Michael R. Allen
March 31, 2021
Some people have asked me to provide some commentary on the mayoral election, and to disclose my own vote. As a radical redistributionist, generally I have avoided public statements supporting candidates, of whom there are very little that are in close agreement with my own principles, although I have supported both mayoral candidates for other offices before. I think that an election that comes down to two driven female candidates, in which the Police Officers Association will not endorse either one, represents a remarkable step forward for St. Louis.
I am supporting Tishaura Jones in the general election, for several key reasons that I will expand here. Yet I also want to remind readers that we will all share the same city after the election, and that Cara Spencer’s inclinations are not some kind of political evil. We live in Missouri, where the dominant political forces are veering toward fascist authoritarianism. A weak and disorganized political scene in St. Louis only serves the statewide push to dehumanize those who will not adhere to a narrow white Christian nationalist agenda. In other words, don’t lose perspective over what Freud termed “the narcissism of small differences,” which drive late-night Facebook posts and Twitter wars.
Yet there are some real differences that are on my mind.
St. Louis lacks a radical political party, but the coalition of radical organizations supporting Tishaura Jones’ campaign suggests that we have reached a moment where the loose strategies branded as “progressive” in local politics have been replaced by specific material demands. The city’s largest public problem has been the long legacy of white racism, and thus the most radical politics here must be rooted in negating the effects of racism. The inability of “progressivism” to mete out ant real justice was on display with the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) project, where Black families were displaced in order to both line the pockets of a connected white developer and build an elite facility whose jobs are closed off to most of the city workforce. After the Ferguson uprising, amid many statements of allyship, white “progressives” (and Black establishment politicians too, of course) could not unite in defense of the latest instance of Black dispossession.
The real work of any truly progressive movement in the city is to make the demands of the part affected by such travesties as the NGA or police violence the demands of “the people,” that is, as a constituency that is as wide and deep as possible. A radical politics in St. Louis would make the politics of the one the politics of all, and discard the politics of a chain of minority-rule situations, where white economic and political power would remain unchanged by superficial reforms. St. Louis has not had a Black mayor in 20 years, nor a mayor dwelling north of Delmar Boulevard in 24 years. These facts matter. Dominant power sees north city as expendable geography at worst, or a capital opportunity at best. Liberation? Yeah right.
When the Organization for Black Struggle, Ethical Society of Police, F.I.R.E., Close the Work House Campaign and Action St. Louis join forces behind a mayoral candidate, and white allies are drawn in, one sees the possible formation of a coalition that might forge specific justice from the universal arguments of “progressive” St. Louis for change and equity. Clearly those sentiments have changed very little, as we see the Delmar Divide resurrect in income rates, mortgage origination and vaccination against COVID-19. As someone who wants to see universal sentiments about how government should work related to specific material relief for people excluded from power, I find Jones’ coalition of support impressive.
Tishaura Jones’ string of endorsements from sitting members of the Board of Aldermen has accomplished something new: A lineup that transects the Black Caucus and the white “progressive” camp, and especially unites the younger members of the Board. Watching years of the failure of the white members to find any common cause with Black Caucus members has been revelatory. The constant blaming of Aldermanic President Lewis Reed sometimes seems spot-on, but often self-serving and racially charged, as white members seem to expect visibility and relevance by virtue of being, well, themselves. I write this sympathetically, because the Board of Alderman has long been a stagnant body with no future focuses – but that started before Reed became President.
As for the endorsements from members of the Board of Aldermen, I won’t hold my breath that this signifies a smooth cascade of legislative victories ahead. Some of these endorsements are tactical, some are spiteful and some are personal. A Mayor Jones will need to push hard. Yet the crossover endorsements are a hopeful sign from a legislature that has been so polarized, to the detriment of all but special interests. Perhaps a Mayor Jones can also spearhead a redistricting process for the ward reduction that is equitable, fair and harmonious.
As for the arms of the various funders, from old political dealers, lobbyists, corporations, financial capitalists and the private school industry, which have funded both candidates and their Political Action Committees: We must be mindful of why they donate, and hold whoever wins accountable against influences. We must also see what kind of campaign finance reform is possible – an area where Cara Spencer has made some waves before. Again, however, the joining of the universal – money out of politics – to the specific – the white supremacist assault on Black people in the city – needs to occur to push real change. Reform without reformation will go nowhere.
American Rescue Plan Act
There is a lot to admire in Tishaura Jones’ plan for the American Rescue Place Act money. This may be the single largest area of activity and achievement for the next mayor. Jones is answering a long call by proposing direct relief, even while opening public input and not offering specific dollar amounts for any goals. The long call started during the Great Depression, when St. Louis’ government was the most frugal in the US providing direct relief. Unemployed and working class people occupied City Hall to seek greater input of local dollars to match federal dollars and create real relief. At a moment when the US economy is in its lowest moment since then, direct relief seems like the starting point to any use of these funds.
Jones also proposes funding for permanent rental assistance, as does Spencer. On this point, I hope that the beneficiaries will be renters and not landlords, as the current federal Section 8 program has failed to expand affordable housing but has continued to enrich private landlords. Section 8 should not be a model here. Jones also proposes targeted basic income, public wifi investment and resourcing for homeless people. All of these are solid investments in the public good, although her language about distributing these funds through private entities may need some explanation.
In contrast, Cara Spencer’s plan for the American Rescue Plan Act is detailed to the letter of expenditure. I have no problem with its goals, but can’t help but ask questions about a plan that provides more generous support to stabilizing vacant buildings than for individual college or trade school tuition. I want a world where this is not an either/or question, but the $500 million is finite and choices must be made. Providing greater funding for buildings than people privileges enhancement of fixed capital value over wealth attainment for working class people.
The emphasis on homeownership in Spencer’s plan also is laudable, but at a moment where meaningful employment is broken, enabling the attainment of debt instruments seems premature. The fragment of middle class left in the city struggles to break even with mortgage payments, while many other people have work situations that are precarious at best. Homeownership indeed is a path to wealth attainment, but even with subsidized assistance becomes a grindstone without any other input into the income of city residents. Critics of Jones’ basic income are crying foul over its association with neoliberal economist Milton Friedman, but providing cash to people is far better than only rewarding them for becoming instruments of real estate financialization.
Right now, in the midst of a dark economy in which real work is disappearing before our eyes, investment in people should come first. Eventually Spencer’s proposals around housing might make sense, after St. Louis bails out its people. I work in historic preservation, but I recognize that we must build the economic capacity for all people to have a healthy built environment.
The much-discussed exchange between Spencer and Jones over East St. Louis, while possibly the product of sensation-seeking media, told us all something about consciousness. I can excuse the interview comments that Cara Spencer made, because I have no idea what her full statement to the KMOX reporter may have been. Instead, the press release that her team distributed showed some disappointing narrative choices.
While the decline of East St. Louis affected many people white and Black, who lost the value of their homes as well as the quality of their city, its association with supposed political corruption and malfeasance in recent history is just wrong. Such an allegation excuses race as a factor in conditioning East St. Louis, namely the long efforts by white political leaders to dehumanize Black residents, resist their political power and, once Black leaders attained power, discredit their leadership through racist innuendo. Not to mention, is it not bizarre for any account of East St. Louis’ decline to omit the white-led racial massacre of 1917? While these tall tales make white people feel good about the outcome, because they are exonerated, they are fake.
Geographer Jason Hackworth writes that white conservative politicians need to invent narratives about how older industrial cities actually declined in order to maintain support for austerity measures, “emergency” governance like the dismantling of the St. Louis Public Schools that Spencer’s ally Vince Schoemehl helped oversee, oppressive policing and ongoing dispossession. Hackworth calls this “manufactured decline.” Many politicians still use this narrative about St. Louis, stoking white fears but also advancing plots of dispossessive capitalism such as McKee’s Northside Regeneration (which Spencer has rightly opposed). In fact, Spencer’s own “state streets” ward, where I live, has been dragged through the muck of this storytelling too.
Jones’ response was humane, realistic and grounded in acknowledging the experience of those people who do not benefit from the tall tales. Spencer’s press release remains startling to me, as a strong supporter in aldermanic races. If someone is pushing her to pick up the support of the reactionary white vote, it will backfire. That same vote propelled Lyda Krewson into office, and some of its membership immediately attacked her every step of the way, while rejoicing that Jones lost. That voting bloc’s goal is clear: To preclude the communing of the struggles of city residents, to squelch a racial reckoning, to keep things as they are no matter how many people suffer. This bloc is a cataract, though, and the people are a river. Neither candidate should be much concerned about the demands of a minority that views oppression as its only viable political strategy.