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Amid tension in Ferguson, shooting ‘broke camel’s back’

FERGUSON, Mo. — Garland Moore, a hospital worker, lived in this St. Louis suburb for much of his 33 years, a period in which a largely white community has become a largely black one.

He attended its schools and is raising his family in this place of suburban homes and apartment buildings on the outskirts of a struggling Midwest city. And over time, he has felt his life to be circumscribed by Ferguson’s demographics.

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Moore, who is black, talks of how he has felt the wrath of the police here and in surrounding suburbs for years — roughed up during a minor traffic stop and prevented from entering a park when he was wearing St. Louis Cardinals red.

And last week, as he stood at a vigil for an unarmed 18-year-old shot dead by the police — a shooting that provoked renewed street violence and looting early Saturday — Moore heard anger welling and listened to a shout of: “We’re tired of the racist police department.”

“It broke the camel’s back,” Moore said of the killing of the teenager, Michael Brown. Referring to the northern part of St. Louis County, he continued, “The people in North County — not just African-Americans, some of the white people, too — they are tired of the police harassment.”

The origins of the area’s complex social and racial history date to the 19th century when the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County went their separate ways, leading to the formation of dozens of smaller communities outside St. Louis.

As blacks moved into the city and whites moved out, real estate agents and city leaders, in a pattern familiar elsewhere in the country, conspired to keep blacks out of the suburbs through the use of zoning ordinances and restrictive covenants.

The St. Louis County Police Department fired a white lieutenant last year for ordering officers to target blacks in shopping areas.

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These days, Ferguson is like many of the suburbs around St. Louis, inner-ring towns that accommodated white flight decades ago but that are now largely black. And yet they retain a white power structure.

Although about two in three Ferguson residents are black, its mayor and five of its six City Council members are white. Only three of the town’s 53 police officers are black.

Turnout for local elections in Ferguson has been poor. The mayor, James W. Knowles III, noted his disappointment with the turnout — about 12 percent — in the most recent mayoral election during a City Council meeting in April.

Patricia Bynes, a black woman who is the Democratic committeewoman for the Ferguson area, said the lack of black involvement in local government was partly the result of the black population’s being more transient in small municipalities and less attached to them.

There is also some frustration among blacks who say town government is not attuned to their concerns.

Aliyah Woods, 45, once petitioned Ferguson officials for a sign that would warn drivers that a deaf family lived on that block. But the sign never came. “You get tired,” she said. “You keep asking, you keep asking. Nothing gets done.”

Moore, who recently moved to neighboring Florissant, said he had attended a couple of Ferguson Council meetings to complain that the police should be patrolling streets to try to prevent break-ins rather than lying in wait to catch people for traffic violations.

This year, community members voiced anger after the all-white school board for the Ferguson-Florissant district pushed aside its black superintendent for unrevealed reasons. That spurred several blacks to run for board positions, but only one won a seat.

The St. Louis County Police Department fired a white lieutenant last year for ordering officers to target blacks in shopping areas. That resulted in the department’s enlisting researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, to study whether the department was engaging in racial profiling.

Ferguson’s police chief, Thomas Jackson, has been working with the Justice Department’s community relations team on improving interaction with residents.

Although experience and statistics suggest that Ferguson’s police force disproportionately targets blacks, it is not as imbalanced as in some neighboring departments in St. Louis County.

While blacks are 37 percent more likely to be pulled over compared with their proportion of the population in Ferguson, that is less than the statewide average of 59 percent, according to Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

In fact, Rosenfeld said, Ferguson did not fit the profile of one that would be a spark for civil unrest. The town has “pockets of disadvantage” and middle and upper-middle income families. He said Ferguson had benefited in the last five to 10 years from economic growth in the northern part of the county, such as the expansion of Express Scripts, the Fortune 500 health care giant.

“Ferguson does not stand out as the type of community where you would expect tensions with the police to boil over.’’ Rosenfeld said.

But the memory of the county’s racial history lingers. In 1949, a mob of whites showed up to attack blacks who lined up to get into the pool at Fairground Park in north St. Louis after it had been desegregated.

In the 1970s, a court battle over public school inequality led to a settlement that created a desegregation busing program that exists to this day.

A Ferguson city councilor caused a stir in 1970 when he used racially charged language to criticize teenagers from the neighboring town of Kinloch for throwing rocks and bottles at homes in Ferguson.

The councilor, Carl Kersting, said, “We should call a black a black, and not be afraid to face up to these people,” according to an article in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.

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