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Kirkwood's Journey: Nearly three years later, some are still looking for answers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Almost three years have passed since Charles "Cookie" Thornton attacked the Kirkwood City Council in one of the deadliest assaults on a government body in modern American history.

In a two-minute fusillade on the evening of Feb. 7, 2008, the high school track star turned charismatic community leader turned town pariah murdered five city officials before he was killed. A sixth official, Mayor Mike Swoboda, was critically injured and died several months later.

Despite the passage of time, the community has reached no consensus as to why Thornton, a lifetime resident of the black enclave of Meacham Park, killed the white city officials. No consensus on whether Kirkwood has a race problem. No consensus on whether Kirkwood annexed Meacham Park in the 1990s to improve things or to exploit the land. No consensus on whether the redevelopment of Meacham Park more than a decade ago improved the neighborhood or destroyed the village to save it.

In those three years, Kirkwood has been through funerals, commemorations, community-wide meetings and a U.S. Justice Department mediation.

During the year after the shootings, a group of several hundred people — the Community for Understanding and Healing — came together in meetings to discuss race and white privilege. Now, the website for the group has gone silent.

For two years, city and community leaders met in the Justice Department mediation that resulted in an agreement to strengthen the city's human relations and police-community relations. The agreement has led to reorganization of the town's Human Rights Commission and promoted more ties between police and youth in Meacham Park. But the agreement did not address systemic inequities and left leaders of Meacham Park feeling dissatisfied and betrayed.

A series of focus group meetings held in Meacham Park this past September to follow up on the mediation process attracted a tiny turnout. The three meetings drew a total of 35 people — 20 of them young people who attended one meeting and, according to those present, said they wished adults in Meacham Park behaved more like adults.

Nothing in the mediation agreement dealt with ingrained disparities in the employment of African-Americans in the police department, City Hall or the public schools. The police department, for example, has no black supervisors.

A year ago, the new superintendent of schools, Thomas Williams, promised black teachers that recruitment would be a priority. At that time, Kirkwood High School had only two black teachers out of 118. Today it has two out of 119. A year ago, the Kirkwood School District had two black administrators out of 26. Today the number is the same. A year ago the district had 22 black teachers out of 393. Today there are 21 out of 389.

A student still has a good chance of going from kindergarten to high school graduation without having a single black teacher in an academic subject.

The Queen of the Suburbs

Life in Kirkwood feels safe and comfortable. The old railroad town turned wealthy suburb is known for it churches, its tree-lined streets and its confident hold on the good life. Some call it the queen of the suburbs; others call it Camelot.

So it was shocking and incongruous when Thornton burst into a City Council meeting and began shooting city officials.

Before the bitterness that preceded the shooting, Thornton was an actively engaged and widely respected citizen. A popular track star at Kirkwood High, he reached easily across race lines and encouraged integration of Kirkwood with Meacham Park. He strongly favored the redevelopment project that others in Meacham Park saw as a land grab.

Friends remember his gregarious greetings praising the Lord. Many of Kirkwood's leading lights attended Thornton's wedding to a local teacher. Less than a decade before the killings, Mayor Swoboda presented Thornton with an award for distinguished service to the city from 1995-2001.

How Thornton went from engaged to enraged, from elementary school tutor to murderer, is a complicated story that defies standard narratives. How Kirkwood has sought to address a race problem many of its citizens do not perceive, is a 21st-century story about the lingering effects of race in the "post-racial" society.

One would think that a community such as Kirkwood — where pride and civic engagement are widespread, where resources are available and where reason is respected -- could work through differences and difficulties.

But finding the truth is like trying to decipher the indistinct reflections of reality on the walls of Plato's cave. Perceptions often overpower facts.

One reason for warring perceptions may be the sharp racial, economic, educational and other disparities between Meacham Park and most of the rest of Kirkwood. Census maps show that residents of Meacham Park and the rest of Kirkwood look at life through very different demographic lenses. Meacham Park is mostly black, has the fewest college graduates, the fewest high-income earners and the least valuable houses in Kirkwood.

Warring Perceptions of Reality

The City Hall shooting and the town's efforts to address race may have occurred while the country was electing its first African-American president. But they show that the problems of race have followed us into the 21st century.

When a reporter asked Mayor Art McDonnell and Police Chief Jack Plummer whether Thornton's assault had been reported as a hate crime, the mayor quickly answered that it wasn't about race, it was "dinero" — in other words, that Thornton's motivation was monetary.

The record suggests that McDonnell is both right and wrong. Thornton had refused the city's offer to settle long-simmering disputes over traffic and zoning violations unless the city paid him several hundred thousand dollars for perceived violations of his rights. But the placards Thornton had carried to city council meetings for years and those that police found in his home after the shooting were filled with slogans about racism and plantation politics.

McDonnell, a genuinely affable man who runs a small grocery in town, has tried hard to reach out to Meacham Park believing that problems will be solved by making new friends one at a time. But Meacham Park leaders say he and other city officials don't understand.

A year ago, McDonnell got himself in hot water by saying that Kirkwood didn't have a race problem and that the city could have done without the Justice Department's mediation.

Earlier this month, McDonnell said that he was glad the mediation process had been completed and that it had generally found the city didn't have major problems.

"When this first started, I wasn't an enthusiastic participant. But as it went on and the more we worked on it, I thought we as a community had to be proud that we stuck it out. ... Not many communities would have participated in this. We really wanted to find out if we had any problems.

"I think we don't have a big race problem in our community. I think we found out (in the mediation) that we didn't have a real deep hatred of one another like in other places."

That denial of a racial problem angers Meacham Park's leaders and puzzles some leading white leaders in town.

The Rev. Scott Stearman of Kirkwood Baptist Church reacts this way: "I see that in print again and again and I think what are these people thinking? I just don't get how you can say that Thornton's actions were not racially related. .... I have been very supportive of the mayor, but that just speaks of some denial."

Mediation — inadequate or successful?

William F. Hall, an adjunct political science professor at Webster University and spokesman for the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association, said this month that this attitude of white leaders at City Hall is "either just ignorant of reality" or shows they "have never taken the time to determine what residents of Meacham Park think."

Hall, who himself has served as a mediator for the Justice Department's Community Relations Service, called the mediation in Kirkwood woefully inadequate.

Hall criticized the service's regional conciliation specialist, William Whitcomb of the Kansas City office, for not appearing in person when the results of the mediation were presented to the Kirkwood community last winter. He also said the mediation plan was flawed by a "lack of specificity and demonstrable quantitative methods" of assessing success.

The Kirkwood website contains a checklist of mediation goals that have been accomplished. Chief Plummer says he is making progress on setting up a small police office in an abandoned church in Meacham Park. He also is setting the groundwork for an innovative program where Meacham Park youths will serve as peer judges for minor offenders. And the chief relies on his monthly meetings with community ministers to keep in touch. The idea is to get black and white ministers together, but no black ministers were present at the last meeting this month.

One of the mediation's main reforms was a new computerized complaint system. The system is in place, but the mayor says it hasn't received any complaints.

The most substantial change so far has been remaking the city's Human Relations Commission. Its members have received training and its membership has expanded.

The extent of the disconnect between the city and Meacham Park over the mediation is evident from their different understandings of the lightly attended focus groups held in Meacham Park in the fall. Hall and Harriet Patton of the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association said they had not understood the focus groups to be part of the mediation process.

The Rev. David Bennett, the minister at Kirkwood United Methodist Church, has been heavily involved in the mediation process and in reaching out to Meacham Park. He helped organize the focus groups and said that they were aimed at changing things in the future, not rehearsing past grievances.

"There is this kind of looking backward where we keep coming up with the same problems. We are trying to shift from asking the city to take care of everything to helping the residents take ownership for the community. The largest focus group was the youth group where they said we wish our parents would act more like parents."

But Patton and Hall are not ready to let go of past grievances. "The ultimate goal is to take the land," says Patton. Hall adds that the community fears that the fence that sets off the remainder of Meacham Park from the commercial development will be removed and the stores will expand.

"The feeling of tension is palpable that the fence is going, that all of Meacham Park is going ultimately, that the commercial development will take over all of the land, that it is just a matter of time," said Hall who made the analogy between the shrinking of Meacham Park and what has happened to other black enclaves,  such as those in Brentwood and Kinloch

There is no evidence that Meacham Park is threatened. But the concern grows out of the 1990s redevelopment that ate up much more of the community than it was supposed to, provided residents with fewer jobs than promised and displaced many residents who never returned. Yet that is the same redevelopment that provided elderly Meacham Park residents with new apartments and provided long-time residents with funding to fix their houses.

One girl's plea

A few weeks ago, the revamped Human Rights Commission announced the winners of its 11th grade essay contest. Emilie Willingham's first place essay encapsulates the situation that Kirkwood faces.

Willingham wrote that she loved Kirkwood so much that she had to try over and over to write the essay on racial problems because she considers herself "colorblind." But as she worked on the essay, her eyes opened. "I've come to realize that my blinding optimism about my awesome hometown had kept me from seeing that people are hurting right here in my town."

When she, a young blond girl with blue eyes goes into a store, she is seen as a "good customer," she wrote. But when her African-American friend goes in the same store he is seen as a "shoplifter." She can walk by a city park at any time of the day or night, but her friend is stopped by police.

She said she was sorry that some people in Kirkwood "don't have a voice." "My promise to Kirkwood is to understand more about white privilege, to help educate our community about being colorblind, and about all that awaits us when we see Kirkwood through a new lens -- a lens that helps us see people as people, not a color."

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

William H. Freivogel is a professor in the Southern Illinois University's School of Journalism, a contributor to St. Louis Public Radio and publisher of the Gateway Journalism Review.