Is the story of Cookie Thornton a story about race? Not to the white officials who were involved. “I do get upset when I hear some of the comments made suggesting he’s a hero,” says Kirkwood city attorney John Hessel. “I’m afraid that it is a sad commentary on our society. There are certainly some theories that “He’s a hero” is coming out of the video game era where killing is OK.’” Not a radical black activism that sanctions violence? “It might be some of that,” Hessel says dubiously. “I guess I’m blinded by that because I have never viewed this issue with Cookie Thornton as being a racial issue. I know he portrayed it as a racial issue. And he must have perceived it in some way as a racial issue. I have found on occasion that people keep saying the same thing over and over and come to believe what they are saying with such fervor that it doesn’t matter what is the reality. Their perception has become reality, and if they say it often enough, others will accept it as well. But we even had other members of that Meacham Park community—African-Americans—talk with Cookie.”
After the tragedy, many worked to close the gap between white Kirkwood and black Meacham Park, with a white minister even offering to hold Thornton’s funeral in his church. But white mothers whispered at play dates that they weren’t quite sure where Meacham Park was; angry black men called Thornton “a patriot for the people”; whites were heard saying things like “I talk to the black people all the time” or “It’s just black people in Meacham Park”; and residents there relived the entire history of Kirkwood’s relationship with the small, strapped black neighborhood it annexed in 1992.
So is the story of Cookie Thornton a story about Meacham Park? Yes and no.
“People are trying to make this a Meacham Park–against–Kirkwood situation, but Cookie Thornton was not about that,” says Kirkwood mayoral candidate Art McDonnell. “Cookie Thornton was a single individual with a single purpose. What happened had nothing to do with Meacham Park.”
Except of course that Meacham Park was where Thornton lived and ran his business and volunteered to make things better. “Cookie had anguish built up in him for the neighborhood,” his friend Chuck Reynolds Jr. told The New York Times. And more practically, the proposed demolition of more than half of Meacham Park was the reason he bought extra equipment and started having financial problems.
If Cookie Thornton had been a financially successful white Kirkwoodian, the impasse might have played out differently. And if Meacham Park had a calmer history with Kirkwood—and the Kevin Johnson shooting hadn’t raised so much racial tension in 2005—the events that led up to the massacre might have played out differently, too.
No one will ever know.
On July 5, 2005, Kevin Johnson heard that the police had answered a call when his little brother collapsed—and spent more time looking for Johnson, wanted for parole violation, than helping his little brother.
“I know Kevin did wrong,” says his great-grandmother, Henrietta Kimble, “but I get a heavy heart when I think of it. I told Kevin he would have to take care of Bam Bam ’cause I was getting old and couldn’t get around. I think Kevin felt that he had let me down.”
Kimble had “raised up eight or 10 kids” (eight of her own plus two adopted) in Meacham Park. She’d been married three times—“I made a vow that no man was going to run over me; if he didn’t do good, I’d get rid of him.” But she was alone when she heard 12-year-old Joseph “Bam Bam” Long come home gasping for breath. She says he told her the police had been chasing him, saying he knew where his big brother Kevin was.
Bam Bam had a congenital heart condition. When he collapsed, the family called 911. From her wheelchair at the window, Kimble watched the Kirkwood police outside and decided they were more interested in finding Kevin than in saving his little brother.
What she doesn’t know to this day is whether Bam Bam was already dead. But Johnson didn’t ask for a chronology. That night he shot and killed Sgt. William McEntee, who had come to Meacham Park to answer a firecracker complaint. Helicopters circled Meacham Park with searchlights.
“Bill’s murder raised the tension in the neighborhood unbelievably,” Plummer says, remembering how fast rumors turned into motives and perceptions and—for some—a reality hard as granite. For a while there, he couldn’t win. At a big Meacham Park meeting, kids were yelling at him about how the cops treated them, and an older woman, just as mad, yelled, “You tell these kids to get off the street!”
Plummer says his biggest problem now is the media: “The people they put on television are the handful we have trouble with, and they appear to be speaking for Meacham Park. One of the reporters said, ‘What can we do to help?’ and I said, ‘Stay the hell out of Meacham Park.’”
He still hears people saying that, since McEntee’s murder, they’re afraid of police retaliation. “There hasn’t been any,” he bursts. “I call it chasing ghosts. People tell me things, and I find out they happened 10 years ago, but they’re talking about it as though it were yesterday.”
People on both sides forget that more than 70 percent of both Kirkwood and Meacham Park had voted for annexation. By that time, Meacham Park, an unincorporated section of St. Louis County, desperately needed services. It had begun as a semirural town, with dirt roads and outdoor privies but its own churches, grocery stores and restaurants. It was self-contained and self-run—but it was falling apart. “I was with the St. Louis County Police before the annexation,” Plummer says, “and we were patrolling it. There was a huge Section 8 apartment complex, and we’d end up sometimes with hundreds of people roaming around. We had a lot of trouble with drugs and guns, people blocking the streets and not getting out of the way.” Unincorporated, with about 375 vacant properties, Meacham Park was a convenient dumping ground for anything the county didn’t want elsewhere, residents say, and not only did they have their own troublemakers, but soon outsiders were coming in to deal drugs and party.
In 1990 the U.S. census showed a population of 1,031, 97 percent African-American, with an average income of $14,609. In the 2000 census, Kirkwood’s population was 91 percent white and 7 percent African-American, and its families had a median income of $72,830.
“Kirkwood beautified this place, made our homes more modern and fixed up the streets, and I’m really glad,” says Kimble, who’s lived in Meacham Park for 70 years. “But there’s more to livin’ than just that. Yeah, the houses are nice, but we are stacked in here on top of each other now.” She says Kirkwood’s rules contradict the old, easygoing ways: “Didn’t matter to us where Cookie parked. I used to run a little place where the kids could go and sit down and have a burger; I had pinball machines in there, and we kept the kids busy. Now they close up the park at 8 o’clock, and they shut down a little place where the kids could get candy. The kids were so proud of that little candy store. What have our kids got now?”
A really nice park—put in by Kirkwood, city officials point out promptly. The park closes at sunset, as most parks do in Kirkwood; in the winter months, Kimble says, that leaves kids with nowhere to go. The Kirkwood Community Center’s just a mile and a half away, Kirkwood residents point out—but to kids in Meacham Park, it feels like it’s in another world.
Residents initially asked for assurance that the community would remain primarily residential, but after a Meacham Park community study was done, a plan was made that eventually turned over roughly two-thirds of Meacham Park to commercial development. TIF (tax-increment financing) pumped $17 million into the project and added—by an agreement Hessel believes was the first of its kind in the nation—$4 million for improvements to the residential side of Meacham Park. Kirkwood bought houses at market rate—residential, not commercial—and offered to build new houses of higher value for those who stayed. Only six families took the city up on its offer.
In 1992, when the annexation took effect, Meacham Park’s population was 1,028. Four years later, after the buyout, the population was 737.
Nobody made it too clear—in fact, nobody knew—what annexation would mean to the culture of Meacham Park. “I really believed that Meacham Park was going to become like every other neighborhood in Kirkwood,” Hessel says. “It would no longer be African-American; it would be like every place else, it would be mixed, and no one would care.”
Ah, but people would care. Blacks have lived in Kirkwood since the Civil War, and in the early 1900s they clustered in Meacham Park, which became one of the only solidly black communities in the country. In the beginning, it was self-sufficient. But incomes dropped and joblessness rose, and soon it was an unincorporated pocket of St. Louis County, with no real involvement, representation or influence, stuck in the middle of several predominantly white, reasonably affluent, relatively conservative communities, none of which wanted it there. “Meacham Park was where St. Louis County dumped its subsidized housing,” city council member Paul Ward says. “It was just a scourge—especially when they built the multifamily stuff. That really did it.”
Residents of Meacham Park begged Kirkwood first to keep open, then to reopen, the old Turner School, where kids used to shoot hoops and take arts and crafts classes. A historic all-black school that kids in Meacham Park attended before desegregation scattered them all over Kirkwood, Turner was a beautiful building and a powerful symbol. It was closed in the 1970s, to an uproar of protest; one member of the Kirkwood board of education told Franklin McCallie’s class at Washington University that it had to be shut down “because the streets were too small to get the buses down.” McCallie, the former principal at Kirkwood High School, snorts at the recollection; he had no trouble getting buses into Meacham Park.
In the 1990s Kirkwood refused to reopen Turner School as a neighborhood center, saying it would cost millions to renovate and would have to be torn down.
“You have a community center up in the middle of Kirkwood with roller and ice skating and everything else, and a mile and a half away in our little community, you’re not willing to keep a basketball court open? When everybody knows that if you want to keep kids away from crime, you keep them busy?” McCallie remembers residents asking incredulously. What they didn’t realize was that it wasn’t white Kirkwood, it was the black chairperson of the Meacham Park post-annexation redevelopment plan, Ward, who influenced that decision.
“Kirkwood has a community center,” he points out. “It was my fear—well, a concern—that by having that facility you would just perpetuate the negative. It would just become a congregating environment.” Young people already hung out in the streets, causing trouble, he explains. “When you have homeowners who are fearful of retribution for trying to curtail that, it’s pretty tough.”
Now Turner School is on the National Historic Register, and it’s been privately renovated into office space, marketed as “a spacious environment with a modern elegance one would find in a museum.” Hockey players fly in from Canada for rehabilitation treatment, right where the neighborhood kids used to shoot hoops.
Kirkwood opened Meacham Park for those kids instead, and this summer, the police hope to grill a few hot dogs and gather parents and kids there, urging its use.
It’s their park—and up the street, their community center, too. They’re part of Kirkwood. But for people like Henrietta Kimble, that’s hard to remember. “I don’t have that much dealing with Kirkwood at all,” she says. “They’ll let you know when something good goes on here, it’s Kirkwood, but when it goes bad, we are Meacham Park. And that’s what I feel like I’m a part of: Meacham Park.”
Since the shootings, blacks and whites have begun gathering for Dialogues for Peace and Understanding. It’s a great start—but what’s it really going to take for Meacham Park to feel a part of Kirkwood?
“The people of Meacham,” McDonnell says, “many of them are very proud of the heritage of their neighborhood community. And I think many of the people who live there want to be known as part of Kirkwood, just as much as any other neighborhood in Kirkwood.”
But the two are hard to meld.
Subtract their tight-knit, historical character and pride of place, and you couldn’t find two communities less similar than Kirkwood and Meacham Park—especially economically and politically. Kirkwood was prosperous and self-sufficient; Meacham Park needed a fresh start. Kirkwood was willing to provide that start—but the two communities had starkly different values and priorities, and neither side ever talked long enough to explain itself.
From the vantage point of many prosperous Kirkwoodians, everything remained hunky-dory. Hessel, for example, calls the racial atmosphere in the Kirkwood schools “great!”
But Kirkwood High School senior Katie Moritz wrote an award-winning essay last year on racial tension and “comfort-zone disease,” and she says in school and throughout the community, “people segregate themselves without even thinking about it, and they try to deny it in their mind.”
By middle and high school, black and white kids are eating lunch at separate tables. Moritz says she’ll walk down the hall at school, and “somebody will yell, ‘Move, white girl!’ and the white kids will trade racist jokes, and teachers try to ignore it.
“I just feel like there should be something that somebody does,” she exclaims. “All of these things that have happened have stirred racial tension, and it seems like we bounced back from them, but we didn’t really learn anything from them.” When black kids wore shirts to school that read, “Kevin Johnson is innocent,” they were asked not to wear them, Moritz says. “But that doesn’t fix the problem; it just hides it.”
The Sunday after the shootings, McDonnell went to Meacham Park for the first time. “I went to church at the Meacham Baptist Church and had a wonderful experience there,” he says. “I wanted to … uh … there was concern about the fact that Cookie had come from that neighborhood and had done what he’d done, and I just wanted to go down and say, ‘Y’know, I care about you, and there’s nothing about what Cookie did that changes my opinion of this neighborhood.’ And I was received very warmly.”
A woman who talked to folks about it afterward says, “Art’s a nice man—but he’d never set foot in Meacham Park. He went to church that Sunday and said he was in the mood to hear some gospel. Like it was entertainment.” People in Meacham Park don’t talk, she adds, because the Kirkwood City Hall holds the deeds to their homes, through the TIF contract that gave them upgrades.
Hearing this, Hessel sighs. “Being a lawyer, they don’t trust me. Being a lawyer for the city, they don’t trust me. But I have tried to explain to them that the deeds of trust filed against the property have this conditional grant attached. All they have to do is stay in the home for five years—and if they sell before five years are up, we get 80 percent, 60 percent, 40 percent or 20 percent of the improvement costs back.
“I only talked to a few myself,” he concedes. “They would come in, and you could tell they were nervous. I said, ‘What are you worried about?’ ‘I’m afraid you are going to take my house.’ ‘Under no circumstances. Even if you sell your house, we don’t take it. We just take some money from the proceeds of the sale.’”
What does Hessel think could knit Meacham Park and Kirkwood into a single community? “The only way is people being decent human beings to each other,” he says. “Not that they are not. Most of the people in Meacham Park are wonderful people. But it’s going to take all of us working together to make sure that part of town is like all the other parts of town.”
“And just what does that mean?” Meacham Park residents ask.
Suspicion runs deep in Meacham Park, has for decades—and often it’s been justified, because without money, status or power, Meacham Park didn’t have much leverage. “The challenges in Meacham Park are deep rooted—they go back 50, 60, 70, 80, 90 years,” says Pastor Miguel Brinkley of Meacham Park’s Church of God. “I’ve been here three years, and I’m still treated as an outsider. People are still living in the past, they’re still holding on to that stuff. It’s so entrenched in them, they can’t let it go.
“The real challenge is the government,” he concludes. “And that charter is a joke. Everything is always going to be funneled right back to the city council. Meacham Park needs some representation on that council.”
Kirkwood’s officials strongly prefer their longstanding at-large election system to geographic representation, and so did Kirkwood’s citizens when they defeated a proposed ward system 5,405 to 1,667 back in 2003.
“It’s a nice philosophical debate,” says Hessel. “If you have wards, you are closer to your elected officials. On the other hand, then you only look out for your own ward, and you start trading votes.
“The population is 27,000,” he concludes. “How far away can you be from your elected official?”
Depends on where you live.