At the request of a high school friend, Lacy M. Johnson began investigating an area north of St. Louis where toxic waste from the Manhattan Project was illegally dumped in 1974. The resulting piece for Guernica finds Johnson diving into the human costs of America’s decision to end the war on Japan with expedient nuclear force.
The years of experimentation leading up to the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the years dealing with the nuclear fallout, have taken a lasting toll on the home front. Areas in St. Louis county near the Westlake Landfill Superfund site have higher incidence of lupus, rare cancers, neuropathy, and congenital defects than the general population. Although the EPA has maintained that the site is minimally hazardous, some residents have formed advocacy groups to raise awareness and demand immediate removal of the waste.
When Karen and her husband bought a house in North County for their own growing family, they chose one not far from the neighborhood where she’d splashed through the creek as a girl. But in the summer of 1999 she ran across a parking lot in the rain and then couldn’t get out of bed for days. Maybe she had come down with the flu, she thought. She visited her doctor, who didn’t know what to make of her symptoms. Karen’s blood work showed signs that antibodies were attacking the proteins in the nuclei of her cells. “Lupus,” the doctor told her, years later. He prescribed steroids to manage the symptoms of the disease, and mostly it did manage them. She felt healthy more often than ill. But in July 2012 she collapsed at her daughter’s softball game and didn’t bounce back, didn’t return to work, or to feeling healthy. Her doctor said this might be the new normal.
Karen went to a new doctor, who told her that there’s increasing consensus that lupus can be brought on by environmental triggers, including exposure to contaminants and chemicals, like cigarette smoke, silica, and mercury. In particular, he said, recent studies have shown a link between lupus and uranium exposure. That night over dinner Karen’s husband asked if she remembered a story on the news from a few months before about the creek that ran through her neighborhood. She remembered only vaguely. “Well, it was something about uranium contamination,” he said, looking up from his plate.
It was one o’clock in the morning on August 16th, 2014. In Minneapolis, DeRay Mckesson watched the news on television and scrolled through Twitter. “I saw what was happening on CNN; I saw what was happening on Twitter, and they were telling two different stories. And I said, ‘I just want to go see for myself.’” Exactly one week before, Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson had killed Michael Brown, an unarmed, black teenager. The television narrative highlighted protesters’ supposed unrest and Wilson’s self-defense claim. The narrative on Mckesson’s Twitter timeline was quite different: police brutality and murder.
That morning, Mckesson drove nine hours from Minneapolis to St. Louis to protest in the streets. The Ferguson protests not only propelled to the national stage the Black Lives Matter movement — originally sparked after George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, another unarmed, black teenager, in 2012 — it also launched Mckesson’s political activism career — one which he amplifies via social media.
Mckesson makes news in every direction. In March 2015, he quit his job in human resources at Minneapolis Public Schools to devote himself to full-time activism. He helped launch a police-reform initiative called Campaign Zero. He ran for mayor in his hometown of Baltimore. He started a podcast about policy and social justice called Pod Save the People, for which he recently interviewed Edward Snowden and Katy Perry. And he is currently finishing his term as interim chief human capital officer at the Baltimore City Public School System.
He has been tear gassed and arrested during a protest (with charges later dropped). His Twitter following, at around 1,000 in 2014, is now over 800,000 today, and he has become a sought-after guest and speaker. The only constant: Mckesson’s puffy, blue Patagonia vest — his sartorial trademark. But the question on everyone’s mind for the 31-year-old is simple: what’s next?
“Martin Luther King stood for nonviolence,” says comedian Chris Rock in his live 1996 HBO special Bring the Pain. “Now what’s Martin Luther King? A street. And I don’t give a fuck where you are in America, if you on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there’s some violence going down.”
Later, Rock gives advice to anyone who finds themselves lost on an MLK-named street: “Run! Run! Run!”
Search any sizable town and there’s a good chance there’s a street named after King. Not all are awful, of course, but Rock’s generalization struck a national chord and made the street an emblem of everything gone wrong in America since the aspirational heights of the civil-rights era.
“The reality is that the street runs through some very damaged neighborhoods,” says Michael Allen, director of the St. Louis Preservation Research Office.
—Danny Wicentowski, in the Riverfront Times. Wicentowski profiled Melvin White, whose St. Louis-based nonprofit “Beloved Streets of America” aims to improve not just the Martin Luther King Drive of his native St. Louis, but also ailing Martin Luther King streets across America.