Our national conversations and activist actions around race and racial injustice tend to flourish when centered around one locality. The best recent example is Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb that quite literally ignited last summer after unarmed teen Michael Brown was gunned down by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. That was followed by one of the grossest displays of militarized police violence the country has witnessed since 1965 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.
That’s a big reason why President Obama couldn’t go to Selma last month and not say the word “Ferguson.”
There was also the matter of inconvenient, yet symbolic timing: Days before the March 7 commemoration of the violently interrupted voting-rights march known as “Bloody Sunday,” the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) released a mortifying 102-page report about Ferguson, detailing excessive force by police officers, financial bleeding of citizens through petty arrests and ticketing, and unchecked racial bias that metastasized throughout the police and courts.
Noting that he’d been asked in the wake of the DOJ report whether anything had changed with regards to race in this country, Obama chose to respond instead to a straw man. “I rejected the notion that nothing’s changed,” he said in his Selma speech. “What happened in Ferguson may not be unique, but it’s no longer endemic. It’s no longer sanctioned by law or by custom. And before the Civil Rights Movement, it most surely was.”
In the midst of otherwise brilliant oratory befitting the moment, this was a very strange thing to say. The ’60s were not some demarcation line for institutionalized and legalized racism, as Obama knows. And the killing of Michael Brown was indeed sanctioned by both law and custom, as the government’s report makes plain.
Something that can demonstrably change the city, however, will take place this coming Tuesday, April 7: Ferguson will vote in its first local election since Brown was killed.
If accountability can be measured in quiet resignations and severance packages, perhaps you could argue progress has already been made in Ferguson. The most powerful government official in town, city manager John Shaw, resigned on March 10, less than a week after the DOJ report was made public. Thomas Jackson, the beleaguered Ferguson police chief Shaw hired and managed, left his post on March 19. Both men are white. Ninety-four percent of the police force, at most recent count, is white, too. So is Mayor James Knowles III. Two-thirds of Ferguson’s 21,000 residents are black.
This power ratio is about to change, if only slightly. Three of the six seats on the city council—the mayor occupies the seventh seat—are up for grabs. Currently, the council has one black member, Dwayne James. Among the eight candidates running on Tuesday, four are black. The open seats are dispersed among the city’s three Wards. In Ward 3, where Brown was killed, either Lee Smith or Wesley Bell will ensure that a second black Councilmember is elected. In the northernmost Ward 1, two of the four candidates are black.
Perhaps more important than color representation will be the power these new councilmembers will have to shift how Ferguson governs itself. The City Council chooses the city manager, who in turn supervises the police department and other agencies. “This election wouldn’t have been possible without protest,” said former Ferguson resident Alexis Templeton, co-founder of Millennial Activists United. “People who have been out there and stood with us are on the ballot.”
Not every City Council candidate believes things are all that bad in Ferguson. Chief among the backers of the status quo is Brian Fletcher, the guy you may have seen recently as the purveyor of the “I Love Ferguson” t-shirts. He’s also a former mayor of Ferguson—the man who hired Shaw to be city manager in the first place. He’s now running for City Council in Ward 2, location of the police headquarters where two officers were shot during a protest in March. Weeks before the DOJ report was released, Fletcher decried the investigation, telling the conservative outlet Newsmax in an interview that Ferguson was suffering from “political correctness gone astray.”
The website for Ward 1 candidate Doyle McClellan likewise attacks the DOJ’s findings: “The statistics are flawed, and many of the stories are unverified. The document is a plaintiff’s view of Ferguson, and it ignores favorable data to make its case.” On his site, McClellan, who is white, adds that while the city should implement the DOJ’s recommended changes, voters should trust that the system in Ferguson has already changed: “Our city employees have been humiliated by the DOJ report. Much of what is in the report no longer reflects their priorities or practices. Let’s judge our city employees by their performance and dedication since August.”
Presumably one of those humiliated city employees was the top court clerk Mary Ann Twitty. As reported by The New York Times, Twitty was fired after the DOJ found racist emails ranging from an Obama-chimpanzee cartoon to a joke about a black woman receiving money from Crimestoppers for her abortion.
The Huffington Post’s Mariah Stewart reported shortly after the report’s release that another white candidate in Ward 1, Mike McGrath, made the argument that the DOJ only conducted its investigation into the police and courts because they couldn’t get Officer Wilson. Even if that were true, that would have been an awfully quick decision; the report was released concurrently with the DOJ’s announcement that no civil rights charges would be filed against Wilson in Brown’s killing. McGrath offered another fantasy to Stewart: “I may be a silly old man in all of this, but I don’t think we have a big race issue here.”
Perhaps the most important person in the Ferguson election isn’t on the ballot at all. As the Democratic committeewoman for Ferguson Township—one of the 28 that make up St. Louis County—Patricia Bynes already holds an elected state office. For the last several months, she has also been a campaign manager for two of the “change” candidates for Ferguson City Council: Smith in Ward 3, and white activist Bob Hudgins in Ward 2, who told me that his candidacy grew out of talks during the protests. Though she’s not managing the campaign of Ella Jones, one of two black candidates in Ward 1, Bynes is actively supporting her.
When I asked Bynes what the next few days would look like for her, she stated simply: “Campaign crazy.” Drawing upon her experience running for office, Bynes said she plans to spend time helping her candidates rid themselves of last-minute jitters. “People go into freak-out mode, and you’re supposed to be a voice of reason.”
Those running aren’t the only ones shook up, she said. The citizens of Ferguson themselves are getting a bit tired of the media attention. “Some people won’t open the door if they see someone with a camera standing there,” she said.
The election will turn on whether the majority-black population in each ward turns out to vote. If they come out, candidates like Jones, Smith, and Hudgins will win. However, fewer than 12 percent of eligible voters showed up at last year’s city election. And that was an improvement over the 2012 and 2013 totals.
“If people stay home, the same old thing, they’re going to get exactly the same old thing,” Bynes told me. “They have very clear choices in these races. In [Wards] 2 and 3, the opposition could not be more obvious. Who are you going to vote for? Who are you coming out for?”
Black access to the voting franchise has been under such consistent attack in recent years that the lack of voter-ID laws affecting this election offers a sad kind of relief. But Bynes believes that a different brand of disenfranchisement may affect Ferguson’s black voters.
“There’s nobody stopping people in Ferguson from participating in these low-level elections. The disenfranchisement comes from people feeling oppressed,” she said. “All of the systems that are in place. And when you beat people down enough, some stand up, get involved, and say, ‘Enough is enough.’ But others start giving up, and feed into the idea that ‘things are not going to change, I can’t change it, I’m not strong enough to change it’—and they give up on one of the most powerful things in this country.”
Bynes argues that we should view voter apathy in communities like Ferguson in a different framework, and that conservative measures to limit access were, in essence, redundant when paired with bad public policy and cultural erasure. “They don’t have to play voter-ID games. There’s no poll tax anymore. They don’t even have to play games with where you put the polling place,” she told me. “After you have beaten people down enough over the years and some of them have forgotten their history, this is what happens.”
If any community has a reason to feel beaten down, it’s black folks in Ferguson. How the brutalization of their bodies, spirits, and finances will affect their votes on Tuesday will be instructive for us all.