[Eric Bablinskas has been living in the St. Louis area as a member of an intentional community associated with the Episcopal Service Corps and the Anglican Church. He sends us this report:]
I moved to St. Louis in 2013 to be a part of an intentional Anglican Community in a low-income, predominantly African American neighborhood only a few miles from Ferguson. In August, not long after the shooting of Michael Brown, my six housemates and I participated in a march down Florissant Rd, where the gas station had burned down. It was a march for justice and peace, and we wanted to know who the police officer responsible was. The marchers were young and old, black and white, cop and civilian. It was an incredible experience.
Right after the shooting, my program ended and, I’m afraid to say, my involvement faltered and I had to build a life for myself in St. Louis outside of my community. After the grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson, back in late November, the city erupted. I was working part-time at a coffee shop a few blocks from South Grand, where much of the protesting occurred. and you could feel the tenseness in the air. Everyone was engulfed in deep thought and concern. I visited South Grand later that day, to see businesses boarded up, their windows smashed the night before. Several eyewitness accounts would say that it had been done by members of a young white anarchist group.
I was not there for the protesting on South Grand the night before, but several of my friends were, including clergy members and children. A local coffeehouse, Mokabees, was teargassed. Thankfully, the deacon of my church was present and, being a nurse, she knew how to deal with teargas. Children were teargassed. St. Johns, an Episcopal Church and designated safe-space for protesters, was teargassed. I did not go to Ferguson, but I’ve heard that it has been like a war-zone. Several businesses have burned.
I attended a protest in downtown St. Louis and we marched up an on-ramp to block interstate traffic. The police were prepared in their riot-gear. I must admit that I was terrified and backed down rather quickly. More protests are occurring daily, and I simply can’t keep track of it all. I’ve never been much of a social activist and it’s hard for me to admit that. But after seeing the prevalent disparity between black and white in St. Louis, it’s hard not to be outraged. I lived north of the Delmar divide, the imaginary line between the black and white halves of the city. The north side is blighted. There are empty lots where houses once stood. Traffic signals are ignored. Crime rates are high. I grew to know the residents up there. Everyone is simply doing their best to get by. This is where I’d like to say that I love St. Louis. Even on the coldest winter days, when I remember Arcata’s relative warmth. Even when I am driving past crack houses and vacant lots, and I think back to the redwoods and the ocean. On South Grand, the community painted murals of hope and inspiration over the boarded up windows. Ferguson has had live music events, teach ins, and an outpouring of support from all over the region. I’ve seen clergy from all denominations and all faith-traditions marching together.
Yes, St. Louis is dealing with racism, as well as a staggering population decline and a whole slew of other issues, and the media will happily report this and people back west will be quick to criticize St. Louis and places like it. I remember hearing people at HSU say, “It’s such an intolerant, backwards place!” in regards the whole of middle America, not even taking a moment to notice their own racial issues that plague Humboldt. St. Louis is full of good people who are working together to heal wounds that have existed for centuries. You can go online and see pictures of blighted neighborhoods, decaying buildings, or read crime statistics, and they are all true. You can’t hide from these problems in St. Louis like you can in other places. But the other side of the story is the dedicated community members who love St. Louis, who wash each other’s eyes out after being pepper-sprayed at a protest, who paint murals to show that there still is beauty on these old forgotten streets, who donate their time and money to building a healthy community in this overlooked (until now) part of America. I’m proud to call this place my new home.