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Editor's Weekly: Danger signals for St. Louisans

Traci Blackmon

Like flares on a highway, some of the headlines that flashed by in recent days signal danger.

First came good news from Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. St. Louis labor unions have agreed to work 24-hours a day with no overtime to quickly build a football stadium. That's proof that St. Louisans can rise to the occasion – in this case, the perceived crisis of losing an NFL team – when we see that the region’s reputation and future are at stake.

Other recent headlines chronicled less heroic efforts related to Ferguson. Since August, when Michael Brown's shooting sparked worldwide protest, Ferguson has become the shorthand name for a genuine crisis of immense dimensions. The problems threaten not only our region's reputation but also the actual prospects of generations to come, here and around the nation. Yet there's been no clear, forceful plan of action like the one to meet the football threat.

On Monday, the Missouri arm of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission heard a litany of frustration. "I don't think relationships have changed between police and the community at all," said the Rev. Traci Blackmon, pastor at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Ferguson.

Brown's death at police hands set off the explosion of protest. But the fuse was laid by centuries of legally enforced discrimination in education, police treatment, criminal justice, economic opportunity and so on. Racial disparities that persist today are the legacy of this history. And unless we address them, they will continue to produce explosions.

Perhaps the very depth and longevity of the problems has inured us to their urgency. How else can you explain the business-as-usual wrangling recently over other Ferguson-related developments?

-- The Missouri House and Senate passed separate bills to refine the state’s student transfer program. But neither addresses the long term issues of school quality and inequality that led to the need for a transfer option to get kids out of failing districts. Brown graduated from Normandy, which is unaccredited.

-- Republicans moved to strip funding for Nixon’s new Office of Community Engagement, led by former state Sen. Maida Coleman. Coleman is one of Nixon's few African American appointees, and he created the post in the aftermath of Brown’s death.

-- Former St. Louis police chief Dan Isom, another African American Nixon appointee, resigned this week as head of the state Department of Public Safety. Isom wasn’t even confirmed until January. No one would talk publicly about what went wrong. But it's hard to imagine a scenario that does not hinge on frustration with  the way the governor’s office and other state leaders have approached the problems at hand.

Meanwhile, things continued to move more forcefully on the stadium front. The Inglewood, Calif., city council voted for a new stadium that could lure the Rams to Los Angeles. But Dave Peacock, one of Nixon's chief NFL problem solvers, remained undeterred. “As always, our focus is 100 percent committed to keeping the Rams here in their home of St. Louis and ensuring that we remain an NFL city for generations to come,” he told St. Louis Public Radio reporter Jason Rosenbaum.

In classic tragedies, characters’ flaws combine with forces and events beyond their control to wreak havoc. The audience can see disaster looming, but the characters are powerless to alter the inevitable.

This week's headlines flash warnings of tragedy in the making. Will St. Louisans and our leaders be wise enough to see the danger? Will we be resolute enough to forge a better way?

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.