Along about 1988 or '89, both Kirkwood and Meacham Park could tell that they were beginning to have problems, entirely separate problems that needed urgent solutions:
Kirkwood: Ever play Sim City 2000 or any of its sequels? Then you may have run into a game rule that must have seemed frustrating and arbitrary to you ... but it turns out that it isn't. As documented by Joel Garreau in his far under-rated, absolutely essential 1991 book Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, this particular rule is something that was discovered empirically, when inexpensive computerized spreadsheets first started changing urban planning from its roots in art, architecture, and the humanities into what it is today: namely a science, a branch of economics. Cities all over the country were computerizing their budgets and their expenditures, and making some of this data available to the public. This gave commercial real estate developers, and politicians, and university professors a universe of raw data from which to make statistical correlations. And one of the first and still most important discoveries they made was this: residential costs money, commercial makes money, industrial breaks even.
That is to say, from a city and county revenue versus expense standpoint, all residential property consumes more taxpayer dollars than any residential property owner, no matter how expensive the property, can afford to pay in taxes: police, roads, recreational facilities, schools, all the rest of the stuff that voters demand. Industrial property pays good taxes, because of all the assessed value off the industrial machinery inside, but they also consume a lot of taxpayer dollars in extra policing costs, extra road repair, pollution cleanup, and so on. Commercial property, by contrast, consumes almost no taxpayer dollars. None. The buildings aren't terribly flammable (usually), there are fewer fire hazards on most of the properties than in either the average home or the average factory, but unlike homes and factories, they're more likely to have extensive high-tech fire suppression systems. The types of crime they attract tend not to be the kinds that require extensive police work, but they're even more likely than homes or factories to go to the expense of putting in ultra-tech alarm systems and they hire their own private security in large numbers. They often, in modern office parks, even pay for their own roads. It is for this reason, more than any other, that owners of commercial property have been pitting cities and counties and states against each other in such a relentless drive to reduce the commercial property tax rate to zero: to them, it's a basic fairness issue.
(As an aside, there is one part of this I find to quibble with: the people who do this analysis charge the costs of education against the people whose kids are in school, not the employers who would otherwise have to pay a fortune to train employees. Still, as a general rule of thumb, it works.)
Now remember what I said about Kirkwood's history, yesterday? How fundamental it was to James Kirkwood's plan that the city of Kirkwood have, except for the few tiny little shops that people's wives would need for buying clothing or food, nothing but upper middle class and middle class residential property? When in the mid to late 1980s, urban planning analysts finally proved the above, the Kirkwood city government realized that what they desperately needed, if they were going to continue to balance their budgets, was an awful lot more commercial real estate, far more than could fit into Kirkwood without demolishing an awful lot of high end residential property, something that was neither affordable nor politically viable. So they looked over at Meacham Park, nearby, which was having its own problem.
Meacham Park: Meacham Park was also almost 100% residential. It had lower government costs than Kirkwood, but even less valuable property. More importantly, for explicitly racist reasons, St. Louis County started yanking their police patrols out of Meacham Park in the 1980s. (Meacham Park never incorporated officially as a city, and as such, the County was responsible for police and other municipal services. There are quite a few such places left, to this day.) At the time, the County was having its own budget problems, and the then-Republican county government decided that patrolling a dirt-poor all-black neighborhood wasn't the best use of police manpower. And as happens every time word gets out that the police won't go into a neighborhood to investigate crimes, the drug gangs moved in. So the Meacham Park neighborhood association looked into all of their options, but they couldn't make the numbers work. They couldn't raise enough revenue, being all residential, to incorporate and form their own police force. And being all black, they couldn't get any bank to okay the loans needed to develop any of the property they did have as commercial.
So the city of Kirkwood made the residents of Meacham Park what they called "a generous offer." If the Meacham Park residents would vote to ratify Kirkwood's annexation of Meacham Park, the city of Kirkwood would fix their problems. They would pave the roads, they would provide the police, they would build a new fire station and provide better and faster police and fire and ambulance service than the County ever did. They claimed to be doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, to be doing this because as a wealthy city they could afford to, to be doing this because their Christian consciences told them this was the right thing to do for their poorer neighbors. The closest they came to admitting a cynical motive was when some people pointed out that they had long been under a court order to allow Meacham Park kids to attend previously all-white Kirkwood schools, and they were tired of Meacham Park's kids dragging down the school's academic averages, so they wanted to make Meacham Park a nicer place to live, so Meacham Park would develop more jobs, so Meacham Park's kids would see that there was an advantage to getting a good education.
Look, if you're a black American over about the age of 12, or at least no later than by the time you're old enough to vote, you really ought to know this: when a white politician says he's doing a favor for a black person out of the goodness of his heart, he's lying. Period. But once they heard the cynical explanation, the Meacham Park residents felt comfortable enough that they believed that it was safe to betray Elzy Meacham's dream and let themselves be ruled by an all-white city government, in a city of almost all-white ministers, with an all-white judiciary and an almost all-white police police force, and in 1991 Kirkwood officially annexed Meacham Park.
There is a word for what happened next, and that word is "ethnic cleansing."
One: The ink was barely dry on the incorporation papers before the city condemned half of Meacham Park, used eminent domain to seize people's property, and turned it over to politically well-connected developers for free, with demolition paid for and construction subsidized by taxpayers, to build a Wal-Mart and a bunch of strip malls. It's worth pointing out, by the way, that almost every single business in that development has had an EEOC complaint filed against them, because according to the neighborhood association, every single one of them has gone to demonstrably illegal lengths to make sure that they did not hire a single male resident of Meacham Park. If you look at the city of Kirkwood's web page, you'll see that they insist that their offer to the residents who lost their houses was quite generous. Here's how they say it was supposed to work: let's say you owned a house in Meacham Park that was worth $27,000. The city would offer you your choice of $27,000 (which wouldn't buy you a house anywhere else, really, not anything that qualified for an occupancy permit anywhere near St. Louis), or of any house in Kirkwood up to $93,000 in value, with the city paying the difference. Very generous sounding, right? Right? Uh, wait. Is the city going to pay the three and a half times higher property taxes, too? Uh, no. Is the city going to pay the three and a half times higher maintenance costs for the rest of the home owner's life, too? Uh, no. No, the city is going to wait until you fall behind on the repairs and/or the taxes, condemn the property, take it for free, and sell it; that way you get nothing. Only a few people were foolish enough to take that offer; the city professes shock and disappointment at this. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that so far as I can find any records, the city didn't even make that much of an offer to any owners of rental property, or to their many tenants; they were just run out of town.
Two: Remember that promise of faster police, fire, and ambulance service? Yeah, funny how that works. According to the residents of Meacham Park, and verified by several reporters over the years, you know how that actually worked out? Now that Kirkwood owns Meacham Park, if you call 911 from anywhere in Meacham Park, the very first thing that happens is the city dispatches at least four cars of police, usually with dogs. They then descend upon and secure the property, demanding ID from every black male over the age of 12, and run all of those IDs against the list of wants and warrants. If they come up empty, they then claim to feel unsafe, which grants them the constitutional right to do weapons pat-downs of anybody they feel is dangerous, which to a cop in America almost without exception means "black males over the age of 12," in hopes of finding something that would give them an excuse to search for contraband. And only after they have secured the property, and arrested every possible arrestable black male over the age of 12, are the police willing to listen to whatever criminal complaint prompted you to call the police in the first place. If you called because of a fire, Meacham Park residents insist that the police hold back the fire trucks until this search has taken place. If you called for an ambulance, same thing.
That's the first thing I thought of when I heard about Thursday night's terror attack on city hall in Kirkwood, because the Friday before that was when Meacham Park resident Kevin Johnson got the death penalty for his murder of Kirkwood police sergeant William McEntee. You see, back on July 5th of 2005, Kevin Johnson's baby half-brother, 12 year old Joseph Long, went into cardiac arrest. He had a congenital heart problem, the family knew to call 911 right away. The police arrived before the ambulance was dispatched, and insisted that it was more important that they find Kevin Johnson, who was wanted on a minor parole violation, than it was to perform CPR on the dying 12 year old child. After the police gave up in disgust, the ambulance arrived, and declared Joseph Long dead on the scene. Now, the autopsy would later reveal that Joseph Long was irretrievably dead before the police even arrived. But Kevin Johnson didn't know that. So far as he knew, the Kirkwood policy of arresting every arrestable black male in Meacham Park, before even considering rendering emergency assistance, had cost the life of his baby brother. So he went out and got a gun, announced to his family that he was going to hunt down and kill the first white Kirkwood police officer he could find, and over their objections, did just that. A week ago Friday, the jury accepted the (all white) prosecution's argument and the (white) judge's instructions that this qualified as "cool deliberation" and "premeditation," the necessary elements to make this a death penalty case.
(Since Cookie Thornton's attack, St. Louis County police have been doing all of the patrols in Kirkwood including Meacham Park, ostensibly to let the Kirkwood PD mourn, until the last of the Kirkwood funerals. Somehow, I can't shake my feeling that the residents of Meacham Park are just okay with this. In fact, under the circumstances, everybody involved is probably safer if we keep it that way for a while.)
Three: Over the course of May, 2001, one of the only actually modestly successful businessmen in Meacham Park was cited by the city of Kirkwood for an ordinance violation. In and of itself, that's not proof of sinister intent, even though the particular ordinance is one that is impossible to obey. Your town probably has the same mostly-stupid ordinance, too: a law making it illegal to park commercial vehicles in a residential neighborhood. Every small building contractor, every independent towing firm, every small lawn care business or gardener, every business below a certain size that involves owning a pickup truck or a van, has to violate this ordinance every night, because if they're not big enough to own a separate facility, and/or if they can't afford to have a separate vehicle for personal use, they've got nowhere else to park it. Almost never do any of them get ticketed for this; heck, in my own neighborhood, within 2 blocks of here, I could point to at least three of them. When a ticket does get written, in any city in America, it almost always happens for the same reason. Some neighbor gets into a fight with another neighbor over something stupid. They dig up a copy of the city ordinances, looking for something to complain about, find out about the commercial vehicle rule, and call the cops. Maybe that's what happened here. Maybe.
(This is #1 on the list of questions I still want an answer to: who called in the original complaint against Cookie Thornton's truck? Because if it was a feuding neighbor who started this, and not a white politician, it might absolve Kirkwood of some tiny amount of the blame for what happened after.)
But that's the end of the similarity. Because what almost always happens after that, in every case but this one, is this. The cops write one, and only one, ticket. If the neighbor calls again, they say that they've already ticketed the vehicle, that now it's up to the courts. The city councilman or alderman steps in and tries to referee the feud, tries to make the person complaining shut up, tries to get the guy who owns the truck to stop doing whatever it was that ticked off the neighbor. In the meantime, the guy who owns the truck goes and pays a trivial paperwork fee of $5 or maybe at most $50 to file for a variance to the zoning code for a big enough "commercial" space for him to park his truck in. Virtually without exception, he gets that variance; as a contractor I know put it to me, city councils hand out variances like lollipops. But that's not what happened here. Instead, Kirkwood went out and ticketed Cookie Thornton's truck every night for two months. When he asked his (white) city councilman to intervene, the city councilman declined. So he got a lawyer, who advised him to file for a zoning variance. He did. And could not get the zoning board to even look at his request "until he complies with the law first," a requirement never ever imposed on any other contractor. When he went to the (white) city council to complain about this, they refused to put him on the agenda. When he rose to speak during public comments periods, they ruled him out of order and evicted him from the meetings. So he spent months going to every zoning meeting, and every city council meeting, and loudly demanding to have his zoning variance heard, until the city adopted a policy of having him hand-cuffed by the Kirkwood police and bodily hauled out of every meeting he showed up at. In addition, the city retaliated by sending out city inspectors to find every possible citeable offense, including at one point sending out city mowing trucks to mow his lawn because it was one quarter of an inch over the legal limit and billing him $200 plus court costs, including ticketing all of his residential vehicles for being one inch or less too far from the curb.
In January of 2007, Cookie Thornton gave up on the city of Kirkwood and filed suit, first in front of the county, then in appeals to both the state and to federal court, arguing that this pattern of selective enforcement was racially motivated. He told personal friends that he was giving up on Kirkwood and Meacham Park. All he really hoped to get out of his lawsuit was enough money to cover the expense of moving out of state, so he could go down to Florida, where he had other family, and start all over again with nothing. A year later, on January 28th of 2008, a week ago Monday, the last court of appeals denied his case. He couldn't produce any witnesses to prove that the selective enforcement was racially motivated, and the courts are hesitant to get involved in selective enforcement cases in general. So on Thursday, February 7th, Cookie Thornton gave up on public justice altogether, realized that because he did not give up his business and evacuate when he got that first ticket, they were not going to settle for anything less than destroying him as a person. So he wrote a one-line suicide note, picked up a gun, and went down to his last zoning meeting. If you look at the Post-Dispatch seating chart and step-by-step diagram that I linked to yesterday, you can clearly see with your own eyes that he did not fire randomly. He searched that room for very specific people, shot three people at point blank range enough times that he reasonably hoped that they were dead (one of them probably will live, despite two execution-style head shots), and other than that only intentionally shot the two police officers who got between him and them. He then made no attempt to escape, forcing the police responding to the scene to kill him.
Ian Fleming's Law: "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action." The residents of Meacham Park have a word for what has happened to them since they foolishly accepted Kirkwood's annexation offer: occupation. At the urging of local clergy and of their own local (informal) politicians, they have tried everything they could do to placate and get along with the white government of Kirkwood. That government has accepted none of their offers, has seldom even agreed to meet with them. After these three newsworthy incidents, I'm going to go even farther than the residents of Meacham Park have gone. I see the pattern perfectly clearly and, as someone who doesn't live in Kirkwood and who never drives through it, I'm unafraid to call it what it is: ethnic cleansing. At this point I have no remaining doubt in my mind that the Kirkwood City Hall's at least partial motive in annexing Meacham Park was to reduce the black, male, over-12 population of Meacham Park to zero. And they will not stop until they succeed. And if they balance their city budget, and enrich their campaign contributors, by giving all that black-owned property to their wealthy white friends for free, well, hey, that's just a bonus. This is no different from the century-long campaign of greed-driven lynchings that I wrote about day before yesterday.
Cookie Thornton was not the first terrorist to respond to an occupation army against which he was helpless with a suicidal assassination attempt. This is morally wrong. And it's also completely stupid; no occupied people in history have ever won their freedom through assassinations or other terrorist attacks. The Palestinians have been engaging in terror attacks against the Israeli occupation almost every day since 1948; how's that worked out for them? Occupied minorities win their freedom by bringing larger, outside governments to bear against their oppressors. It takes longer, many people suffer, it's hard work, but it works. What Cookie Thornton did was terrorism, he let himself become a terrorist, and I condemn that in clear and unambiguous terms.
(I will also say, by the way, to those who ask if knowing what they were risking by driving Cookie Thornton that far, that Kirkwood should have had more security against terrorist attacks? As I said the other day, remember what I call the Beirut Lesson. If enough terrorists want you dead so badly that they don't care what happens to them or their families as long as they get you, no amount of security will save your life.)
Yes, what Cookie Thornton did was both evil and stupid. But what he did was not "senseless" or "random," or the work of a guy who "went crazy for no reason." The people who tell themselves these lies do so for their own comfort, to absolve themselves of any responsibility to bring Cookie Thornton's oppressors, the thieves and bigots who are ethnically cleansing Meacham Park, to justice. And if we don't want America to continue being a place where we have to fear terrorist attacks like Cookie Thornton's, then to keep pretending that this isn't necessary, and to keep denying justice to black men who try as hard as Cookie Thornton did to live the American Dream, these are luxuries that we can not afford.