A lot of white people came through the Canfield Green apartments to witness the spot where Michael Brown was gunned down by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Some came because they empathized and wanted to lend their voices to the protest. Some came to call for peace; and some just because they were curious.
Matt Gibbons, a cab driver from Union Bridge Maryland, came because he wanted to stand in solidarity with demonstrators. Armed with 825 dollars’ worth of fruit snacks and photocopied pictures of Mike Brown, he walked the streets of Ferguson, talking to people about humanity. So far he has given out over 2,700 fruit snacks and 1,250 pictures. When I asked why he gave out fruit snacks and photocopies, he responded: “Because when I give them out, everyone says thank you. When people are kind it humanizes you. You see them as human beings and it is hard to see them as an ‘other.’”
Although he acknowledged his white skin and privilege in society, Gibbons said he doesn’t personally identify as a white man. Instead, he prefers Keltic. His renunciation of whiteness is rooted in years of being dehumanized for being gay, including the time a cross was burnt on the lawn in front of the house he shared with his partner in Virginia.
“There is too much I don’t buy into in society,” Gibbons said. “If I am a white man, I’m a miserable failure because God knows I haven’t taken advantage of what I’m supposed to be. Last year I made $13k as a cab driver. When you are dehumanized your eyes are open to it and when you see people dehumanized you feel for them and feel you need to do what you can for them.”
Gibbons and his stance on whiteness are in sharp contrast to the other faces we’ve seen plastered across television screens and in newspapers as a representation of the white reaction to the Justice for Mike Brown movement. Those faces are angry and antagonistic as they call for justice for Officer Darren Wilson. I didn’t see any of those faces during my brief visit to Ferguson. Most white folks I’d encountered were, for the most part, sympathetic and thoughtful. But that’s not to say the others they weren’t there.
“The truth is my city is in denial,” said Cassandra Butler, a Black woman who’s been a Ferguson resident since 1982. She’s so sick of the racial tension that she’s written a letter to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, calling on the city for an honest discussion around race. “What I mean is folks like our mayor like to believe and tell the media that ‘we don’t have a race problem. We all get along we are a close knit community’ I don’t think he is being malicious or anything like that, but he just doesn’t understand.”
At the source of the racial tension is white flight, she said. In the 1990s, Ferguson was 76 percent white. Twenty years later, the city’s demographic has drastically shifted to become 67 African American. Today, it is a small minority of influential, white long-time residents with concerns about what an influx of color would do their property values, who are at the source of what she believes is the over-policing of black people in the community. Butler believes that this monitoring through police oversight has a direct correlation to Brown’s murder.
“They have a culture and they are willing to accept Black people into it just as long as you abide by their boundaries – there is no negotiation. You have to assimilate. And if you don’t assimilate or agree with their values, you become an outsider.”
Surprisingly, she believes that Ferguson’s mostly white city management is doing a good job overall, But the city’s lack of minority representation might not be incidental, she suggested as evidenced by the recent scandal involving two white school board members, who actively worked to push out its black superintendent.
Likewise, Butler used to belong to a local organization called People Reaching Out For Unity and Diversity (PROUD), which was founded in the late 90s under the premise of helping the city embrace its newfound diversity. However Butler said it became clear the group was only concerned about appearing to look to the outside world as an inclusive community. She sites a particular fight in the 80s as proof when, after a court order forced Ferguson as well as nearby county schools to desegregate, a major debate erupted within the group over the naming of new high school, which sat on the border between Ferguson and nearby Berkeley County.
“Ferguson residents were upset, particularly about the naming,” Butler said. “Despite Berkeley being financially more affluent than Ferguson, some didn’t want to be associated with nearby Berkeley, mainly because of the black politicians, who they said argued and fought a lot. That’s when she knew that the diversity was superficial. And when I brought it up to them, that’s when they started to leave me out of meetings. That’s why I say that as long as you go along with them, you are okay. Many people here are just not good at tolerating other views outside of their own.”