Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Getting Beneath the Surface of Things

Reflections on the Clock Tower Accords
and the Accomplishment of Conventional Ends Through Unconventional Means

Daniel Monti
Department of Sociology and doctoral program in
Social and Public Policy

Saint Louis University

I can’t claim any special insight into the workings of Fred Pestello’s brain or soul. I take him at his word when he describes his reasoning for sitting down with the “Occupy SLU” crew that camped out at the clock tower this past October.

Some persons have embraced his words and the sentiments they reflect. Other persons have disagreed strongly with what he did and has said about the protesters and the so-called “Clock Tower Accords” that emerged from his discussion with them.

All I can say with certainty is that at some point discussions about the temper and direction of race relations in this country become deeply personal. Pestello certainly sounds as if they are for him. I know they do for me.

My formal training in race relations began in 1959 in the company of my mother, while we were standing in the lobby of the train station in Miami, Florida.

Not that I could have done a damn thing to protect her, but I put my ten-year-old self between my mother and the white people who glared at her as she made a fuss over the young black woman carrying her brand-new baby. The main terminal was spacious, and one might not have seen the disapproving looks or been inclined to ignore them as one would the sideway glances of any passerby. But there was anger in the white faces I saw that day that even an inexperienced child from Jersey could decode. 

My mom, congenitally warm and welcoming, didn’t have a clue that she was crossing a line that wasn’t supposed to be crossed. But I sure did. My mother did her admiring thing for the new mom, who was beaming, and the baby, who was admittedly pretty cute. I stood guard.

This was 1959, as I already mentioned, a mere five years after the landmark Supreme Court decision that was supposed to let black kids go to school with white kids but fell well short of fulfilling that promise. I was a good student even then, and I’d been given permission to play hooky so that I could visit my grandmother who had been ill. My grandparents were driving up from Key West, which I’d soon learn was a lot farther from Miami than Maywood was from Penn Station in New York City where my dad had gamely waved goodbye after barely managing to hold onto my younger brother when he stepped into the space between the platform and the train. I don’t think my mother stopped crying until we passed through Baltimore. I felt badly for her, but that didn’t keep my face from being plastered on the window of the train car. I’d never seen so many wooden tenements or so much in-your-face poverty. The place looked like it had been bombed or was waiting to be bombed. But it was all new to me, and since my little brother hadn’t gotten squished I figured it was okay to watch over the slowly passing scene instead of my mother.

These were the waning days of a still segregated South that wasn’t any more prepared for desegregation than I was for it. The drive from Miami to Key West was an education in itself. I didn’t know who Earl Warren was or why people had put up so many billboards demanding that he be impeached. But I figured he must have done something really bad once someone told me what “impeach” meant. I waved at the black men who were dressed in striped uniforms and sitting on a flat-bed truck, and they waved back. I only figured out who they were and what they were doing on the road after we passed another group of prisoners working along U.S. 1. I visited segregated bathrooms and restaurants, saw ramshackle sheds masquerading as homes, and watched my grandmother pay a black field hand a quarter for one of her cotton balls so that I could see where my shirt came from. I took a drink from the wrong water fountain and remember giving my grandfather a disbelieving look when he got down on one knee to explain to me why people were staring at me disapprovingly. He stood guard over me when I went back to finish my drink at the wrong water fountain.

I came of age in a period of social upheaval and cut my intellectual teeth on civil rights, civil disobedience, and civil unrest, the last two of which seemed oddly named and at times ill-suited to accomplish the first. These were confusing and sometimes violent times. The world was changing in unexpected and not easily explained ways. Studying the unexpected and trying to make better sense of the inexplicable would become my life’s work.

I uncovered a previously unrecognized pattern in protests and controversies that precede riots. I unpacked the logic of school desegregation disputes and reforms in Saint Louis and came to appreciate the cultural significance of making a big fuss over small changes. I saw more value and progressive potential in redevelopment campaigns such as the one promoted by Saint Louis University than critics of gentrification saw and returned to Saint Louis in part to chronicle their longer-term impact on the city that had taught me so much. I studied gangs in suburban Saint Louis County decades before the accumulated tension of bad cop-and-kid confrontations erupted in Ferguson. In Boston, I found resilience and unity in Americans’ civic lives that had somehow eluded both frustrated leftists, who can only see half-empty cups riddled with unpatched holes, and bitter right wingers, who bemoan new ideas and conventions that turn out to be a lot more conservative than they are prepared to recognize or acknowledge.

Closer to the end of my first career than the beginning, I see there is much good news and cause for celebration. The white-and-black world we struggled to change is much better mixed today. I never had to drop to one knee and explain to my sons why they couldn’t drink from a particular water fountain, had to shun black acquaintances, be rude to a young mother, or have to do a thousand other inexcusably stupid and indefensible things because our “race” was lighter and putatively brighter than theirs. 

There’s also bad news or at least more I-can’t-believe-we-haven’t-gotten-past-this-yet news than some of us expected to be dealing with at this point in our lives. Progress has come slowly and in smaller bits and pieces than many persons would have preferred. The life chances of Black Americans are perceptibly better than they were a half-century ago but still not as good as they are for many white people. Black people aren’t humiliated in public like they used to be, but they are still more likely to be harassed by cops and mistaken for robbers than the average white person is.

Which brings us back to the reason why we are here today: debating the plusses and minuses of some decisions that Fred Pestello probably never imagined he’d be making when he showed up for his new job in the summer of 2014. Still in his first months on campus, he had to deal with an unexpected mess occasioned by street dramas in which the players – cops and black teenagers – showed how little they’d learned about reading the streets they both claimed to own but really belong to all of us.

The taking of a life is no small matter. But when the lives of certain kinds of persons are taken in bunches, taken violently, and by persons we expect to protect and not shoot us, then we’ve got a problem that requires more than a knee-jerk response and dismissive wave of the hand. This is the kind of situation that can’t be ignored or managed away, especially when it’s been unceremoniously dumped in your lap and you’re the new guy in town.

I find myself oddly situated as much by chance as by choice to comment on the situation Pestello had to deal with: a small event that has taken on meanings far weightier than any of its participants might have expected. The so-called “Clock Tower Accords” were hammered out during a six-day campus sit-in or camp-in this past October by an energetic group of “outsiders” and their student allies with the university’s new president. The 13 elements of the agreement they reached, most especially the proposal to erect some kind of art work commemorating the moment, have been widely debated and criticized by some students, alumni, and concerned outsiders.

I was not party to those talks and before now have not commented publicly on them or about the initiatives that are supposed to be coming in the near future. That does not mean that I am indifferent either about the pledges that were made or about the larger questions they raise. Several of my students were involved with the camp-in, though I am not certain how much. Undergraduate and graduate students in two of my classes this semester are working on a survey of businesses in Ferguson. This project is being conducted in collaboration with Ferguson town officials who are likely to add several questions of their own making to those the students suggest. The results of that work will come in too late to be reviewed in class this semester but will be shared with Ferguson officials and the business people we survey.

The complaints about the “Clock Tower Accords” and President Pestello’s engagement with the on-campus protesters, as best as I have come to understand them, go something like this. He didn’t have them booted out at the beginning of their protest. He let them stay on campus for a number of days without consulting with key stakeholders. He listened to their demands and let them use university property to camp on and university bathrooms to, well, do bathroom things in. He committed the university to making contributions to several existing and new academic programs and community initiatives. Finally, and most controversially, he’s going to have another expensive piece of bad yard art erected on campus: a sculpture that will valorize the protesters and defame the police.

On the bad side, some alumni have threatened to reduce their contributions to the university, perhaps to the point of ending them altogether. On the good side, Pestello tried to answer these critics and calm his constituents. Supporters on the Board of Trustees talked with parents and university boosters. Some students made a short film that supports the president. A portion of the faculty, a number of whom opposed the last president and celebrated his departure, penned petitions and proposed that the new president be commended for the dialogue he fostered.

That’s where we stood at the time I was writing this essay in mid-February. Events may have changed by the time these words are published. People may have calmed down or, for all I know, become even more strongly committed to commending and condemning the president. More likely than not, people on both sides of this controversy will have begun the hard work of making sense of the events that transpired on and off campus. They also will be talking about how much Saint Louis University changed because of the way Pestello chose to handle the hotheaded outsiders and students who pitched their camp in the middle of the campus.

My undergraduate students made a preliminary pass at these matters in papers where they tried to place the protests and violence in Ferguson into a larger historical and cultural context. While they didn’t address directly events in the City of Saint Louis, what transpired on the Saint Louis University campus was an important point of comparison for what happened elsewhere in the city and in Ferguson.

The irony was not lost on them that police officers allowed noisy and vandal-minded protesters to leave the attractive residential blocks and business area in the Shaw neighborhood so they could march up Grand and onto the campus. But they tended to view what had happened in the Shaw area and what happened on the campus as separate events. More importantly, but not surprisingly, they entirely overlooked the greater damage that might have been done to the city’s cultural center just north of the campus on Grand had the marchers bypassed the campus.

The protesters found a convenient place to hang out and make impassioned but non-violent demonstrations on campus. They removed themselves from the street where they’d already shown a willingness to engage in much louder and more destructive demonstrations. The vandalism that took place in the Shaw neighborhood didn’t happen on campus or in the arts district.

In matters involving civic unrest, the focus on loud public displays and violence is understandable. Expressive and theatric performances on the streets or in other public venues are unexpected and can be off-putting, especially when accompanied by violence. They are not normal in a statistical sense because of their infrequency. They are not normal in a normative sense because conventional actions and values may be scorned or held up to a harsh and very public light. People behave in uncustomary ways, often to excess and seemingly oblivious to what other people think about them. Rules are broken and the act of breaking them is usually flaunted. The seeming anonymity afforded by a crowd allows people unknown to the community to participate with little or no concern about being publicly identified and ridiculed.

Civil unrest is disturbing to more conservative-minded men and women because it embodies their worst liberal fears. Restrictions on who can be a member of the community are lifted and openly challenged. Customary ways of speaking and behaving in public are ignored. Rules that people have embraced for a long time are broken and flaunted. All of these factors were in play in Ferguson and to a lesser extent on the campus of Saint Louis University.

But my students also drew attention to more conservative impulses that were on display in Ferguson. Local people spoke against outsiders who had come to their community with the intention of causing trouble. Organizations involved in protests tried to work with officials to limit the amount and expressions of misrule, even to the point during confrontations of identifying people who were bound and determined to act violently. Local adults and young persons helped to remove rubble from streets and buildings that had been damaged. They carted off broken objects and swept up shards of glass and metal. People contributed money that would be used to rebuild stores and support people whose livelihood had been trashed along with the building in which they worked.

These same conservative impulses were exhibited out on the grounds of Saint Louis University and enshrined in the Clock Tower Accords. Talk of both a principled and practical nature was carried out almost from the beginning of the camp-in. Rules for proper public decorum were stretched but not abandoned or repudiated. People remained accountable for their public behavior and speech. Resources pledged under the agreement would go to established academic programs. Efforts would be made to retain students that administrators would have wanted to retain anyway. Community-based initiatives of the sort that dozens of faculty members and many more students from across the campus had long been supporting quietly and subsidizing on a shoestring would be enhanced.

And then there’s the sculpture.

It will be built and take its place among many other statues already on campus: semi-robed young people sitting in splendid isolation, saltwater dolphins trying to escape the confines of a freshwater fountain, Native American supplicants, and several representations of an imp-like figure that’s said to resemble either a much beloved coach of a team whose sport is no longer played at the university or a fanciful creature concocted during the American "Mind-Cure" craze at the start of the 20th century which is supposed to capture a "no worry" ideal embraced by mediocre students everywhere.

That is, unless, it isn’t built, in which case the new statue will take on the same iconic significance of former President Larry Biondi’s long-awaited appointment to an as yet undefined administrative post on campus.

The heated rhetoric and exaggerated displays that accompany street protests and violent confrontations between hopelessly mismatched antagonists usually end a lot more quietly than they start. The accommodations both sides make allow them to go on living together much as they had in the past and at the same time call what they accomplished “progress.”

I have seen much progress made in race relations during my lifetime. Most of it was accomplished by individual men and women who figured out how to live better together while  their fellow countrymen were hollering at each other, making new rules that would be carried out half-heartedly, and erecting monuments few of them ever took the time to visit.

I don’t care whether a statue is built and probably won’t give much thought to its larger meaning on any occasion I happen to pass it. What I care very much about is living up to the code and values embraced by a university dedicated to the careful weighing of ideas and the pursuit of higher goals than I will likely see reached in my lifetime.

By that measure, what Pestello did was both principled and politically astute.

Welcome to Saint Louis, Fred.

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