Avoiding Ferguson's fate 

City Sage

White cops, black men. White workers, black workers. White workers, Asian workers. The narratives, places and images change, but the cultural texts barely shift. Rock Springs (Wyo.) 1885, Detroit 1943, Watts 1965, Detroit 1967, Cincinnati 2001, Oakland 2009, Ferguson 2014.

Wikipedia lists about 100 major "race riots" in the United States since the early 19th century, and many less dangerous events. Until the second half of the 20th century, local police forces at worst were passive enablers who bore little responsibility for intercommunity violence.

The 1885 Rock Springs Massacre, for example, took place when white immigrant miners attacked their Chinese counterparts. The Union Pacific paid Chinese workers substantially less than whites and employed the Chinese as strikebreakers. White miners feared for jobs and, like most of their peers, viewed Chinese people as members of an alien, subhuman race.

On Sept. 2, 1885, an armed mob of more than 150 men marched on Rock Springs' Chinatown and brutally murdered at least 50. Many more were beaten and robbed, and the entire settlement was burned to the ground.

Federal troops sent to Rock Springs arrested 16 alleged perpetrators, but all were released after a grand jury returned no indictments. No person was ever convicted of any crime.

Such confrontations often erupted from competition for jobs and housing between ethnic groups. But by the 1960s, armed mobs of white workers no longer directly threatened minority neighborhoods. Instead, local police became symbols of state-sanctioned oppression, as at Selma and Montgomery.

In the Midwest's fading industrial powerhouses, another narrative emerged. Descendants of African-Americans who had fled the rural South in the Great Migration found themselves stranded, jobless and poorly educated, stuck in urban ghettos. There were no jobs to fight over — jobs, like the white men and women who once held them, had fled to suburbs.

Half a century later, the facts on the ground haven't changed. Stuck in decaying, crime-ridden neighborhoods and targeted by police tasked with keeping order, many jobless young black men lead precarious, resentful lives.

It can't happen here, can it? We're not Ferguson. Our present economic woes are transient. Growth will soon resume, infill development will revive South Academy Boulevard and southeast Colorado Springs, and we'll be back where we belong. Move over, Fort Collins, Denver, Boulder and Omaha! Watch the Olympic Museum rise! Stand aside and marvel as dozens of new projects pop up citywide! Take flight, lark bunting! The city's official bird once again will be the construction crane!

There's another scenario. Military funding and resources flow away from Fort Carson during the next decade. The city loses thousands of jobs, severely affecting the depressed southeastern quadrant. Jobs become even scarcer, stranding large minority populations in rundown complexes and blighted areas. City tax revenues decline as public safety needs multiply. Neighborhoods destabilize as those who can afford to leave, do so. Gangs multiply, as do encounters between police and suspected gang members.

Are we prepared for such a future? Probably not. Residents of the safe, leafy neighborhoods of the southwest, northwest and northeastern quadrants have little contact with poorer residents even in today's relatively prosperous times. So what will happen when tensions escalate, and we're exposed every day to the competing narratives of confrontation?

Will we side with the cops? The stranded poor? At that point, it won't matter — we'll be Ferguson West. Would we want that? Ask yourself: Would I want to move to Ferguson?

It's fine to send pleading postcards to the Pentagon, but such actions are merely symbolic. Avoiding municipal devolution will take concerted, powerful action. Side with the doers, not the disputers. Elect builders, not nitpickers. Contribute, don't complain (complaining is my business!). Work to unite, not divide. Find a worthy nonprofit, and volunteer your time.

OK, it's cheesy and cliché-ridden, but that separates successful cities (and individuals) from their less fortunate peers. You make your future — you don't rely on the Pentagon, El Pomar or our rich Uncle Phil Anschutz.

They have wars to fight, charities to fund, and businesses to build. We have a city to preserve and enhance. That should be enough.


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