Dave Moller: Hearing hope in intolerance of racism
If you don’t think institutional racism and the tension it creates still exists in America, I must point you to the “Leave it to Beaver” suburb of St. Louis where I was reared.
Eleven days ago in my hometown of Kirkwood, Mo., an African American man named Charles “Cookie” Thornton burst into the City Council chambers and wantonly started shooting people, yelling about killing the mayor.
The mayor survived, although Cookie shot him twice in the head. Cookie managed to kill five other white people, a policeman outside, two members of the council, a staff member and another policemen in the chambers, before officers sprinting in from the adjacent police station shot him to death.
Cookie came from Meacham Park, a small black enclave adjacent to Kirkwood right over the hill from the house I grew up in. Meacham Park did not have sewers until churches in the area helped residents get them in the 1960s.
Shortly after that, a new freeway came through and simply cut out about one-third out of “The Park,” as the people who live there call it. Kirkwood finally got around to annexing The Park in the 1980s.
Shortly after the annexation, the city grabbed another one-third of The Park by eminent domain for a new shopping center. It appears now the city’s ability to extract sales tax from the new venture was more important than letting people continue to live atop their heritage.
I understand from old friends that a lot of bad feelings came out of that maneuver, although some people actually got new homes from it. But those who were deposed felt betrayed, and convinced that white people had run them over, once again.
It now makes me realize why one kid who lived in The Park used to follow us home from Nipher Junior High School, physically harassing us while demanding money. One day me and my buddies had enough, so we purposely led him out of sight into the field of a seminary, no less, and then beat the hell out of him.
Instead of reasoning with the kid, who was simply trying to be like us, we resorted to power and force. It was the same thing our parents were unconsciously doing to the black community for years, and something that apparently still occurs to this day.
Fortunately the kids I went to school with from Meacham Park got the same education I did, but they really weren’t accepted around town, unless they happened to be a star athlete.
Cookie Thornton was the 1975 Missouri high school triple-jump champion and a basketball star. A friend’s sister who graduated with him said Cookie was the most popular person in the class and he remained popular around town, working with youth and volunteering for civic functions.
Cookie was the little brother of David Thornton, a football player who was in my Class of 1969 at Kirkwood High. Their oldest brother was George “Petey” Thornton, who took us to the semifinals of the state basketball championship in 1968.
One day in junior high gym class playing flag football, I caught a pass and went out of bounds. I was about 10 feet off the sideline, when David ran me over like a speeding train.
At the moment – it was about 1965 – I could not comprehend why he had taken such a cheap shot on me. We had no run-ins prior and always treated each other well.
I now realize David didn’t hit me, he hit the institutional racism that was all around him.
Seconds after I was picking myself up off the ground, our black gym teacher who also a football coach lit into David. I can still hear him.
“Thornton!” he screamed. “If you hit like that on the real football field, you’d be a starter!”
Of course the coach should have admonished him, but even he was swept up in the current of tension. Several months later during the wrestling section of gym class, he couldn’t help himself, and would always cheer for a black student to defeat a white.
Forty years of reflection now makes me realize that there were some pretty mad black people in our town, even before the freeway and shopping center were foisted on them.
Then three years ago, the tension boiled over to the unacceptable level. Kirkwood Police were looking for a crime suspect in a Meacham Park house, when a youth with medical problems inside the home went into distress.
The youth died, and the members of the community said it was because the police didn’t call for medical help quickly enough, because they were too intent on finding the suspect, who wasn’t there.
Three days later, a young Meacham Park man named Kevin Johnson walked up to the police cruiser of Kirkwood officer William McEntee and blew him away. Johnson has since been convicted and sentenced to death.
While that turmoil was playing out, Cookie Thornton was having his own problems with the Kirkwood Police. Cookie had parked his paving business equipment willy-nilly in The Park for years when it was unincorporated, and the St. Louis county cops didn’t bother him.
When the area was annexed, the Kirkwood Police started writing him tickets, one after another. It eventually got up to $20,000 and neither Cookie or the police would budge.
Obviously Cookie should have adhered to parking laws like everybody else. But he couldn’t get past the notion that he was continuously ticketed simply because he was black, even though blacks and whites told him it wasn’t so.
It was around that time that people said Cookie started to change. He filed and lost a harassment lawsuit with the city and then started harassing the city council itself.
He would show up at meetings with pictures of donkeys and call the council members asses. One of the policeman he killed, Officer Tom Ballman, had arrested him twice for disorderly conduct at meetings and led him out in handcuffs.
Why someone didn’t step in to deal with Cookie’s mental state is confusing. I suspect it had a large part to do with the fact that people in the Midwest, “don’t talk about those kind of things,”
The whole disaster is also a reflection of our severe lack of mental health care in this country, and the inability to strip stigma from it.
Everyone accepts a bad chemical reaction in the body that makes you sick, like flu. Why don’t we understand that chemical imbalance also occurs in the brain and has nothing to do with character?
Cookie was so far gone with his rage that he killed Connie Karr, the one member of the city council who was trying to build bridges with him, Meacham Park and Kirkwood.
Racism does not have to be in your face to take its toll. Most whites will never know what it’s like to be followed around a store because you are black, pulled over because your are Hispanic, or made fun of because you have Asian eyes.
On the other hand, people who are victims of racism only play into the hands of bigots when they solve their problems with guns and violence.
I’m not sure if the institutional racism in my old hometown, America and even Nevada County will ever end. We’re talking about 150 years of human behavior here, much of it taught.
But when I hear our children’s intolerance of racism I hear hope. When I see kids of mixed colors walking down the street together I think maybe we’re starting to get it.
Immediately after the tragedy, the church leaders of Kirkwood seized the moment and held services and vigils for all involved. They realized it must stop now.
Thursday night people in Kirkwood lined the streets with candles in paper bags, an illumination often used for the holidays that is as beautiful as it is simplistic. Hopefully those candles represent the end of my home town’s dirty little secret and the realization that no one benefits from it.
To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail email@example.com, or call 477-4237.
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