We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and imagination, but we can’t do it without you. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Among the most iconic images of our time are the photos taken last Monday of Mark and Patricia McCloskey, armed on the front lawn of their St. Louis mansion as Black Lives Matter protesters pass by. If the McCloskeys, who are wealthy personal injury lawyers, are ever charged with a crime for brandishing their weapons at the crowd (at the time of this writing, it seems unlikely), they plan to invoke the castle doctrine. This legal principle allows property holders to use violence to protect themselves and their possessions from those whom they deem threatening. In the case of the McCloskeys, the castle doctrine has a certain uncanny metaphorical specificity, for the house the McCloskeys defended was designed and decorated to look like a castle, specifically an Italian Renaissance palazzo.
St. Louis is divided by gates such as the one on Portland Place. These blockades, tools of policing and segregation, are designed to make passersby feel like intruders, under constant observation.
The McCloskeys have owned the house for about thirty years, and have lovingly restored it. As they proudly relayed to a reporter in 2018, One Portland Place boasts an Aeolian organ with thirty-eight-foot-long pipes recessed in the walls, a dining room fashioned after the Pitti Palace in Florence, and a forty-five-foot-high rotunda overhanging a marble horseshoe staircase. The McCloskeys were apparently enjoying dinner and a pitcher of sangria beneath six fourteen-foot-tall Breccia Violetta marble columns when the arrival of the crowd on the sidewalk in front of their house spurred them to run barefoot onto their lawn and start waving their guns—his, an AR-15, with which he swept the crowd (and often aimed at his wife), and hers, a bespoke .22—fingers on triggers. In the process, the art lovers created an image that for future historians is likely to be as emblematic of our era as Anthony van Dyck’s 1632 Portrait of Anthony van Opstal (which hangs in the McCloskey’s house) is of the Flemish Baroque.
The demonstrators were a large crowd of St. Louisans who were cutting through Portland Place on their way to a demonstration in front of the nearby house of St. Louis mayor Lyda Krewson. Krewson, for her part, had on Friday used Facebook Live to read off the names and addresses of a dozen or so citizens who had presented her with letters suggesting that she close the city’s notorious medium-security Workhouse (the name, like so much else in this story, a relic of the past, as soon will be the Workhouse itself, which was ordered closed by the Board of Alderman in the aftermath of the McCloskeys’ armed tantrum) and cut the budget of the city’s police department, whose officers annually shoot more people on a per capita basis than any other police department’s in the nation. St. Louis is a city in which prominent protesters receive frequent death threats, and so Krewson’s actions were seen—even by those who thought they were stupid rather than murderous—as reckless perhaps to the point of being fatal.
When the crowd turned the corner onto Portland Place, it passed through a small gate, one that Mark McCloskey would soon refer to as marking the boundary between “protest” and “revolution.” The St. Louis metro area is full of such boundaries, a palimpsest of racial capitalist division stretching back to the era of segregation, restrictive convenants, and redlining. The city is divided from the county, which is itself cut up into ninety or so smaller cities—many of them relics of a period in which starting a new city was a way to insulate suburban whites through the use of exclusive zoning, occasional violence, and, of course, the police. The North Side of the city is divided from the South Side by Delmar Avenue. North of Delmar, the city is 95 percent black; south of Delmar, it is almost two thirds white. North of Delmar, the average house is worth about a fifth of a comparable house on the South Side. In some neighborhoods north of Delmar, the average life is eighteen years shorter than the average life a few miles away in the suburbs. Virtually every measure of social well-being breaks along the Delmar divide: access to broadband, rates of childhood asthma, number of pedestrians hit by cars, on and on. The divide, indeed, is even visible from space. So great is the economic decline and hardship on the North Side that many of the house have fallen in on themselves and been torn down. On a satellite map, the area looks green.
And the city is divided by gates such as the one on Portland Place. The best estimate is that 285 of the city’s streets are closed off, the means varying from ornamental wrought iron gates to the more common rows of giant concrete balls, called bollards, seen all over the North Side. The gates and bollards are tools of policing and surveillance, designed to regulate the flow of automobiles and pedestrians to the patterned separations of the segregated by dividing its space into small neighborhoods in which outsiders would feel unwelcome.
As the St. Louis urban planner Oscar Newman—who originated the defensible space theory—put it, the blocked off streets of the city were designed to make passersby feel like intruders, “under constant observation.” Through the 1970s and ’80s, Newman successfully sought to generalize to the entire city and then the nation the sensation of hypervisibility and social vulnerability that he remembered feeling on Portland Place and the other gated streets of St. Louis’s Central West End.
In explaining himself, McCloskey took pains to establish that he is not racist, which tells us something about the way property functions as both the vessel of racial capitalism and its alibi.
The original gated neighborhoods of St. Louis were laid out and populated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Portland Place in 1888. Their first inhabitants were the merchants and industrialists of St. Louis who were riding a wave of imperial economic expansion: a commercial empire being driven by the U.S. Army and the railroads through Indian Country; trade and investments stretching deep into Mexico at a time when the Mexican National Railway and most of the oil refining capacity in Mexico was owned by a resident of Vandeventer Place, another of St. Louis’s gated streets. This is a time that is often remembered as the city’s apogee, the years around the 1904 World’s Fair (the fairground only a few blocks from Portland Place), but it was also a time of fierce conflict in the city. In the 1877 General Strike, an army of working people, black and white, briefly controlled the city, styling it “the St. Louis Commune.” The 1900 streetcar strike ended with a bloody massacre of strikers by hired guns on Washington Avenue. There were riots between white soldiers and Filipino Scouts who had been brought to St. Louis to be exhibited at the World’s Fair. It was also an era of “curbside justice” in the St. Louis Police Department, which W. C. Handy, the father of the St. Louis Blues, remembered as particularly indiscriminate. And it was the dawn of the era of residential segregation in the city, which passed one of the nation’s first segregation ordinances in 1916, the year that One Portland Place was completed.
W. E. B. Du Bois referred to this era of U.S. history as “the dictatorship of property,” and it is the historical context with which we must begin if we are to understand the gate on Portland Place. It is a marker of imperial, racial, and class conflict: a defensible space cut out from the space of the city, where the plunder of empire and capital could be redefined as private property and civilization. A sanctuary for whiteness and for privilege. In our present day, the residents of the street are beholden to their own homeowners association, have a board of trustees, and pay fees to maintain the street, its linear park, and the gate—never mind the myriad ways in which the houses along the street are connected to the public both below ground (water, sewer, utilities) and above (fire department, police, public schools). All of that historical violence and exploitation compressed down into a wrought iron gate flanked by a small sign declaring that Portland Place is “Private.”
Like the police riot we have witnessed over the past month, the wild-eyed McCloskeys, screaming and waving their guns, recall the violence of past that is generally diffused throughout the physical space of the segregated city. The crowd coming through the gate, Mark McCloskey told a reporter, made him think that the “revolution” had come to Portland Place, it was like the “storming of the Bastille,” he was afraid they might “loot” his house and kill his dog. Though the protesters did not even so much as set foot on his lawn, once they set foot on Portland Place, they might as well “have been in my living room.” Such, for McCloskey, is the power of property that it provides moral justification for threatening, with an AR-15, passersby for the infraction of having passed through a gate.
In explaining himself, McCloskey took pains to establish that he is not racist, and his explanation tells us something about the way that property functions as both the vessel of the accumulated history of racial capitalism and its alibi. Of course, McCloskey assured a reported, he believes that black lives matter—or, at least, that he is not “anti–Black Lives Matter.” It is only that property must be defended. On Portland Place, the wrought iron gate marking the boundary between “protest” and “revolution” turns out to also mark the boundary between the symbolic disavowal of the racist history of the United States, and the actual willingness to address the ongoing material history of plunder and property. It is of that history that we should think when we look upon the McCloskeys, furious revenants come to remind us of the violence and plunder that it took to put up their gate. It is with property that we much reckon if we are to begin to set things right.
Walter Johnson teaches history at Harvard and is the author of The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States, Soul by Soul: Life Inside in the Antebellum Slave Market, and River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Mississippi Valley's Cotton Kingdom. His autobiographical essay, “Guns in the Family,” was included in the 2019 Best American Essays; it was originally published in Boston Review, of which Johnson is a contributing editor. Johnson is a founding member of the Commonwealth Project, which brings together academics, artists, and activists in an effort to imagine, foster, and support revolutionary social change, beginning in St. Louis.
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Racial redress should be modeled on the global anticolonial tradition of worldbuilding.
Robin D. G. Kelley and Bongani Madondo honor the writer’s life, work, and legacy.
The militarization of gun culture among both civilians and police reflects an increasingly energetic defense of white rule in the United States. This has been facilitated in part by an NRA-led reinterpretation of what the Second Amendment meant by “militia”.