Why St. Louis is the center of the police shooting debate

For the past four nights in St. Louis, peaceful daytime protests over the acquittal of a former police officer charged with the fatal shooting of a black motorist in 2011 have degenerated into violent clashes with police, resulting in more than 100 arrests.

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson announced Tuesday that in anticipation of a fifth evening of protests, she would postpone scheduled town hall events where she was expected to discuss various issues — including crime and the police. The images of broken glass, protesters dousing themselves with milk to counteract police pepper spray, and defiant demonstrators facing off against officers clad in riot gear evoked memories of the unrest that unfolded on the streets of nearby Ferguson just three years ago.

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In the wake of Ferguson, protests over police shootings in cities including Chicago, Baltimore, New York and Minneapolis made clear that the problems between police and the black community, in particular, exist well beyond Ferguson. But the clashes this week in St. Louis suggest that racial problems run deep in this former slave state.

“It is clear to me that what we are seeing and feeling is not only about this case. And I’m also clear that the root cause of this is not protesters, nor really police,” wrote Krewson in an open letter explaining her decision to cancel Tuesday’s town halls. “What we have is a legacy of policies that disproportionately impact people along racial and economic lines. This is not an opinion, this is supported by stacks of numbers. This is institutional racism.”

Lyda Krewson on April 4, the night she was elected mayor of St. Louis. (Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com)

A study published this summer by 24/7 Wall Street named St. Louis the 10th most segregated city in America, with 39.3 of the city’s black residents living in predominantly black neighborhoods. The study also found a poverty rate of 29.9 percent among African-Americans in St. Louis, compared with a white poverty rate of 8.5 percent.

According to the study, the roots of St. Louis’s racial divide can be traced back to the 1950s, with the construction of the notorious Pruitt-Igoe towers, which the authors call “one of the most famously disastrous cases of racially segregated government housing.”

Abandoned by most white residents after racial discrimination in public housing was banned with the Civil…

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