February 7, 2018 marked the 10-year anniversary of Meacham Park resident Charles “Cookie” Thornton entering Kirkwood City Hall and shooting seven people, ultimately killing six, including the mayor, Mike Swoboda. Thornton was shot and killed on the scene by responding police officers.
Meacham Park is a historically black community, hemmed in by I-44, situated in the midst of an affluent, white town – Kirkwood. The relationship between Kirkwood and Meacham Park is a story that spans over a century. In 2015, Andrea Boyles, sociologist, author, and St. Louis native, tackled the intricacies of their shared history in her book, Race, Place, and Suburban Policing: Too Close for Comfort.
Boyles tells a story of suburbanization, differential policing, and hypersegregation in St. Louis County. Formerly unincorporated, Meacham Park was annexed by Kirkwood in 1991. Boyles writes of the annexation, “It was official: Kirkwood was now the parent community and Meacham Park, it’s colony.” Annexation required consenting votes, and Cookie Thornton was reportedly instrumental in securing a majority in Meacham Park.
Shortly thereafter, Kirkwood and Desco Group, an area developer, began planning a shopping mall that would span two-thirds of Meacham Park’s original land. Thornton was reportedly made promises as a demolition construction worker. His jobs never manifested, and from there Boyles paints a nuanced picture of how a history of already strained relations worsened.
As the anniversary passed, The St. Louis American interviewed Boyles, now an associate professor of criminal justice at Lindenwood University – Belleville, to speak about her work and the importance of telling the story of Meacham Park and Kirkwood. She began by reiterating the need to be cognizant and mindful of the families who suffered the loss of a loved one in Thornton’s shooting. From a place of sensitivity and empathy, then, discourse can hopefully continue to address the long history of racial division that plague both our region and nation.
The American: What made you choose to research and work in Kirkwood and Meacham Park?
Andrea Boyles: I desired to better understand black citizen/police conflict and had already been studying issues of race, policing, and inequity. And it just happened to be that events took place – the Charles “Cookie” Thornton shooting rampage and so forth – in Kirkwood. Being from St. Louis, I had an eye for what things looked like and meant at home. And from there, I wanted to explore the issues in a more personable and yet empirical way, again, because St. Louis is my home. I wanted to begin the conversation there and take what I would learn and expand it broadly.
The American: Did you find Kirkwood and Meacham Park to be emblematic of race and segregation nationwide or do they stand out as an outlier?
Andrea Boyles: They do not stand out as outliers. I think that they are a symptom of the broader society. What happened in Kirkwood is one of countless manifestations of underlying racial tension and structural inequity that exists nationwide. And that inequity has been institutionalized historically, but most people don't see it that way.
So, I know we have a lot of surface conversations, but as a sociologist that's where I make the break. I account for all of the dynamics at play: structurally, institutionally, systemically, and then taken together, what all those things have looked like historically. It's in that space that I go and explain conditions as interdependent and not occurring in a vacuum, so to speak. I think we disadvantage ourselves when we look at events as isolated. They are all occurring as symptoms of a widespread, historic set of issues – one on top of the other.
The American: In your book you pay specific attention to the people of Meacham Park. What's the importance of doing that when speaking about the region?
Andrea Boyles: Before I answer, I want to absolutely be respectful of these incidents I mentioned in my book. My heart goes out to the families that lost loved ones, and I'm aware of the fact that these families continue to hurt – on both ends of the spectrum.
Having said that, it's not that every voice doesn't matter, but I study populations that are marginalized. Much of my work is focused on populations that are silenced. I wanted to extend my academic platform to individuals who may otherwise not have space to speak safely. I wanted to account for Meacham Park's lived experiences. What do their everyday interactions look like in that community as one attached to a predominantly white location of affluence.
With the elected officials and the police: they always have a voice. They represent the state. They represent local government. What gets missed is the ability to capture those voices that are oftentimes assumed, or missed, or captured just by statistics. Through ethnography, I provide a fuller picture of mostly disadvantaged black citizen experiences beyond just the numbers.
I believe that numbers, in a way, can become comforting or comfortable. They are important, yes, but I think that it is necessary to hear the voices of the folks who are the least empowered and the most disadvantaged so we can see what those numbers mean and look like in everyday interaction. In doing so, we position ourselves to complete the picture.
The American: Chapter 4 covers in depth the tragic shootings with Cookie Thornton and before that with Kevin Johnson. What was your goal going into writing that chapter?
Andrea Boyles: To be clear, that chapter is not in any way meant to provide justification or credence to the actions of Kevin Johnson and Cookie Thornton. I do not legitimize what they did because I don't believe in resorting to heinous actions like that. But I wanted to provide a picture of what transpired leading into those shootings.
It's a disservice, in the spirit of reforming or really transforming our culture, to the families and all those involved, to limit the conversation to one day. To limit the conversation to those minutes and moments during the actual event. If we are to address these underlining problems we have to know how they came about.
My goal was to ask all the necessary questions in an attempt to provide the folks in Kirkwood, the St. Louis region, and even those around the country an account for how people can seemingly go from championed individuals, like Cookie, to doing what he did.
It was also about prevention. Uncovering answers and asking questions so that we would not have this occur again. We would have enough information to make evidence-based decisions politically and otherwise. Needless to say, as I was wrapping up the project and it was headed to print, we had Ferguson happen. These were all symptoms of social ills taking place beneath the surface.
The American: You write, "By examining policing in the aftermath of tragedies, we are afforded greater insight into how the consequences of a few in a black community can easily become that of all, and have lifelong ramifications for additional black citizen police interactions." Can you speak to that?
Andrea Boyles: What I'm speaking to is vicarious experiences. Vicarious experiences are often the kind black people are more likely to have. Which means, even for times they themselves did not have direct exchanges with law enforcement, they all could account for instances they've either heard about or saw. They then internalize or experience them as their own.
It only takes a couple of incidents or really bad exchanges in the community for them to become consequential to a lot of people. What happens in this story is that there were signs of trouble brewing. It's never about just one person who had a questionable encounter. It's an entire history of it. These are stories of police exchanges with black citizens that are accounted for from generation to generation. They are accounted for across neighborhoods, from one town to the next, from one school to the next, and so on. These are stories that have real-life implications for black citizens often found on the receiving end of aggression. These are cumulative experiences. They appear to be one or two, but no, they are all collective.
It's about all the exchanges that are happening in between the nationally profiled incidents. There's an ongoing series of exchanges that more often than not do not receive coverage. Those stories are processed and internalized in the minds of black citizens, and they always have been. These have far-reaching consequences and – in this case, with Cookie – the consequences happened to be a lot of loss. So we want to do everything we can to have as much information as possible to avoid seeing these things continue to transpire.
This also means critically thinking and asking hard questions like how can we create a society where people do not feel institutionally cornered and like they have no options or way out?