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Editor's Weekly: A Thanksgiving For Harsh Realities

Shells of used cars are all that remain after they were destroyed by fire during a night of turmoil in Ferguson Nov. 25.
Bill Greenblatt | UPI

The bleak reality of St. Louis this Thanksgiving casts the holiday in shadows deeper than any I can recall – save one other year.

Those shadows harbor our region’s flaws – recent and longstanding, absurd and epic, unwitting and unforgivable. Since Aug. 9, these shortcomings have been on display in stark silhouette against the unrelenting spotlight of international media attention.

Nothing that happened this week is likely to soften the harsh image that has come to represent St. Louis to the rest of the world. Nor should this week ease our own apprehensions about the difficulty of the problems we face.

On Monday, St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced the grand jury’s decision not to charge Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. The grief and outrage this set off was raw and deep. Monday night, these feelings erupted in protest. Then protest gave way to arson, looting and gunshots.

Gone with the smoke from West Florissant Avenue was our latest exercise in wishful thinking – that the civic unrest of November would play out with less violence and more free expression than the civic unrest of August.

Since Brown’s death, St. Louisans have begun to confront other self-delusions as well. If you’re white, as I am, your wishful thinking may have included a tendency to ignore or dismiss certain inescapable facts of life for African Americans. Among them:

  • African Americans are disproportionately likely to be stopped, jailed and killed by police.
  • African Americans are disproportionately unlikely to enjoy the benefits of good health, good schools, safe neighborhoods and economic security.
  • Racial inequities persist even though overt discrimination is no longer legal or acceptable.

In other words, the system that many whites have good reason to trust gives many blacks good reason for suspicion. This truth applies nationally. Michael Brown’s death and #Ferguson brought it home.
On the day after the grand jury decision, the nation buzzed with debate about the process, the findings, the implications and the response by protesters and authorities. One press conference stood out for me. In it, a phalanx of Ferguson’s civic leaders, black and white, sounded painfully free of wishful thinking. Their voices cracked with emotion as they acknowledged the many ways Ferguson is hurting. They called on God and their fellow citizens for peace, unity and the resolve to move forward. They asked people to stop pointing fingers and to start looking in the mirror for answers.

I can remember only one other Thanksgiving that evoked such despair. That was in 1963, right after President John F. Kennedy was shot. The tragedy shook our national sense of well-being – and for my generation, then in our teens, our personal sense of the world as a safe place.

But of course, the world is not safe. Nor does it conform to anyone’s wishful thinking. Events this week reminded us again that life is fragile, family and community are precious and the future for all of us is intertwined with progress for each of us.

If we can take those realities to heart, then that would be something to be thankful for this week – a solid foundation on which to build changes worth celebrating in Thanksgivings to come.

Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.