Barbara Shelly

Barbara Shelly: Mizzou, Ferguson and Missouri’s collective failure to pay attention

Student protesters on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia celebrated the resignation of university system president Tim Wolfe.
Student protesters on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia celebrated the resignation of university system president Tim Wolfe. deulitt@kcstar.com

First Ferguson, now Columbia.

For the second time in two years, the eyes of the world were riveted this week on protests in Missouri.

How strange that a staid state in the middle of America would first become ground zero for rage against the criminal justice system and now mark the site where a student revolt toppled a university administration.

Coincidence? Or is it something about Missouri?

The answer, I think, is both.

The conditions that caused Ferguson to blow in August 2014 exist to one degree or another in places all around the nation. A prolonged eruption of rage was due to happen somewhere. But the St. Louis area, without realizing it, had been cultivating the roots of a riot.

The problems were revealed in the days after a white police officer shot a black teenager and protesters raced into the streets of Ferguson.

St. Louis County is broken into nearly 100 municipalities, too many of which sent white police officers to harass black citizens with a blizzard of tickets for traffic violations and other petty offenses. The rampant ticketing forced poor people to spend nights in jail and go into debt to pay fines for things like not having a seat belt fastened.

“If you were tasked with designing a regional system of government guaranteed to produce racial conflict, anger, and resentment, you’d be hard pressed to do better than St. Louis County,” Radley Balko, a Washington Post writer who specializes in criminal justice, wrote in an extensive piece in September of last year.

Likewise, the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus is far from the only college where black students have been made to feel fearful and marginalized, But here again, conditions were ripe for turmoil, and the university leadership didn’t see it.

Michael Middleton spoke after University of Missouri Board of Curators named him interim president. "We all know the university has faced its share of troubling incidents and we recognize we must move forward as a community."

The roots of the uprising at Mizzou were planted in Ferguson. Some of the black student activists who took a lead role in seeking change on campus this fall were in St. Louis County during the 2014 upheaval and became acquainted with the protest movement and its leaders. One of them was Jonathan Butler, the MU graduate student who went on a hunger strike.

They came to campus with a heightened awareness of institutional and overt racism and their role in confronting it. The administration’s attention was focused on other issues, like benefits for graduate students, legislative interference and, of course, athletics. When racist incidents occurred and black students demanded a hearing from university system President Tim Wolfe, he didn’t respond until it was too late.

If there is a common thread of blame for Ferguson and Mizzou, it is a collective willingness to allow problems to fester.

Leaders in the fragmented St. Louis area watched as studies documented increasing segregation, poverty, crime and educational failures. Then Ferguson erupted, and they were stunned.

Every black person I know who has attended the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus has stories of being excluded from events, called the n-word and shouted at.

University leadership over the years has reacted to specific incidents, such as the littering of the lawn of the Black Culture Center with cotton balls. But officials never developed a serious plan to truly challenge racism on campus until Butler started his hunger strike and blacks on the football team went on strike.

Even now there are people in high places who want to deny that anything is wrong. Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a GOP candidate for governor, has accused the student protesters of grasping at “any reed, no matter how thin to support their claim to victimhood status.”

Let’s learn from the last two years, Missouri. Turn a blind eye on race-based problems, and next thing you know the whole world is looking at you.

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