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The County Map That Explains Ferguson’s Tragic Discord

A resident of Ferguson speaks to Missouri State Highway Patrol officers in riot gear during a protest on Aug. 11
A resident of Ferguson speaks to Missouri State Highway Patrol officers in riot gear during a protest on Aug. 11Photograph by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

What does a map have to do with a riot? Everything, in the case of Ferguson, Mo., where a police officer shot dead a black teenager, some residents looted and rioted, and police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The map of St. Louis County, the home of Ferguson, looks like a shattered pot. It’s broken into 91 municipalities that range from small to tiny, along with clots of population in unincorporated areas. Dating as far back as the 19th century, communities set themselves up as municipalities to capture control of tax revenue from local businesses, to avoid paying taxes to support poorer neighbors, or to exclude blacks. Their behavior has ranged from somewhat parochial to flatly illegal.