Friends here in Houston often say, "You sure are in love with St. Louis; why don't you move back?"
I suppose they get tired of me bragging about the St. Louis Rams and Cardinals. Eventually, I had to ask myself, "Why won't you move back"? After doing some soul searching, I discovered that I have lots of unresolved anger towards the city and its police department. I have chosen to chronicle a few experiences that have shaped my expatriate existence.
Growing up in predominately African-American, working-class St. Louis neighborhoods, I had very little contact with the St. Louis Police Department, contrary to the popularized perception. That all changed in 1979 when my family moved into the Laclede Town housing development in Midtown St. Louis. Laclede Town was a respectable community complete with a General Store, a donut shop, dry cleaners, and a nearby church and state college. It was an ideal community. Upon our arrival to Laclede Town the neighborhood was predominately African-American and working class, and most neighborhood children went to Catholic, private or Magnet schools. I attended Cardinal Ritter College Prep in north St. Louis for two years before I graduated proudly from Theodore Roosevelt High School in 1984.
During the summer of 1982, I was sixteen years old. I had my first negative experience with St. Louis' Finest. One late afternoon, two female acquaintances and I were walking from a basketball court near what is the former Ninth District police station on Samuel Shepherd Drive. We had enjoyed watching a pick-up basketball game and were heading back to the Laclede Town housing development. As we walked in front of the Ninth District police building, two white officers, clad in their finest blue, were walking down the steps. They greeted us with, "We are tired of you niggers coming over here. We are going to get rid of that basketball court." My female acquaintances asked, "Terrence, aren't you going to say something"? I replied, "What can I do? They'll probably beat me then take me to jail." Needless to say, I was stunned and upset and to this day it still makes me nauseous.
In the summer of 1983, I was seventeen years old and was heading home from a summer job when I besieged by four unmarked cars on Cardinal Avenue in Midtown. I was told to stand still and not to move by these strangers with guns. They searched my pockets and me. I was told to get into a car and no explanation was offered to me. The cars turned out to be those of undercover officers from the St. Louis Police Department. The car I sat in whizzed to the intersection of Cardinal and Olive where it met another unmarked car in which a middle-aged white woman sat. I asked the officer, "What did I do?" and he replied, "Shut up, a woman's purse was snatched". The officers asked the woman, "Is this him?" and thank God she said, "no." The officer told me to get out, and the officers sped off.
In May of 1985, I arrived home fresh from two semesters at Northwest Missouri State University. Laclede Town had become a hellhole. Poverty and crime were rampant. Police patrols were constant, as crime worsened after just one year away at school.
Knowing that I would want a summer job, a long-time neighborhood and childhood friend told me about a job at the former Shoney's in Maplewood where she worked. She set up an interview with the manager. One day, as we were heading to Shoney's for the interview, St. Louis' finest pulled up and observed me clad in loafers, an oxford shirt and argyle socks a complete opposite image of what the neighborhood had become.
The policemen sat in their car with the windows rolled up. They checked me out from head to toe and they snickered. One white officer got out of the car and asked me to come to the car. Frustrated, I asked, "What have I done?" and he replied, "Just get into the car." The long-time friend walked away and caught her bus to work and others walked by curiously while the officers harassed me in the car. The officers asked me, "Where are you from?" I told them. They asked me for my identification and I showed them my Northwest Missouri State University identification. One officer then asked, "What's your major?" I told him, "Journalism." I asked the officers again, "Why are you all stopping me?" One of the officers told me to shut up before they took me to jail for having improper identification. The other officer added, "and we might kick your ass before we take there." One officer then asked to see the inside of my mouth. He said, "We need to see if you have a gold tooth, there's a guy wanted for robbery and he has a gold tooth." I later learned that this would be their justification for legally retaining me. To add insult to injury, one officer stated, "You can go now, and if you get your degree, come back and compare it to his (speaking of the other officer) he got his from St. Louis University." I walked away from the police car coolly as they laughed, and when I was out of their sight I ran home, angry and humiliated. Later that day, my mother and I went to the Ninth District station and explained the incident to the District Captain but got no results.
Although I am seventeen years removed from St. Louis, these incidents are logged indelibly into my memory. These incidents and countless others have left me with deep embedded feelings of distrust and anger towards the City of St. Louis and its police department. Why me? Why was I treated like a second-class citizen in my own hometown?
Throughout the seventeen-year absence, I've visited St. Louis an average of twice a year (and there were years when I never missed the place). Over time, I have attempted to chip away at some of the anger that has been within me for years. I have been impressed with the physical, social and cultural changes of the St. Louis area. I've often thought about moving back to St. Louis, as suggested by friends. When I visit, I cover so much ground in an effort to get myself reacquainted with the region and to explore once "hands-off" areas. However, as soon as I get a "glass-half-full" perspective of St. Louis ...
Pow!! ........... Ronald Beasley
Pow!! ........... Annette Green
Pow!! ........... Jerome Johnson
Pow!! ........... Torrance Mull
These police shootings and others help to keep my perspective of St. Louis as a "glass half-empty." These shootings get me angry and tap into that yet-unresolved anger from years gone by. The police department's shroud of secrecy, sketchy information and seeming disregard for these people's lives forces me to reflect on my encounters with St. Louis police. Although I never broke a law as a youth, I think about how 16-year-old Torrance Mull or Jerome Johnson could have been me.
In regard to returning to St. Louis, I ask myself, "Do I honestly want to go back to a toxic city a cesspool of racial divisiveness and hate?" Do I honestly want to go to a city where I could get sick to my stomach every time I hear about a police shooting, or excessive references to race? Would I honestly be able to shop or eat in Chesterfield or Wildwood at anytime of the day without be harassed or looked at strangely?
Things have changed in St. Louis, but not much. It's sad to say, but St. Louis pushed me away. I'll continue to be in exile (yes, exile!) for a little while longer.
As much as I love St. Louis, I'll continue to sit back and watch for the glass to slowly fill or become totally empty.
Terrence McCreight is 35 years old. Born in the West End, he grew up in North St. Louis and Midtown. Terrence graduated from Texas Southern University and lives in southwest Houston.