Costco has long had a place near and dear to my heart. Every Friday after school from the first through seventh grades, I’d hold my dad’s hand as we meandered through the varied sections of our North Miami branch. At the start of each new aisle, I’d sample (and resample) potato chips, chocolate, turkey, Club crackers, and anything else those kind old women in bouffant caps displayed in their rolling carts. Ultimately, my dad and I would come home with illogical but thrilling amounts of lettuce, Bagel Bites, roasted chickens, toothpaste, and more. Indeed, Costco was a hallmark of my childhood.
Last Sunday, a friend and I drove 30-some minutes south into St. Louis County for my first visit to a Costco beyond the one I frequented with my dad, who’s since passed away. While there, I felt compelled to FaceTime my mom, and we shared in the nostalgia of the experience.
It was a successful trip, judged by what I brought back: 16 apples, two 2-pound bags of dates, one 3-pound bag of almonds, a package of nine toothbrushes, and enough unsweetened almond milk to last me until winter break.
But unlike the old days, this time I did not feel comforted by the wholesaling giant’s limitless samples, sky-high warehouse interiors, and distinctively monumental orange shelves. Maybe that’s partially because this trip, my dad wasn’t by my side, or because my relatively new vegetarian diet didn’t agree with as many of the free samples. These factors indubitably contributed to my mediocre experience, but only partially. Indeed, they were just minutely responsible for the overall sense of discomfort I felt during this shopping trip.
It was a discomfort that filtered in during the drive over, when I read too many aggressively conservative billboards on I-55. The uneasiness picked up as I pulled into the parking lot and noticed too many “TRUMP” bumper stickers in the parking lot. An all-out sense of dread descended upon me inside the store itself, where the atmosphere was tense and threatening. As a Latino in Miami, where only 12 percent of the population considers itself white, I was among my people when I visited the warehouse, but here, in Concord, MO, where nearly 98 percent of people are white, I felt the difference.
It didn’t help knowing that Missouri has notoriously lenient gun laws, and that here, in the conservative enclave of an otherwise-progressive city, gun lovers abound. Realizing this, I couldn’t help sensing that under their plaid flannel shirts tucked into straight-fit denim and secured by rancher belts, these large white men were carrying Glock 26’s, Taurus PT111’s, and other high-selling compact handguns.
Wednesday’s news from Missouri’s red-hued legislature gave solid grounds for the shakiness I felt last weekend. Overriding Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto, the body passed a disturbing new bill that dangerously eases gun measures in the state. Not only does it allow citizens to carry concealed weapons in public without a permit or background check, it also establishes the same “stand your ground” standard that was infamously invoked by the judge in the trial of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. Tellingly, the New York Times editorial board called the law an “alarming victory for the gun lobby” and “a wholesale retreat from gun safety in the state.” I’d go further: The law turns Missouri’s already-lax gun laws into a free-for-all system deprived of control, restraint, or reason.
I’m a big advocate of Washington University students leaving our “bubble.” We should, by all means, leave campus and “explore” St. Louis, whether that means taking a walk down to the Loop, visiting the Gateway Arch, biking through Tower Grove Park, or strolling through Cherokee Street. These trips, though selective and limited in scope, nevertheless mean interacting with the greater St. Louis community. Still, only a limited number of students regularly and comfortably leave the Danforth dome. This hesitancy to wander St. Louis is, I believe, a reaction to concerns about the “danger” lurking in certain parts of our city.
We often hear dire warnings about biking Forest Park after dusk or riding the Metro unaccompanied. Concerned hometown friends advise us to “stay safe” in the St. Louis they hear the media describe as volatile and treacherous. When we think about “danger,” we think, largely, about crime in low-income and minority communities.
But we’ve misidentified the real peril in our city. It’s not in Black and low-income communities. Fears about those areas are overdrawn, fabricated, and based on racist stereotypes about certain groups of people
The same cannot be said of the fears felt in Missouri’s Trump-country. Those fears, of frustrated “Good” Samaritans taking the law into their own hands, of bigots lashing out in acts of hate, of frustrated men pulling out their guns during heated arguments, are real and increasingly backed by headlines and personal accounts. And they are only validated, most recently, by the wildly absurd, almost farcical law enacted by Missouri’s legislature this past week.
There is reason to fear the people represented by the state legislator who, as the Post-Dispatch reports, said upon the bill’s passing that “Missourians have more freedom than they did yesterday.” Just as there is reason to feel unsafe when surrounded in public by fans of the National Rifle Association, which, for reasons that evade me, considers the new, heedless gun policy to be a sign of “liberty,” when all it is, really, is a license to kill.
In St. Louis and other U.S. cities, danger does not lie in communities inhabited predominantly by people of color, in housing projects, or in nighttime national parks. To panic about these areas would be to misidentify the true source of danger in our cities: the sour territory governed by lawmakers who are bankrolled by the gun lobby, a territory inhabited by armed—and often-prejudiced—citizens brainwashed into believing any gun regulation is an infringement on their rights.
Our campus, by contrast, is a place where diversity comparatively abounds, where tolerance is promoted and hate outlawed. Here, in our weapon-free refuge stretching from Big Bend to Skinker, the mere mention of a firearm sets off literal and figurative alarms. If remaining within this bubble means avoiding Trump country and places where Republicans’ unrestrained gun laws invite anxiety, then I’m not leaving unperturbed and free of fear, nor do I blame others who feel the same way.
Last weekend, when I did step out of our bounds, it didn’t go too swell. I found myself in a situation that stunningly turned a Costco trip—until then an evocative childhood memory of family and ease—into a discomforting scene of homogenous white faces, generalized unease, and latent bullets commissioned by the full force of Missouri law.