American Studies Association Report

I spent the weekend of October 8-11 in Toronto  for the American Studies Association annual meeting, which included a number of panels around the theme of misery, its production and reproduction, and resistance to it. One session really struck me as a historian and a researcher. Filmmaker Orlando de Guzman screened and discussed his Focus documentary “Ferguson: A Report from Occupied Territory.” (link to full doc, embedded videos below are clips) I’ve followed Ferguson a bit, and had some things to say (as well as highlighting things written by others) about how the events there highlight the convergence of policing and the carceral state and officially supported racial segregation and dispossession.

So, I’ve always been receptive to the argument that the unrest in Ferguson reflected more than just the horrifying killing of Michael Brown, but rather spoke to a much longer and broader cycle of immiseration by policy. As Walter Johnson and Richard Rothstein, and Colin Gordon, among others, have argued, the story of Ferguson and many inner-ring suburbs like it is not simply a mechanistic process of white flight and abandonment. Rather, governments at local, state, and national scales have chosen to promote and encourage segregation, countenance gross disparities in school funding, and, more recently, to allow local governments to raise revenue by fines in lieu of state support to municipalities.

It’s a bitter irony that the multitude of municipal governments dotting St. Louis County were originally formed to keep Black residents out through exclusionary zoning; now, through a private market that has allowed many whites to relocate from close-in North County suburbs and (weak) federal mandates for regional sharing of affordable housing, those municipalities have become much blacker, but their governments exploit their Black populations for revenue.

This is the history that Ferguson’s residents, and the residents of other North County areas near St. Louis, live out. One thing that’s humbling to me as a researcher is that I’ve long argued that the political fragmentation of metro areas supports racial inequalities and creates a metropolitan social life that justifies and naturalizes those inequalities, particularly by creating both property and emotional investments by whites in maintaining local control of their communities. But, one thing that de Guzman allows his subjects to reveal is that the significance of boundaries has been obvious and inescapable to Black North County residents for years. Crossing a municipal border is inviting harassment from a new police agency that sees a Black driver as a revenue opportunity. And Black residents like Chris Brown Sr., interviewed throughout de Guzman’s film, plan their travel around it.

To put it another way, I spend a lot of time and effort using involved research and fine-pointed writing to try to convince a relatively elite audience of something that is so obvious to North County residents as to require little exposition among themselves. A shuffle between jails and courts in one city and the next is simply the “muni shuffle,” a dance that links yesterday’s use of fragmented borders to exclude the Black and poor to today’s use of those borders to exploit them for revenue.

And, when reports like the one published by Arch City Defenders (link to .pdf) revealed the extent of the process, many people like me regarded it as earth-shaking. Academics consider ourselves quite savvy and well-informed, but our capacity for surprise is sometimes larger than we’d care to admit. If we were to place ourselves in this scene–a community forum convened by Governor Jay Nixon after the decision not to indict Wilson–would our roles be more like the people on the rostrum or the people in the audience?

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