The Great Divide
I grew up in an idyllic town. Young parents move to Kirkwood, Missouri to get the best possible education for their children. Although some mothers work, the typical nuclear family dynamic still prevails. Our neighborhood’s safety is celebrated. We ignore stories which contradict the carefully constructed narrative of our security. Pedophile and kidnapper Michael Devlin lived ten minutes from my house. Tales of police profiling spread by word of mouth, but are quickly quashed. Since our 1991 annexation of Meacham Park, a primarily black neighborhood, tension between our communities went undiscussed. Of 27,500 citizens, only 1,991 identified as African American according to the Census Bureau. Until Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton expressed his frustration on February 7th, 2008, Kirkwood happily ignored the racial imbalance at hand.
That night, from the window of a Chinese restaurant on Kirkwood Road, my parents and I observed a police car speeding by. Seconds later, two more police cars went screaming past in the same direction. Three ambulances. A firetruck. Four more police cars. All from different precincts. My dad sighed. “A cop’s been shot.” He was right, but there were more casualties than he predicted. A former paramedic/firefighter of 10 years in Lemay, he knew a large quantity of rescue vehicles traveling to one location could only mean one thing. What he couldn’t predict from the procession of emergency response vehicles was how Cookie Thornton, a 52-year-old black man from Meacham Park, walked into a public City Hall meeting boasting two handguns, one of which he took from Sergeant William Biggs’ body after fatally shooting the off-duty officer outside of the scene of the confrontation (Six Dead In…). Thornton took the lives of four instantly, injuring two more. Mayor Mike Swoboda was shot twice in the head, but lived for seven more months before dying of complications of the gun wounds (Holland). From the time Thornton started firing to the time he was shot and killed by police, a minute and 13 seconds passed. City Council members recall being passed over for City Attorney John Hessel, who slowed Thornton down by throwing chairs in his path (Giegerich). Hessel was not killed. Police got to Thornton before he could empty the last of Biggs’ Smith & Wesson .40 caliber handgun (Cooperman).
Three years prior to the City Hall shooting, Sergeant Bill McEntee was shot by then 19-year-old Kevin Johnson of Meacham Park. The story I heard growing up was a police officer (a good guy) was mercilessly gunned down by an angry black teenager (a bad guy). The narrative told the story of McEntee talking to a 13-year-old boy who was in trouble for setting off fireworks on July 5th. In Kirkwood, fireworks are illegal. As McEntee was talking to this boy, Johnson pulled up in a car, shot McEntee twice, injured the boy, fleeing from the scene without motive. This story, however, left out McEntee’s relationship with Meacham Park. In the weeks after the altercation between Johnson and McEntee, a south St. Louis building was tagged with the phrase “No tears for McEntee!” (Rogers). The Sergeant had a long, fraught relationship with Meacham Park. The events of July 5th served as a reminder of how the Kirkwood Police Department treated its black citizens. 90 minutes before Johnson shot McEntee, Johnson’s 12-year-old brother, Joseph Long, collapsed and died of heart failure in his Meacham home. Johnson was wanted for a parole violation (Cooperman). The police saw Long on the streets. Knowing he was Johnson’s younger brother, they harassed him to try to find Johnson’s whereabouts. Fearing for his brother, Long ran home even though he had a severe heart defect to tell the boys’ mother the police were looking for Johnson. When the police arrived and began interrogating Johnson’s family, Long went into cardiac arrest.
Thornton’s City Hall shooting was not entirely unexpected. A proud resident of Meacham Park, Thornton lead philanthropic events to improve the area and frequently mentored Meacham children. However, Thornton was convinced the City of Kirkwood was out to get him because of his race. At the time of his death, he was labeled mentally unstable by newspapers. Thornton had been handcuffed and forcefully removed from City Hall multiple times. He made sandwich-board signs he hung on his body while standing outside of John Hessel’s office in 2005. The signs read “Slaves again, slaves again, why oh why in Kirkwood are we treated like slaves again” (Deere). (Hessel reported asking Thornton what the signs were about. Cookie allegedly refused to answer, pushing Hessel away and telling him, “I’m not giving you anything”). Cookie’s brother, Gerald, saw another side of the story. “When we grew up,” Gerald told reporters, “we were told to stand for the protection of our rights. You are supposed to go through the courts, use the system” (Cooperman). Even if many of Thornton’s allegations against City Council seemed to come from a place of delusion, the larger, systematic treatment of African Americans in the United States corroborates his story. How can a black man, trust a system which promises to uphold his rights when the basis of our society was founded on him not having any?
The relationship between Kirkwood and Meacham is best summarized by a quote from local restaurant co-owner Bill Friedrichs. When interviewed about Thornton, Frederichs told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch “If they think that the only way to deal with these issues is through these means, there’s a tremendous lack of understanding in that community, in Meacham Park” (Jadhav). What does it say when the owner of a local business separates “that” community from Kirkwood’s? Even though we attend the same schools, shop at the same stores, many from Kirkwood still see the annexed area as “other”, and undeserving of the benefits of living in Kirkwood.
The day after Thornton’s shooting, the Meacham Park Neighborhood Association met to try to understand Thornton’s actions. Elder Harry Jones of Men and Women of Faith Ministries in Meacham told the audience “there is something that took place over time, and perhaps it could have been avoided. There has always been a great divide between Kirkwood and Meacham Park” (Tragedy In Kirkwood…). Thornton was aware and angry at this divide. From the mid 1990’s onwards, Thornton lead a crusade against City Hall. The crusade focused on Thornton’s accusations of discrimination in the form of parking tickets, fines, and an unwillingness by the elected officials to work with Thornton.
In a statement to the press, Thornton’s wife, Maureen, argued Kirkwood stood in the “aftermath of events that have been going on for more than eight years [between her husband and the city]” (King). Racking up fines totaling $20,000 as well as 100 tickets assigned for various misdemeanor charges by 2001, Thornton believed he was being unfairly singled out as a black man with a construction business. While his machinery was illegally parked in Meacham, “Cookie had figured he was ‘grandfathered in’” from being prevented from parking his equipment in a residential neighborhood after the neighborhood’s annexation. Before being annexed, Meacham saw no issue with Cookie’s heavy machinery being stored on public property. The Kirkwood police did. Many identify those tickets as the beginning of the end for Thornton. Although the officials at City Hall tried to reason with Thornton, going so far as to strike up an offer with him in 2002, telling Thornton as long as “he agreed to start obeying the law, Kirkwood would forgive the entire $20,000,” Thornton turned down the deal (Cooperman). As a matter of principle, he had to find a way to prove he was wronged by authorities.
The night Johnson shot McEntee, the trauma a sibling must process could have been enough to set Johnson off in a semi-suicidal rage. Investigators later learned Long’s death was not as unpreventable as originally thought. In a court case between Long’s mother and the police searching for Johnson, the sordid details of Long’s death surfaced. Johnson’s family was ordered out of the house by police when Long lay dying on the floor. Blocking the mother’s path back into the house stood 6-foot-5 McEntee. Rather than trying to revive Long, the officers conducting the search “admitted under oath that they walked around and over the child and attempted no life-saving efforts during the house search” (Rogers). Under a St. Louis County Prosecutor, the officers looking at 21 years of jail time for intimidating witnesses in Meacham while investigating McEntee’s death managed to reduce their sentences to six months and misdemeanor charges (Rogers).
After killing McEntee, Johnson took off and a three-day-long manhunt ensued. When his family negotiated his surrender, the case prosecutor told the press “”Everything was done as professionally as it should be,” and it was “a personal relief for me to at least have him in custody prior to the day [McEntee’s family] had to go through the funeral. I’m sure it was a comfort to everyone involved” (Ratcliffe). Surely, everyone involved was not comforted. Johnson’s mother now had to grieve the loss of one son while trying to hold out hope the justice system would treat Johnson fairly. The prosecutor sought out witnesses to determine if he could push for the death penalty for the teenager.
The death of Michael Brown came as a shock to those in my neighborhood. Kirkwood turns a blind eye to racist remarks of neighbors. A powder keg ready to explode at any moment, the disjointed communities of African American citizens and under trained, underfunded white police officers throughout St. Louis erupted after Officer Darren Wilson was found not guilty of murder. After shooting Brown, St. Louisains wanted answers. White family members of mine posted online about how Brown was a criminal. They, as well as many others, had no issue with Wilson acting as judge, jury, and executioner.
After Ferguson, I left for my first year of college. From St. Louis, my dad texted me links about Darren Wilson’s fate when my mom went out for the night. I learned more through these texts about my dad’s time in the Lemay Fire Protection District than I ever knew before. Alone in the house, it seemed my dad’s texts were an attempt to absolve himself of his memories of the treatment of Lemay citizens by some of his ex-coworkers. The guilt he felt about not intervening during his time on the force traveled through the screen. “I should’ve done something,” he once told me. “I weep for Michael’s mother. I just don’t know what I can do.” I’d commiserate in this odd cocktail of guilt and helplessness, sending him links to GoFundMe accounts to help with the bail costs protesters incurred. Over winter break, my mom brought up the texts. “Don’t you think it’s a little odd? He talks like he’s going to do something but he hasn’t donated anything I know of. He’s definitely not protesting.” I wanted to give him credit for his concern, but she was right. We both talked a big game about caring for racial equality, but neither of us did anything substantial to fight against the system which failed to convict Wilson. As the Black Lives Matter movement gained more strength speaking out against the injustices people of color must live through, my dad and I remained silent. Complacent. We were unsure of where to go, or what to say, so we waited.
Reading the report of how McEntee and the rest of the Kirkwood Police Department treated citizens they swore to protect nauseated me. I hadn’t put any thought into McEntee’s death from the summer it occurred until now. I understood police officers put their lives on the line daily, and this case seemed fairly straightforward. Someone feels anger towards the police, expresses it, and pays the price. This was not the case. While researching, journalist Jamilla Rodgers ends her story on the toxic relationship between law enforcement and Meacham on a hopeful note, “The American justice system gets another chance to prove itself.” Perhaps this time, the jury would take into consideration McEntee’s role in the events leading up to the shooting. Maybe just this once, the jury could weigh if a life in prison would help rehabilitate Johnson into a productive citizen, or if incarceration would simply shove Johnson into the recesses of our collective memories, allowing us to move on but not fix the problem at hand.
I had forgotten the details of this case. I had forgotten the name of the prosecutor. It didn’t seem important to me. Robert “Bob” McCulloch. The same Bob McCulloch who lead the prosecution over the shooting death of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson in the summer of 2014. I didn’t know that by the time Bob McCulloch –whose own father was killed in the line of duty when McCulloch was 12– presented the facts of Michael Brown’s fatal interaction against Darren Wilson, the prosecutor was already notorious for seeking out harsh punishments against those accused of harming police. When McCulloch presented his set of facts for the interaction between Johnson and McEntee, many involved knew Johnson’s fate long before McCulloch started talking.
In St. Louis, police were caught chanting “Whose streets? Our streets” at protesters of the 2017 verdict acquitting Officer Jason Stockley of the 2011 murder of Anthony Lamar Smith. The same chant the police yelled was used a month earlier at the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia. While Mayor Lyda Krewson denounced the chant, it seemed as if she couldn’t even control her own interim police Chief, Lawrence O’Toole. After a particularly violent clash between police and protesters, O’Toole told interviewers the “police owned tonight” (Chen). Krewson tried to denounce this sentiment, as well, but O’Toole had a point. Even after audio footage of Officer Stockley pursuing Lamar Smith, telling his partner, “I’m gonna kill this motherfucker” surfaced in court, Stockley walked free (Cowen). Knowing they are free to do almost anything does seem to give officers a sense of ownership over the streets they patrol. Stockley is no longer a part of the police force, but his racial sentiments exist in other precincts.
Kirkwood lives in a dream-like state. Within a city wrought with racial strife, we try to forget. We push the past behind us. We hope that by ignoring it, we can fix our problems. Kirkwood is rare. Children still play outside on their cul-de-sac streets. Most houses are historic, dating as far back as the 1800’s, but yearning for a simpler time comes with consequences. In 1998 Linda Lockhart, a black woman, and her husband settled in Kirkwood, and were given a neighborhood Trust Agreement and Indenture of Restrictions. Amongst the normal rules for yard maintenance, one clause stuck out: “no building shall at any time be occupied by Negroes or Malays, except in the capacity of bona fide servants or employees” (MuniCourts). These offensive laws managed to stay on the books 133 years after the official abolition of slavery. Until that time, it seems, no one read the codes carefully. Or, if they did, they didn’t want to risk offending neighbors settled in their exclusion and dominance.
As the ten-year anniversary of Thornton’s death approaches, nearly everything remains stagnant in my small town. A few Black Lives Matter signs are scattered in yards of more liberal homeowners, but tend to be quickly removed by bored high school students on late night drives as they kill time. Until St. Louis passes sweeping reform to excavate the entrenched racism within their police force, the environment breeding hate and misunderstanding in Kirkwood will remain. Students from Meacham who are repeatedly told how grateful they should be to attend school in a highly rated district will report hatred that falls on deaf ears.
After Johnson was placed under arrest, a bench for McEntee was erected in Kirkwood Park. Not long after its construction it had to be taken down. Vandals were defacing it in a multitude of ways. The anonymous desecrations spoke of McEntee’s hateful relationship with the Meacham residents. The city quickly learned not everyone was eager to remember the Sergeant as the soccer coach and father of three his obituary depicted him as (Currier).
In 2008, Kirkwood made the national news two days in a row. The first, reporting on Thornton’s acts against City Hall. The next day, outlets reported on the candlelight vigils being held in the plaza across the street from the site of the shooting. Former Kirkwood High School principal Franklin McCallie spoke to the crowd about the need for Kirkwood and Meacham to unite as one. A close friend of Thornton, McCallie took an active interest in every student, regardless of race. Residents came together momentarily, trying their best to enforce McCallie’s message. Within months of Thornton’s death, however, no new legislation came about in the community or within the school to build connections and compassion in the disjointed town.
The racial divide and lack of communication between black and white students of Kirkwood has existed for years. As I started compiling details of Thornton’s case, I came across a 2005 essay written by Katie Moritz, a KHS student, who spoke about the self-segregation of the school district. She blamed the separation on a term she coined: “comfort-zone disease”. In her essay, she urged the district to devote a year to improving interracial relations by holding workshops in homeroom which would hopefully cause students and teachers alike to be more conscious of what they’re saying about those around them. More than just promoting a racially diverse and harmonious school district, Mortiz hoped, by building understanding between divided groups, the district could use her suggestions to close the drastic achievement gap between black and white students (Courtaway). Almost ten years after Mortiz wrote her essay, my honors and AP classes were full of students who looked like me. Even though students after Mortiz had ideas as to how to desegregate the school, no transformative measures were taken by the district. During my high school career, there were –at most– two minority students in any given advanced course I took. When teachers discipline you more than the white student next to you, or prescribe to stereotypes about how you’re going to act, why bother trying to prove them wrong?
This “comfort-zone disease” permeated almost every moment I spent at Kirkwood High School. As a white student, I could carry on without noticing the microaggressions which students of color had to deal with daily, from other students and teachers alike. It wasn’t until I got older that I started to understand that I had to excavate my own internalized racism in order to understand our society. Study after study shows how school districts with black teachers can reduce low-income African American boys’ probability of dropping out of highschool if they have a black mentor by 39 percent (Kamenetz). Without a role model who looks like the students, a majority of minority students from the 80,000 public schools surveyed in one study discussed a lack of interest in school, as well as feelings of ineptitude and hopelessness when it came to their educational future (Boisrond). During my time in the Kirkwood district, I can count on one hand the African American teachers I had. Most students at my school fit into the mold of black or white. We had a few Asian students, adopted by single mothers or pro-life parents who put their money where their mouth was, but 75 percent of the high school demographic were white, another 17 percent black (Best High Schools…). It was clear some teachers felt unsure of how to teach minority students. A few white teachers reached out and touched black students’ hair. Kirkwood exists as a microcosm of white America’s fear of its minority citizens, especially African Americans. We exist happily amongst acquaintances of our own race and fail to question the lack of representation on our streets. White teachers ignore students’ cries to be heard as they speak out about the racist tendencies our current school system allows. We have little to no desire to try to introduce programs to help humanize the ones we have criminalized in the past, and until we do so, the comfort-zone disease which infected our community will continue to thrive.
Boisrond, Carl. “If Your Teacher Looks Like You, You May Do Better In School.” NPR. NPR,
29 Sept. 2017. Web. 24 Oct. 2017.
Chen, Joyce. “St. Louis Mayor Denounces Police Officers for Taunting Chant.” Rolling Stone.
Rolling Stone, 20 Sept. 2017. Web. 23 Oct. 2017.
Cooperman, Jeannette. “The Kirkwood Shootings: Kirkwood, Meacham Park and the Racial
Divide.” St. Louis Magazine. N.p., 25 Apr. 2008. Web. 11 Oct. 2017.
Cooperman, Jeannette. “The Kirkwood Shootings: Why Did Cookie Thornton Kill?” St. Louis
Magazine. N.p., 24 Apr. 2008. Web. 09 Oct. 2017.
Courtaway, Robbi. “Students Must Leave “comfort Zones,” Essay Winner Says.”Stltoday.com.
N.p., 18 Oct. 2006. Web. 22 Oct. 2017.
Cowen, Trace. “White Ex-Cop Who Said ‘I’m Going to Kill This Motherf*cker’ Before Killing
Black Man Acquitted.” Complex. Complex, 15 Sept. 2017. Web. 23 Oct. 2017.
Currier, Joel, and Bill Bryan. “From 2005: Slain Kirkwood Officer Coached Soccer, Was Father
of Three.” Editorial. St. Louis Post-Dispatch 07 July 2005: n. pag. Stltoday.com. 22 Aug. 2013. Web. 10 Oct. 2017.
Deere, Stephen, and Doug Moore. “Charles Lee ‘Cookie’ Thornton: Behind the Smile.”
Stltoday.com. N.p., 31 Mar. 2014. Web. 08 Oct. 2017.
Giegerch, Steve. “City Attorney: I Had to Fight for My Life.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 09
February 2008, n.p.
Holland, Elizabethe. “Swoboda Loved Kirkwood; It Loved Him Back.” Stltoday.com. N.p., 16
June 2010. Web. 11 Oct. 2017.
Jadhav, Adam, and Jake Wagman. “Reaction Suggests a Deep Racial Divide.” Newspapers.com.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 09 Feb. 2008. Web. 23 Oct. 2017.
Kamenetz, Anya. “Having Just One Black Teacher Can Keep Black Kids In School.”NPR. NPR,
10 Apr. 2017. Web. 20 Oct. 2017.
King, Chris. “Tragedy in Kirkwood: What Drove Cookie Thornton to Kill?” St. Louis American.
N.p., 14 Feb. 2008. Web. 23 Oct. 2017.
“Kirkwood, MO.” Data USA. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2017.
“Kirkwood Sr. High.” U.S. News & World Report. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Oct. 2017.
MuniCourts. “Cookie Thornton – Unjust Reaction to an Unjust System.” Free Self Help Legal
Information for Missouri Residents. N.p., 02 Mar. 2017. Web. 11 Oct. 2017.
Ratcliffe, Heather. “From 2005: Suspect Charged with Murder in Kirkwood Officer’s Shooting.”
Stltoday.com. N.p., 22 Aug. 2013. Web. 11 Oct. 2017.
Rogers, Jamala. “Mistrial of Kevin Johnson.” St. Louis American. N.p., 05 Oct. 2017. Web. 10
“Six Dead In Missouri City Council Shooting.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, 07 Feb. 2008. Web.
10 Oct. 2017.