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Saturday, October 18, 2014

No Holds Barred: Umar Lee on Wrestling and Ferguson, Missouri 

On this edition of No Holds Barred, host Eddie Goldman spoke with independent journalist, freelance writer, St. Louis cab driver, and youth wrestling coach Umar Lee.

Ferguson is a city in St. Louis County, Missouri, is part of the Greater St. Louis metropolitan area, and is just north of the City of St. Louis. It became the focus of international scrutiny when, on August 9 of this year, an unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown, was gunned down by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. Many eyewitnesses have said that Brown was surrendering, with his hands up, when he was shot and killed by Wilson. His body was left in the street for four hours.

Months of mass protests charging systematic police brutality, white supremacy, and racism have followed. Currently, there is a grand jury investigation going on to determine whether or not to bring charges against Wilson, as well as a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Many people, however, are skeptical that these investigations will lead to justice for all in this case.

Ferguson is also a city which used to be known as a high school wrestling powerhouse. But in recent years, with the emergence of a majority African-American population, there has been disinvestment in the city along with white flight to the suburbs. Wrestling has declined as a result.

While working full-time and being active in the movement demanding justice for Michael Brown, Umar Lee has also found the time to issue a call for the development of more youth wrestling programs in Ferguson. We spoke with him by phone Thursday.

He explained: "When this whole situation in Ferguson developed -- you know, I'm a political guy, too, and I've been out there in the streets from day one -- I re-issued the call and said, 'Hey, all this fraternity of ex-wrestlers need to really think about what we can do for these kids that seem to be having a problem. We really need to reinvigorate our efforts to start this wrestling program.'"

While from the 1950s to the 1990s the area was a wrestling powerhouse, he said, "Over the course of the last 15 years, there's been a sharp decline in wrestling in North St. Louis County, which was once really a breadbasket for wrestling talent." Factors included job loss and the closing of factories in the area, resulting in white flight to other counties, many coaches leaving the area, and the subsequent drying up of many high school wrestling programs in the largely African-American areas.

We discussed the plans to create new wrestling programs to provide the benefits of wrestling to the youth of the area, the need for wrestling to reach out much more into the inner cities, the role of former wrestlers in continuing their commitment to the sport, how the holding of the NCAA Div. I Wrestling Championships in St. Louis numerous times in recent years has not resulted in the growth of wrestling in places like Ferguson, what to expect in the political situation in Ferguson and St. Louis, and much, much more.

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