When I heard the news that an unarmed African-American teenager had been shot to death by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer Aug. 9, it had an all too familiar sting. I lived in Ferguson, not far from where the protests are taking place, until I left for college in 1990. My parents moved there in 1978 in search of a safer environment for their growing family, a larger home and better schools.
In those days, my neighborhood was predominantly white and a core group of people were fighting hard to keep it that way. We were verbally harassed and threatened. At one point, our mail was stolen (a federal offense) and thrown in the sewer, and when the Ferguson police failed to act, the FBI got involved. After the investigation, the city’s mayor apologized and we were assigned an officer to watch our home. Things got a little better after that, and eventually many of the white children in the neighborhood became my close friends.
By the time I was a teenager, the demographics of the city started to shift as more black families moved into the neighborhood. Still, harassment by a mostly all-white police force was routine. I was stopped more than a dozen times, usually searched and rarely issued a citation. It didn’t matter that I was an honor student or an athlete or a community volunteer. I was an African-American male teenager, and therefore, a target.
Eventually, the city of Ferguson attempted to bring about positive changes. In 1990, my father was asked by the city’s mayor to serve on the labor council that functioned as a review board for all Ferguson employees, and he remained involved until 1997. During that time, formal efforts were made to learn from other communities, including some of the Chicago suburbs that experienced similar demographic shifts but were able to maintain a stronger business base, good schools and a more inclusive attitude.
My father and I have spoken about the events this past week, and he’s saddened to see how quickly the gains that were made in the 1990s have eroded.
In July, my wife and I traveled to Ferguson with our children for a family reunion, which was held not far from the recent protests. I noted how little racial attitudes have changed in the 16 years since I left and how segregated St. Louis remains.
The investigation into Michael Brown’s tragic death continues, and there’s clearly more to the story. But one has to wonder whether a white teenager would have been treated the same way, or if the protests would have been less violent if the protesters believed that justice would be served. Sadly, it’s a trend that our young black men continue to die as a result of police brutality, with similar events happening in recent years in Florida and California.
Although I’ve found San Luis Obispo County to be a more tolerant place, it breaks my heart to see hate crimes like the cross burning in Arroyo Grande and the recent alleged attack on a couple leaving the Mid-State Fair — the suspect is accused of yelling racial slurs during the assault — as well as some of the attitudes I’ve witnessed toward Latinos living in our community. We have to work toward building a more inclusive society, for the sake of my son and other young men of color who at an early age must be on guard. Otherwise, despite my best hopes, my son’s experience might not be that different from my own.
Kevin Ferguson is a pathologist and chief of staff at Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria. He is married to Julie Lynem, a staff writer and editor at The Tribune.