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From Fenton to Ferguson

Cory yells “Stranger Danger!” on a bike ride home from their grade school. They had asked about a time when they might be able to ride to or from school without Daddy by their side.

C: When we’re older, we can ride our bikes to school, right, Daddy?
D: Oh, yah, of course.
F: But, not now, right, Daddy?
D: Right.
C: Because kindergarten is too young to ride alone all the way to school.
F: Yah, there could be a er, eh, uh Robert around, right, Daddy?
D: Well, sure, there are a few bad people in the world, and we don’t want any of those bad people to do anything bad to either of you. You can ride your bikes to school maybe, but not without an adult with you.
F: I don’t like those Roberts.
D: Neither do I. Do you ever talk to a stranger if your Daddy or your Papa isn’t around?
C/F: No!
D: If you are ever without your Daddy or your Papa or your teachers or your aunties or uncles, and a stranger tries to talk to you or asks you to go somewhere, what do you say?
C/F: No!
D: And if that stranger keeps talking to you or comes closer to you, what do you do?
F: Run away.
C: And yell…(yelling)…“Stranger Danger!” Like that.
D: Do you ever get in a car with a stranger?
C/F: No!
F: Are all strangers Roberts?
D: No, Fisher not all strangers are robbers. Not all strangers are bad people. But, because they are strangers, we don’t know them. So, we don’t know whether they are good or bad. Most people are good. But, we just don’t know. So…
C: Safety first!
D: That’s right.


C: Daddy, if the stranger is a police, can we talk to them?

F: Yah, we can talk to a police, right, Daddy?

Daddy pauses for a second.

D: Yes, police are there to stop bad things from happening. They don’t want strangers to talk to you or to do bad things to you. If you see a policeman or -woman when a stranger tries to talk to you, you can call to the police to help you. But, guys, you are never away from your parents or your teachers or your leaders, right?
C: Uh huh.
D: So, hopefully, you won’t have to worry about this, but we can add police to the list of safe people. Police are not, um, Roberts.

Daddy’s little white kids reach the corner of their home street. No cars are coming. They start pedaling away from Daddy toward home. Watching them, Daddy reflects on the fact that not everyone can afford to teach their children, in a simple, unqualified fashion, that the police are there to protect them, and that the caution taught by those other parents is justified. It’s a sad fact of any little kid’s life that not all strangers have good intentions, but it’s also a sad reality in too many kids’ lives that some policemen out there don’t operate from the best intentions either.

Growing up in Fenton, a suburb in southwest St. Louis County, I always thought of the police as there to protect and serve. Police were good. Well, at least until we all reached the age when kids unwisely consider trying to buy alcohol as an underaged teenager. Then, police became a little scary. But, even then, I never once in my life imagined an interaction with police as something potentially life-threatening either for me, if I did the wrong thing or weren’t super careful, or for anyone that I knew. The situation in Ferguson highlights how people, growing up not all that far away from where I did, don’t have such an uncomplicated view of law enforcement. Even though I was born in St. Louis, I don’t think I ever visited, or even drove through, Ferguson until 2006, when I flew back from California to Missouri to stump for Claire McCaskill in her first Senate campaign.

I checked in at the headquarters. A very nice campaign volunteer handed me a folder, explaining that the residents of the neighborhoods where I would be walking door to door were predominantly black, that we were trying to identify reliable presidential year voters who rarely voted in off-year elections in order to get them to change their pattern, that these
neighborhoods used to be white but were now largely black, that the voters whose doors I’d be knocking on and persuading to vote would likely lean Democratic, that the people on my list would likely be black, and that, after these multiple notifications that the neighborhoods I’d be walking would be predominantly black, I would nevertheless “be safe.”

I said “thanks” and went off to canvas. Having lived away from St. Louis for almost ten years, it was easy to forget how palpable racial awareness and tensions back “home” could be. Of course, I was completely safe canvassing those neighborhoods in Ferguson. It was fun and interesting. Most people who answered the door just wanted to get rid of me, assuring me that they were “for Claire” and, when pressed a little bit, that they would definitely vote. Their reassurances were mostly unconvincing, but all you can do is press a little bit, be positive, be grateful for the assurances, and move along.

Two women stuck out for me. An elderly white woman told me that after voting reliably for decades that she just couldn’t bring herself to vote. If she voted, she told me, she’d definitely vote for Claire because “that Talent was just crazy,” but the constant stream of political commercials had just turned her off to the whole thing. I tried various tactics, including that if she didn’t vote, she would be doing exactly what “that crazy Talent” wanted by blanketing the airwaves with commercials. But, she closed the door shaking her head, promising only that she’d think about it. The second woman was black, an enthusiastic Claire supporter, and very eager for me to stick around for a few minutes to convince her husband to vote. She was just home, with grocery bags in her arms, and we had a hilarious “yah” fest, during which we agreed about everything political. She asked me where I was from. “California” “Hon, you have got to stick here ’til my husband comes. He says he’s not gonna vote, and I’m like, what the hell is wrong with you? You gotta help me convince him.” I asked whether he was a McCaskill supporter. She gave me an “Are you shitting me?” face. “Hell, yes, he would vote for Claire. He ain’t stupid. He’d have me to deal with if he didn’t. Between you and me, he’s just a little lazy. You gotta help me convince that guy to get off the couch and vote. Can you please stay?” I hung for a bit, while she stalled with questions about where I grew up, elated that my answer was in the St. Louis area, even though I had moved out of state. She was a hoot. She even called her husband from her cell phone and tried to get him to hurry so that he could talk to me, as if what I had to say might be just the motivation he needed, but he never showed. At least not in time for me to help her out. I had to move on. She actually hugged me before I left. Everyone, even if they didn’t want to talk much to yet another McCaskill campaign worker, was about as polite as I’d expected them to be.

Years laster, I’m keenly aware both that I could very well have knocked on the doors of many of the folks recently or currently protesting the Brown shooting and that my entire awareness of Ferguson, before today, as a white person growing up not all that far away, amounted to a trip during which I sought their votes on behalf of a white candidate for the U.S. Senate. I’m not sure that my entire awareness of Ferguson should have been greater, but it’s worth noting that my awareness of Chesterfield, Ballwin, Webster Groves, Oakville, Eureka, Lemay, Creve Couer, Clayton, etc. amounted to, amounts to, much more than a quest for votes in areas where a campaign worker felt compelled to warn me, based on the race of the voters, that I would still “be safe.” It would be nice, but naive, to think only of my election-year experiences when hearing mention of Ferguson.

Upon reaching home, where Cory waits in her bike helmet with something in her hand, Fisher saying hello to the dogs inside, thinking about all of this, Daddy is mindful of the luxury, the relative simplicity and safety, of their current circumstances, even if they are not.

C (holding up the something): Daddy, can I have a go-gurt?
D: Sure, Cory.

She makes a happy, goofy face and hands over the go-gurt to be opened for her. Daddy takes it, and the two head inside.

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