We saw the first sign just a few blocks from my mom's house. What initially startled us quickly turned surreal as we began to notice other handmade signs, staked into lawns I have been riding past since I learned to peddle a bike:
I (heart) Ferguson
We were driving down the relatively safe streets of Florissant, Mo., heading to the home where I grew up. It was Labor Day weekend, and there was cause to celebrate as we visited friends and family and took in a Cardinals game at Busch Stadium.
St. Louis has always been about bragging rights for me: my beloved Cards, the Arch, awesome gooey butter cake, toasted ravioli.
But all is not right here, as the rest of the world has seen since violence exploded on the streets of Ferguson last month, and I found myself face to face with reality. That's where I grew up: in a town that shares more than its suburban borders and school district with Ferguson. Deep roots of segregation, racial tensions and resentments grip this heart of the Midwest.
Now, I found myself standing on those troubled streets. Nerves were raw as protests still raged over a young black man's killing. But it still felt like someone else's news, someone else's distant problem.
... Until I drove along West Florissant Avenue, the main boulevard that has been the site of most of the protests and clashes with police since the shooting of Michael Brown. I rode on that same boulevard every day for four years in the '70s, on my way to Lutheran High School North.
This time, I saw the ruinous signs of poverty and racism. Had they always been there? For several blocks along West Florissant, stores were boarded up after nights of vandalism and looters. At least two fast-food joints and convenience stores had burned down. Graffiti oddly served a purpose, tagging some of the boarded-up businesses that were actually open.
... Until I stood in my old backyard, and remembered the year that tall wooden fence went up. The neighbors' home had gone up for sale, and a black family was interested in buying that house. And the fence became taller than kids could peer over.
That sale never happened. The black family who did eventually move in became dear neighbors of my white parents, helping them through many aging crises over the years. But decades have gone by, and Florissant and Ferguson remain some of the most segregated suburbs in America.
Dial back exactly 50 years ago this summer, and the headlines were eerily similar. Riots broke out in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Pennsylvania, sparked by confrontations between black residents and their predominantly white police forces. Harlem exploded. Philadelphia exploded. Chicago exploded.
In 1962, when I was in the second grade, Kinloch exploded. That's another St. Louis suburb, another town that borders Ferguson, and it's predominantly black. Last month, National Public Radio's "Code Switch" reporters researched the Kinloch riot, drawing parallels to the Ferguson case. The Code Switch effort is auspicious: "We're a team of journalists fascinated by the overlapping themes of race, ethnicity and culture, how they play out in our lives and communities, and how all of this is shifting."
According to the scant news clippings the NPR reporters found, a black police officer shot an unarmed 19-year-old black man. Parts of the town were set on fire, and buildings were razed. NPR found an Associated Press headline and short story on the Kinloch riots: "8 Fires Set In Negro Suburb Of St. Louis After Shooting." It apparently warranted only about four paragraphs in the New York Times.
Fast-forward to the Ferguson violence. Will this time be different?
Perhaps the world of social media will help force real change this time. We watched Ferguson burn in real time, we gasped as armed troops marched through the streets in riot gear, we saw real people stand up for what they believe in -- again and again. Hashtags #Ferguson and #MichaelBrown went viral -- not just in the U.S., but around the world.
Now, back in Bradenton, I wrestle with this unfiltered view of my childhood, and where it should take me. What will my grand-nieces and nephews recall when they stand in their great-grandparents' backyard in Florissant years from now?
We must build on compassion and understanding, like those simple signs on the lawns.
And maybe, just maybe, we can knock that fence down.
Joan Krauter, the Herald's executive editor, can be reached at 941-745-7070. Or follow her on Twitter @JEKrauter (and be prepared for some Cardinals' game retweets!)
COMING NEXT SUNDAY: Mary Ruiz, CEO of Manatee Glens, writes about when "back to school" means becoming an empty-nester -- it's personal, and it's not easy.)