Martin Luther King's famous quote -- "a riot is the language of the unheard" -- has been often cited in recent times to help explain the turmoil that has gripped Ferguson and St. Louis after the Grand Jury's decision in the case of Michael Brown.

We now know that the looting, arson and other violence that took place in Ferguson was quite limited over the last several months and by all means did not broadly characterize the protests that happened in the wake of Michael Brown’s death.  While looting or violence can never be justified (and King certainly never did of course, given his emphasis on nonviolence) can we turn to King's thoughts on this for a deeper understanding? 

To seek that deeper meaning I looked for the source of King’s quote -- not just the short phrase “a riot is the language of the unheard.”  It turns out there are many lessons to be learned from what King said over 45 years ago in a a very heartfelt speech he 
delivered in March of 1968 (just a few days before he was assassinated). The lessons King articulated in 1968 resonate over 45 years later to Ferguson, St. Louis and the nation as we struggle to understand the many issues relating to the unfortunate slaying of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and the aftermath.

In that 1968 speech, King spoke of “two Americas” and how in one America people have employment opportunities, access to quality education and housing and health care, food and material goods to satisfy their needs and desires, and live in safe and healthy environments.  King said:  

  • "One America is beautiful for situation.  In this America, millions of people have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them.  This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits."
In stark contrast, King told us that in the “other America” people struggle for any or all of these aspects of life that most of us take for granted.  At every turn, people living in this other America are deprived of the opportunity to obtain a decent education, quality housing, job opportunities, or health care—often simply because of where they live, discrimination, public policies or circumstance.  King said:
  • "But there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.  In this other America, thousands and thousands of people, men in particular walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist. In this other America, millions of people are forced to live in vermin-filled, distressing housing conditions where they do not have the privilege of having wall-to-wall carpeting, but all too often, they end up with wall-to-wall rats and roaches. Almost forty percent of the Negro families of America live in sub-standard housing conditions. In this other America, thousands of young people are deprived of an opportunity to get an adequate education. Every year thousands finish high school reading at a seventh, eighth and sometimes ninth grade level. Not because they're dumb, not because they don't have the native intelligence, but because the schools are so inadequate, so over-crowded, so devoid of quality, so segregated if you will, that the best in these minds can never come out. Probably the most critical problem in the other America is the economic problem."
We see the parallels to this every day around us, in St. Louis and the “other St. Louis.”  We see it in economic opportunity that is defined by where a person grew up.  This is rather infamous characterized by the so-called “St. Louis question”, in which people are asked “what school did you go to?” and the answer sought is the high school a person graduated from.  The answer provides a way for some St. Louisans to implicitly create in their minds a “class structure” for the city, neatly defining the economic and educational opportunities afforded to new graduates.

Michael Brown faced all this as he fought hard to graduate from Normandy high school, which was recently found to be the
 lowest performing high school in the St. Louis region.  Yet, against odds often stacked against young men like him (as his wonderful Mom told us moments after Brown was killed), Michael Brown graduated.   He conquered the odds and was ready to go to college, but then had his life cut short.

In the “other St. Louis” where Michael Brown lived, his parents and the community suffered the indignity of not being given straight and transparent answers to what transpired on that day when his life was taken (and, frankly still don't have answers).  His neighbors in the apartment complex suffered the indignity of having to stare at his dead body lying in the street, in the summer heat, in a pool of blood for more than four hours.  Would this have happened in Ladue or Clayton?  Certainly if someone were shot in Clayton or Ladue (a rare event to be sure) an ambulance would have been called immediately.  And the police departments there would provide answers.  

This was the beginning of the source of anger in Ferguson, as we now know.  So many terrible decisions have been made during this tragedy -- by the police (prematurely using riot gear, attack dogs, billy clubs, and then massive military force), by the Prosecutor, by other politicians -- that parallel their transgressions over the years in Ferguson and in other areas in St. Louis.

As King reminded us in his famous speech, those with economics opportunities--or much at stake in the economic system--are very unlikely to use rioting and looting as the outlet to have their voices heard. (How many high-income professionals or college students were arrested in Ferguson?)  But a person without economic opportunities may not logically see what would be lost is their anger is vented through a violent riot.

What is tragic of course is that more often than not the victims of riots and looting are innocent bystanders in a broader conflict, and the violence is counterproductive to say the least.  As King also said in 1968 one problem with riots and violence is that it intensifies the fears of the white community, while assuaging them of guilt.  We cannot let that happen of course.

What is needed now in St. Louis is a frank dialogue, with real solutions. We first need to let the wheels of justice fairly adjudicate the case of Michael Brown, and bring justice and answers in a fully transparent way to his grieving parents.  But we need not wait for that before we move swiftly on to a respectful way discussion of the underlying problems that divide our community, and have for decades. 

This means confronting difficult social and economic problems that plague the region, in other words, to have a discussion about the divide between St. Louis and the “other St. Louis”.  It also means putting difficult and painful issues on the table, such as segregation, racism, preconceived biases and injustices of the criminal justice system.  It means facing up to the deep disparities in access to quality education, housing, health care and jobs. 

It also means putting on the table arcane political subdivisions that likely hamper our progress – such as the artificial political divide between the city and county of St. Louis, and the segregation that accompanies the many small political subdivisions (and lead, for example, to multiple police departments that lack the skills or fairness to deal with their populations and social problems).

To honor the memory of Michael Brown (and others like him) we need to work to heel the divide between the "two St. Louises."  

[An essay I previously wrote and posted in August 2014, but post again now after the Grand Jury's decision.]