It’s like we’re waiting to get punched in the face because of something we didn’t even do.”
I’m talking with a 15-year-old boy at a virtually all-black, all-free lunch high school in northwest St. Louis, just a few miles south of Ferguson. It’s third period on a Friday, 80 hours before Robert McColloch, the St. Louis county prosecutor, will announce that the grand jury won’t indict Ferguson officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown.
The kids all know it’s coming. And they know Wilson won’t be indicted. So when the teacher asks her classroom, “What did Mike Brown’s father say today about the protests?” referring to Brown Sr.’s request that protesters remain peaceful, the kids straighten up. The girl in the back stops playing with the hair of the boy she likes. Another girl in the front stops making fun of her friend and darts her hand into the air.
“He wants peace and he wants justice,” the girl says. “But I don’t get how they can say they don’t want people to riot, but they got tanks out there in their neighborhood outside of their houses. It’s like we’re the enemy.”
“The whole thing is racist,” another kid says.
National polling tells me the next generation thinks talking about race and inequality is a craggy atavism from a bygone era of formal discrimination. The less you talk about race, the less it exists. But in this classroom, students have already dispensed with these aphorisms, long before they returned to school yesterday for the first time since the grand jury decision. (The teacher, who didn’t want to be identified, allowed me to observe her class on the condition that I didn’t reveal the school’s name.)
In the months since Michael Brown was killed, we’ve heard a flood of calls for a renewed dialogue about race. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof proposed a commission to “jump-start an overdue national conversation.” Cultural critic Jeff Chang observed on Saturday that “every time toxic, tragic events” lay bare our country’s persistent racism, “we talk about having a productive conversation. But we never really have it.”
It seems the Ferguson protests have started to change that. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s Ferguson Commission met for the first time yesterday. President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder met with a group of leading organizers, all young people of color, to talk about policing.
“The president requested this meeting because this is a movement that cannot be ignored,” Ashley Yates, of the St. Louis group Millennial Activists United, said in a statement. The conversation is jumping off.
But the thing is, these kids in this classroom—and others I’ve met since Michael Brown was killed—are already having it. Because the conversation is about them.
For these students, race is built into every move they make. They see older friends and brothers’ pictures on online mug-shot aggregators for warrants issued for failure to pay speeding tickets. Nearly all the faces are black. Police harass them; one girl tells me a story of how two white cops looked at her legs after school one day and told her she was “too young to be hoeing.” Another said he’d been stopped because “he fit the profile of a suspect.” They say their families are careful where they drive: “My brother won’t drive to Ferguson, because if you get pulled over you’re getting a warrant and you’re going to get arrested,” says a girl sitting beside me.
Their teacher says many struggle to get the post-high school educations they hope for, and summer jobs are hard to find.
These kids see other kids die.
Their daily lives do “not allow them to buy into any kind of post-racial rhetoric,” says Cathy Cohen, a University of Chicago political scientist who studies youth politics and race. “These young people do what social scientists do. They falsify the premise. When they look around, they know it’s not post-racial…We have to recognize the level of expertise that these young people have.”
The teacher wonders if the “conversation” we should be having is less a dialogue about “race relations” than a listening session to hear teens like the ones she teaches.
Racism and violence and police misconduct are “not the pink elephant in the room,” she says. “It is the room.”
Class is nearly over when three older students walk into the classroom carrying a long paper banner with notes and hearts scrawled across it. Two days earlier, a student at the school had been shot and killed in St. Louis. The police investigation is ongoing. The school held a moment of silence that day, and students are putting together a paper monument.
“You knew him?” I ask one of the young men who came in with the banner.
“That was my cousin,” he says, and looks down at the floor.
There’s very little these kids won’t talk about. The students disagree a lot, and they sometimes holler over each other and become hard to follow. They’re 15, after all. But they proceed without the hang-ups and anxieties that often come with discourse about race.
“You have to be loud to get heard,” says a boy in the back, who has been doing just that this whole time—yelling, “It’s all about the money!” every five minutes or so, making himself the lone voice arguing (without elaborating) that “it’s class, not race.” Others go back and forth about their own individual responsibility for getting targeted by cops. “Maybe if you acted right,” one kid shouts at another.
But then they dish analysis that sounds closer to critical scholarship than youthful bluster.
“It seems like for all of history, from the 1800s until now, [St. Louis] county is separate, and I feel like it’s still that way,” says a student who tells me her father is a police officer.
“Yeah,” a boy across the room says. “Once upon a time,” their community, Walnut Park, “used to be a white neighborhood. And then they left.”
“It wasn’t that they just left,” says the girl with the police officer father. “They left because they were pushing them out and keeping us in.”
The 18 students in this classroom are rattled by Mike Brown’s death, and a quarter of them say they’ve traveled to Ferguson to join the protests. But they’re also talking about the change they want and how best to achieve it. When the teacher asks the students again about Mike Brown Sr.’s invocation of nonviolence, they start brainstorming about what shape political action should take.
“Maybe [the people protesting] are doing it the wrong way…but they are trying to get people to look, they trying to get everybody to see and they are trying to bring recognition to a situation that has been ignored,” says the girl sitting beside me.
“You could do it nonviolently, you could march up to city hall and do it that way,” a girl with braids retorts. Some kids nod.
Another shoots back. “Who is ever going to care about that? Nobody cares about some people walking over to city hall!”
“But they are making people a target,” says the girl with braids.
“They are already a target,” the girl in the center replies.
I catch one of the classroom kids on the phone after the decision comes down. Fifteen-year-old Dinetta Givens was not shocked about McColloch’s announcement, but she says she still felt knocked down.
“I grew up with respect for the justice system,” says Givens. “But then when I started to pay attention and see my brothers and what they go through, and learned about racism, I see that the police are not our heroes.”
Givens didn’t go to the protests—she didn’t think they’d be safe, with the armored vehicles and the armed cops. But she also says there’s another fight that happens in parallel with the people in the streets.
“There is a problem with the law. The whole system is crazy,” says Givens. “Mike Brown and the others, they were like branches to the whole problem. If law was a tree, it’s a tree with bad roots.” She talked about how Missouri needs a law to prevent racial profiling, and a law to prevent excessive use of police force.
Back in the classroom the week before, her classmates kept talking until the bell rang. They agree they want more black cops.
“White cops talk to us like we’re a problem,” one 18-year-old student says.
“A black cop is more like, ‘look, man, I know how it is,’” adds his classmate. “’I’ve been in your shoes before.’”