But the death of Michael Brown focused a national spotlight elsewhere in St. Louis. From the county's militarized police forces to the heavy-handed response to protesters in the streets, the events in Ferguson exposed the historic distrust between north county's black communities and the predominately white police departments that patrol there.
In the still-developing aftermath of Brown's death, everyone is asking the same question local poet Henry Goldkamp did more than a year ago: "What the hell is St. Louis thinking?"
The question led Goldkamp to place dozens of typewriter stations across St. Louis city last summer. Now, after months spent parsing thousands of anonymous submissions, Goldkamp and his local publisher are readying the final proofs for What the Hell is St. Louis Thinking? for its November 22 release.
Last week, Goldkamp released promotional video for the book, in which a single submission is read by a diverse collection of St. Louisans. Staring and ending with the line, "My home smells like beer and pretzels," the video places the words of one unknown author into many mouths.
Goldkamp tapped local filmmaker (and former RFT Standup Throwdown finalist) Mike Szymanski to produce the video.
As he watched the news of Brown's death and resulting unrest, Goldkamp says he couldn't help but see the video as a much-needed window to St. Louis' diverse population.
"The whole idea is it doesn't matter who reads it, because it's the same human emotion behind it," says Goldkamp. "There are so many different nationalities that call St. Louis their home, and the media makes it look like it's just white against black."
The issue of diversity and representation weigh heavily on Goldkamp. Soon after he began the WTHSTL project, he was criticized for not placing typewriters in more black neighborhoods. In response, he apologized and changed his system of typewriter distribution.
Though the WTHSTL book doesn't address Ferguson directly, Goldkamp says the the submissions and entries reveal St. Louis was already thinking about the same issues, even before Brown was shot.
"It was in front of our eyes the whole time," he says.
Indeed, on August 13, Goldkamp posted a excerpt from a different submission to WTHSTL's Facebook page.
Goldkamp wrote, in part:
The project's question has been getting more prevalent as the days go on.
If there was one thing we hoped to accomplish with WTHSTL, it was a seamless, poetic curation that involved as many of Saint Louis City's neighborhoods as we could manage. The idea was to make the humanity transparent, to show Saint Louis' traditions, history, and quirks, all lithified into the foundation of universal emotions humans everywhere feel everyday.
So I ask you this: Is there any way to tell where in Saint Louis the submission above came from by just reading it? Did it come from Ferguson, Soulard, Dutchtown, Central West End, Baden, Crestwood, Kirkwood? There is absolutely no way of knowing.
Point being it doesn't matter-- because we're all in this together.
Here's the full post, including the submission. It's worth the read.