Umar Lee Leaves St. Louis, Blasting "a City of Low Dreams and Low Expectations"

Dec 17, 2015 at 7:53 am
Umar Lee defended cabbies during a debate at The Royale last year. - Lindsay Toler
Lindsay Toler
Umar Lee defended cabbies during a debate at The Royale last year.

There's an undeniably outlandish quality to Umar Lee. The Uber-bashing, hipster-hating ex-cabbie/journalist/Ferguson protester has cultivated a knack for finding trouble: in the span of just two months, he accused a St. Charles subdivision of racism, got fired from Laclede Cab Co. and launched an improbable mayoral campaign. And then he decided to pack it in.

Umar Lee has left St. Louis, at least for the foreseeable future. He's got his reasons. A new job as an expediter will keep him on the road for most of the year, and there's the six-year-old daughter in Texas who needs his attention. But there is more to Lee's exit than just family and job considerations.

"I’m burned out," he says. "St. Louis has a habit of cannibalizing people. The most talented people I know leave St. Louis, they move to Atlanta, Chicago, the east coast. There's a real stifling nature, that if you're out-of-the-box it's a real tough place."

As an activist, Lee is about as out-of-the-box as they come. One one hand, he was a regular presence during protests in Ferguson, even getting arrested in front of the Ferguson police department in September 2014. At the same time, the veteran cab driver threw himself into opposing the upstart ride-sharing services Lyft and Uber, arguing that the business model would rip away the livelihoods of middle class workers.

This past August, Lee pushed his luck too far. He accused the residents of a St. Charles subdivision of blanket racism after an anonymous 911 caller complained about a black family walking their dogs, telling the dispatcher that "this is an all white neighborhood." Lee's attempts at stirring a protest movement in St. Charles proved too much for his bosses at Laclede Cab Co, who fired him mere hours after the story hit the local news. After getting fired, Lee took to Twitter and exposed one of his former bosses as a sex offender.

See also: Umar Lee Fired from Taxi Company Over Advocacy

The ensuing months were difficult for Lee. He struggled to find local work. In a somewhat bizarre career shift, he announced in late September that he would run for mayor of St. Louis as a Republican, but the campaign never took off. A few short weeks later, Lee published a blistering essay on his blog. It read like a break-up letter. 

Lee wrote:

St. Louis is a city of low dreams and low expectations. A city where people accept life sucks. A city where people settle for jobs they don’t like and spouses they don’t like. Any parent who loves their child needs to be telling their children to get the hell out of St. Louis.

Lee had hoped his mayoral run would bring attention to the issues afflicting the city, but he argues that the problems St. Louis faces are simply too big to hide.

"It hasn’t been positive for a long time," he says. "To glow over IKEA or dog parks or bike lanes, I can't get excited about those things. I can't get excited when the children are receiving substandard education, when the murder rate is as high as it is."

The region's saving grace, he adds, is the Ferguson protest movement.

"I want to use some of the knowledge I learned in the Ferguson movement to make gains the fight against Islamaphobia in the Dallas-Fort Worth area," he says.

Certainly, this won't be the last we've seen of the outspoken Lee. He'll be back to visit, and, given time, there might be another homecoming in his future.

"I know my heart is in St. Louis, I still love St. Louis and I still care about what’s going on. I've moved away before, moved to DC, New York City, and eventually I came back," Lee says. "You just get bugged out because nothing seems to get better." 

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]