St. Louis doesn’t feel like St. Louis, not here, not now, not in this moment. Not in this instant. Right here, right now, St. Louis feels like something different, something foreign, something else. St. Louis does not feel like the place where I grew up. Not with the images of protestors running through the street, and tear gas canisters filling the air around them propping up on one side of the television screen and the form of a man in a shirt and tie, a man explaining how, exactly, the law has exonerated a police officer who shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old teenager, an unarmed 18-year-old black teenager, from criminal charges on the other. I have seen images of Baghdad. I have seen images of Ben Ghazi. I have seen images of Cairo and Tehran and Jerusalem and Beirut and Kiev. I have seen images of Paris when the tanks rolled through in the 40’s and Saigon when the tanks rolled through in the 70’s and I watched the live news feed from Kabul when the tanks rolled through after 9/11. I have seen these kind of images previously. They are not completely unique to me. And yet I have never seen anything like this before. I live in America. I live in St. Louis. And parts of my city are, quite literally, being burned to the ground.
This piece of writing was not written, was not meant, to be a denouncement of the justice system, or the grand jury, or the prosecutor or the now exonerated police officer himself. This piece was not written, was not meant, to discuss the results of their findings and how and why they may (or may not) be flawed and/or say something about the current state of society as a whole. Other, more talented and articulate people are doing that already, and we’d all be wise to listen. This piece of writing is not a cry for anger; it is not to be a plea for calm (although if I thought my pleas would help I would do so). This is not an opinion. This is not a judgment. This piece of writing is not an op-ed or a conclusion or a presumption. This piece of writing is not meant to assert right or wrong; innocence or guilt; pride or shame. I have my own viewpoint. I’m sure that all of you who may be reading this do too. You are entitled to them. More than likely I am not capable of changing it, and will not try to. Because, above all, this piece of writing was written, was meant, to be an observation. To tell you what I see. To wonder how and why I am seeing it. To contemplate what seeing it means.
I see men and women lining the streets, chanting “No Justice, No Peace” walking calmly and measurably with their hands up begging the officers driving around on their Humvees with their guns drawn not to shoot. I see men and women tipping police cruisers over on their axis, and throwing rocks through windows, and setting storefronts and parked cars ablaze. I see broken glass spilling out into the street. I see clouds of smoke and vapor shooting their way through the sky. I see choppers circling the movement, spotlights combing down from the heavens above and illuminating the people on the streets as they scatter below. I hear a gunshot or two ring out into the air. I don’t want anybody to die. Sitting here, on this ocean of a black leather couch, I don’t know what I would do with myself if another person died.
I’ve heard from more than one person I’ve come across throughout the course of my life that they’ve never met anyone who is more proud of where they are from than I am. No one ever mentioned this to me until I went away to college, went away from St. Louis, and people were, I guess, a little taken aback by how proudly I spoke about my hometown. I never heard this before I went away to college, before I went away from St. Louis, before I left the city of my birth and upbringing for somewhere where I was neither born nor raised, for some place else. I never heard this in St. Louis because here, in St. Louis, my civic pride was not unusual or worthy of notice. I never heard this in St. Louis because here, in St. Louis, I was not alone.
Not everyone I knew as a child loved this city. Not everyone I knew as a teenager wanted to stay. Not everyone I know now believes St. Louis is, and always will be, the greatest place on the entire planet. But everyone I knew, or know, who is from here, who is from St. Louis, shares one characteristic that is represents how we feel about this city unequivocally and without fail: everyone I knew, or know, who is from St. Louis is proud of that fact. Everyone I knew, or know, who grew up in St. Louis is proud of where they come from.
This shared pride, this common bond cemented between me and my fellow St. Louisans by the location of our upbringing, is front and center in my mind right now, a day removed from the grand jury’s announcement and the violence that followed, as I look back on what I saw last night, as I reflect on the images flooding the TV screen, images that displayed parts of my city, parts of my hometown, as it burned. What is it that makes us care so much about our hometown? What is it that causes us to be so invested in, so devoted to, so unabashedly proud of, the city in which we existed—through no choice of our own—as we went from being a child to an being adult? Why do we give a shit? What did St. Louis give us that Kansas City or Indianapolis or Cleveland or Louisville or Milwaukee or wherever couldn’t?
Nothing. Everything. The thing that makes us care, that makes us give a shit about our hometown, about the place where we went from being a child to being an adult, is that it is ours. It belongs to us. No one can be from where we are from, not exactly, not in entirely the same way that we are. No one could experience what we experienced, not exactly, not in entirely the same way that we do. We each are given the gift of a unique perspective, of our own personal way to see and relate to the world around us that cannot be duplicated by anyone or anything, no matter what, a perspective and personal way to see and relate to the world around us that will forever be ours and ours alone.
This perspective, this worldview is a gift. It’s what makes us who we are. It’s what makes us different from somebody else. This perspective, this worldview is shaped by a finite amount of things: the people in our lives, the practices we’ve endured, the backgrounds we’ve been exposed to, the places where we’ve been. Place counts. Place matters. Place helps to determine who we are, both within the confines of our own mind and in the various moments when we choose to leave those confines and engage with others, engage with the big, scary world that surrounds us every second of every day.
That’s why we love St. Louis. St. Louis is a part of us deep down, on a cellular level, on a level where the core of our being exists. St. Louis helped to mold and shape us into the people we are today, good, bad, indifferent. St. Louis provided a variety of experiences that were one of a kind, that were truly exclusive, that are known to St. Louis and St. Louis alone. We are from St. Louis. But St. Louis is in us.
On an episode of the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation, Pawnee Parks Director Ron Swanson echoes some advice he once gave to his Deputy Director Leslie Knope when she asked him about a job offer she had received from a neighboring city in Indiana. “You’ll get a lot of job offers in your life,” Ron Swanson said. “But you only ever have one hometown.”
You only ever have one hometown. That’s what makes it special. That’s what makes it mean something. That’s what, by definition, makes it unique. You only ever get one. You do not choose it. It chooses you. And it is a part of you forever.
The sun set on St. Louis last night and my hometown devolved into something I didn’t recognize, something I had never seen before. My hometown devolved into a war zone. Not without cause. Not without reason. And not without sending us a clear and important directive on how and why we need to change our city, how and why we need to change something about who we, as a community, are.
Darkness fell on St. Louis last night and we all received the message loud and clear. Change is coming because it needs to. Change is coming because we have to do better, to be better. Change is coming because St. Louis, in our minds at least, is an ideal and a standard, because St. Louis, in our minds at least, needs to do more to live up to its promise, to be the city we all picture in our minds while we beam with pride whenever we are telling people exactly where it is that we come from.
Let me communicate this through the words of one of the greatest natives this city has ever known:
“It is self-evident that St. Louis affected me more deeply than any other environment has ever done. I feel that there is something in having passed one's childhood beside the big river, which is incommunicable to those people who have not. I consider myself fortunate to have been born here, rather than in Boston, or New York, or London." -T.S. Eliot
I consider myself fortunate to have been born here too. And hopefully just about every person reading this post believes that their fortune fits that description as well. Our goal now is to nurture that pride, to grow that affection, to allow everyone who is born in this town from here until entirety to feel the exact same way about our city as we do. Not because this city is perfect, but because it is trying to be. Because we, the people in it, are trying to be. Because we, the people in it, make the city what it is. Because this city is ours and ours alone.
The night is over now, and morning has come. To paraphrase my friend and perhaps the smartest person I know Joe Monahan, it is now time to wake up St. Louis. Because we’ve got work to do.