young, white woman screamed. Others chanted “Africa.”
All told, more Cards fans were recording the confrontation with their phones than yelling support for Wilson. Deadspin picked up the video and soon the liberal online media weighed in with their judgments.
“St. Louis Cardinals Fans Have A Seriously Racist Response To Ferguson Protesters,” headlined the Huffington Post.
“St. Louis Cardinals fans yell racist slurs at Ferguson protesters in shocking new video,” said Salon.
“’Best (White) Fans’ in Baseball Chant ‘Africa!’ and ‘Let’s Go Darren’ at Michael Brown Protesters,” headlined New York Magazine.
“Cardinals Fans Get Ugly in Clash with Ferguson Protesters,” wrote Deadspin.
Daily Kos was the most hyperbolic: “Throughout Game 4 of the Cardinals vs. Dodgers playoff game, ticketed St. Louis Cardinals fans were publicly racist and unashamed of it.”
The chant about wanting Darren Wilson dead didn’t make it into most condemnations of the Cardinal fans.
The racist shouts of a handful of drunken Cards fans are indefensible, but they don’t support such a broad-brush condemnation.
Yes, St. Louisans are vainglorious about their reputation as baseball fans. Yes, the Cardinals organization should take a more active role in healing after the death of a young man wearing a Cardinals cap. Yes, St. Louis was home to Elijah P. Lovejoy, the Missouri Compromise, Dred Scott, the East St. Louis race riots and some of the biggest housing and school discrimination fights of the late 20th century.
But it’s wrong to label all St. Louisans – or all Cards fans – as racist. Nor is Ferguson the racially segregated town that the national media have portrayed. It is actually one of St. Louis’ most integrated communities.
The Ferguson story, in all its facets, is the biggest St. Louis story since the Jefferson Bank protests half a century ago. It has awakened people to issues of race that some white people in St. Louis and beyond thought were settled or at least behind them. We are reminded that the hellish winds of America’s shameful racial history blow down the ages to the present.
Even though people in St. Louis may be fatigued, they are getting another chance to get this right. If that is going to happen, it won’t take one year or one prosecution. It will take decades and it will take a lot more than 140 character Tweets. But it’s worth the community effort. Disentangling ourselves from racism continues to be this nation’s most important unfinished business.