Donald Trump was supposed to speak at the Peabody Opera House here in St. Louis at noon on Friday. Armed with tickets, I arrived with a friend a few hours early, confident that we’d get in. We stood in line for more than two hours, only to be told the venue was full. Many had arrived the night before and slept on the street. I didn’t exactly leave empty-handed though.
Wearing a Cardinals jacket and camo, I did my best to blend in with the crowd that had gathered outside the rally. I did a pretty good job. Looking around, I saw a crowd that was almost exclusively white with a decidedly blue-collar flavor. Mixed in with the Trump apparel, I saw gear for local St. Louis teams and clothes fresh off the rack from Walmart.
Outside the venue, I overheard Trump fans trashing Black Lives Matter, defending racism as a natural human instinct, and bemoaning our modern PC culture. But it’s what wasn’t said that spoke the loudest.
The St. Louis region has been decimated over the last few decades by deindustrialization, bad trade deals, and a declining standard of living. Take my family as one example. In the early 1980s, my father, an uncle, and a grandfather all worked at Combustion Engineering in North St. Louis. The closure of that plant hit our family like a natural disaster.
When I looked at the middle-aged men in the crowd, I thought of my father. He grew up near Ferguson in the industrial northern suburbs of St. Louis. The first handful of African-American students entered Riverview Gardens High School as he was graduating. The school now is virtually 100 percent African-American. After growing up with white privilege in a unionized blue-collar area of segregated St. Louis County, he entered an increasingly diverse workforce.
Racial tensions flared up at factories across St. Louis, triggered by union elections and a thousand other incidents. During this same time, public schools were integrating, and older white working-class communities such as Ferguson were undergoing massive demographic changes.
Then the factories and companies closed. First it was the small ones, companies you’ve never heard of. Then bigger ones like TWA, Ford, and Chrysler. The companies that managed to stay open significantly cut back the number of employees—like McDonnell Douglas, after it was bought by Boeing. More recently, after decades of job losses and wage-stagnation, the housing crisis came and further exacerbated the economic downturn. It’s been followed by a heroin epidemic that has hit the St. Louis area particularly hard.
Life in America is supposed to improve from generation to generation. That’s the narrative we’re raised with. But instead of that bright American future, many St. Louisans have been left broke and short on answers in the most dangerous city in America.
In this former Jim Crow city—still one of the most segregated in America—African-Americans have often found themselves the scapegoat for every imaginable ill in the region. For decades, people of color have been disproportionately affected by the deterioration of this town. And then, in the summer of 2014, an unarmed black teenager named Mike Brown was shot and killed by a police officer named Darren Wilson in Ferguson, and a movement was born.