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Black Lives and Spatial Matters: Race-making and Resistance in Suburban St. Louis




Race-making and Resistance in Suburban St. Louis


Jodi Sheldon Rios

Doctor of Philosophy in Interdisciplinary Studies

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Stephen Small, Chair

On August 9, 2014, the spectacle of an unarmed Black teenager lying facedown on the hot pavement for four and a half hours epitomized for Black residents of North St. Louis County the experience of de-humanization they had long endured. With the same power of a public lynching, the spectral terror publically inflicted on Michael Brown’s body bore witness to the limits of the liberal state to deliver ‘freedom for all.’ The events of August 9 also reinforced a centuries-honed logic of differentiated rights that relies on the production of racialized space and bodies through physical, political, and economic violence.

The draconian practices and acute experiences of racialized space in North St. Louis County were operating long before Michael Brown’s body lay on the pavement. However, the events that sparked ongoing protests and global debates following Brown’s death illustrate why it is critical to study places like North St. Louis County, which is an extreme example of how both racist and liberatory projects operate in and through space. Here, subjugation and liberation are produced at the intersection of stigmatized Black space and the ‘white spatial imaginary’ of suburban normativity. These practices provide important insight into how black subjects are maintained as well as how blackness repudiates the claims of liberal humanism. While relationships between the ‘work of space’ and historical modalities of race-making are clearly operating in North St. Louis County, a radical form of resistance with the potential to challenge anti-Black paradigms was also birthed in this area.

This project asks: What work does race do to produce differentiated sub/urban citizens, and with what effect? The transdisciplinary approach used for this research is a project-based methodology that operates outside of traditional disciplinary norms to research intimately interconnected phenomena. Multiple qualitative and quantitative methods and analytics for the collection, analysis, and synthesis of data were used over a ten-year period. The research design expanded to adopt additional methods based on findings throughout the process. The combined dataset includes research carried out while I was a faculty member at Washington University, including eighteen in-depth interviews with residents and leaders of North St. Louis County prior to 2010 and twenty-five interviews with residents of the city of Pagedale between 2005 and 2010. The data were also derived from more recent research, including 105 intercept interviews with residents of North St. Louis County between 2014 and 2015 and thirty-nine interviews with core members of the Ferguson Protest Movement. Participant observation was used at more than fifty meetings and events between 2003 and 2015 and throughout extensive time spent in this area. Historical data were collected from over forty archives, and a large amount of statistical and legal data were collected from public records, including an extensive data request from twenty-five municipal courts through the use of the Missouri Sunshine Law.

Spanning twelve years, this research investigates the degree to which race, municipal autonomy, and regional contestations over power, resources, and space, are intimately intertwined through formal policies and informal practices in North St. Louis County, often with devastating consequences. This work also considers how multiple forms of state violence are normalized for the purpose of legitimizing municipal governments, perpetuating hierarchies of power, and policing Black bodies for profit. North St. Louis County provides important evidence regarding how discursive space and lived experience are deeply interdependent and how definitions and expectations of space determine the opportunities and limitations of residents in metropolitan areas. While the evidence documented in this work reveals the dire circumstances Black residents of North St. Louis County live with every day, the dynamics of place and people converged on August 9, 2014, to spark a social movement that is uniquely connected to the particular history and experience of Black residents in this area. Leading the way were Black women and queer of color protesters who claimed the street and their bodies as locations of struggle. These protesters contribute to a new iteration of the fight for human liberation in fundamental ways that have not been fully recognized in the national discourse concerning social movements (like Black Lives Matter). As such, North St. Louis County can be viewed as both a location of devastating oppression and as an example of extreme practices of freedom.

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