When black community members confronted Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III after the tragic killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown on August 9th, it became increasingly clear that there has to be electoral change in Ferguson. Now is the time to invest in local leaders and build civic engagement in Ferguson – and in all the “Fergusons” across the nation. As a movement, we have rallied to recognize Ferguson’s pain. Will we rally to change it?
Here are some concrete steps for a better political future in Ferguson:
1. Register Black Voters
Black political leaders in the area point to Ferguson's unrepresentative local government behind the police abuse of the community. To date, African Americans across St. Louis county simply haven’t turned out to vote in large numbers, or run candidates for office. In this year’s mayoral and city council election, just 12.3% of eligible voters in Ferguson cast their ballots, according to numbers provided by the county. In 2013 and 2012, those figures were even lower: 11.7% and 8.9% respectively, based on a report by MSNBC. If we can increase voter registration among black voters, then we’ve taken the first crucial step in changing the political dynamics in Ferguson.
Activists on the ground are already initiating this effort – over the weekend, a voter registration table was set up alongside a memorial for Michael Brown, and Rev. Al Sharpton spoke to a Ferguson crowd demanding that they start to vote, saying “Ya’ll who are mad now, weren’t mad three weeks ago on election day; ya’ll have to start voting and showing up.”
2. Relay the Importance of Voting. Period.
It’s not just about registering voters, it’s also about increasing the level of information and enthusiasm for voting. The black community in Ferguson is so disenchanted by the system that they don't participate. In addition, as Matthew Yglesias has written, Americans are asked to vote in a dizzying array of elections (in addition to the school board, town city council and mayoral, a Ferguson resident must vote for a district attorney, an attorney general, a secretary of state, a state auditor, a state treasurer, two US Senators, one member of the US House of Representatives, and a bunch of judges). The long process of voter education has to start now to convince people that the political process is worth investing in. That includes identifying and supporting local leaders who will run for these seats and represent the interests of the Black majority.
3. Simplify the Local Election System
The consolidation of power in the hands of white leaders in Ferguson has depended on a confusing, off-season local election system. As Think Progress reported, local elections in Ferguson are held in April, at a time when no state or national general elections are taking place. This allows candidates to target a small core of older, more affluent voters in order to win, knowing that a lack of high-profile candidates on the ballot will cause many voters to stay home. Holding local elections in November of even-numbered years along with federal elections makes more sense for all voters, and it would make it harder for low voter turnout to enable disproportionate, disconnected local leadership.
4. Use the Power of Recall, and Do It Now
Missouri state law provides for the recall of municipal officials. Petitions must include the signatures of 25% of registered voters. They must be gathered within 60 days, which is well within reach given the widespread frustration and anger that has taken root in Ferguson. The Mayor and Council members serve three year terms. According to State Law, recall is possible for any official after they have been in office for 6 months. The grounds for recall are "misconduct in office, incompetence, and failure to perform duties." One of the city council members is even being sued for abusing a Black man in policy custody. These people have to go. (h/t Daily Kos)
5. Lift Local Voices
There are powerful leaders on the ground in Ferguson who need national support.
St. Louis Alderman Antonio French has been documenting the protests on video for social media, despite being arrested by the police for unlawful assembly. We should be sharing his words and images with our own networks, and fighting for him to have a voice on national news outlets.
As soon as the FBI installed Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol, he exhibited a model of policing that respected the community, walked with protesters and gave a moving speech in support of the people of Ferguson. His leadership is a good step, but we need more. He needs our support.
- Missouri State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal, whose district includes Ferguson and who has been actively involved in the protests, is the kind of leader we should all be championing. Watch Maria sound off on the Ferguson police's attempt to connect Michael Brown's killing to a store robbery or click here to watch:
We have communities like Ferguson across our country. With these strategies, we can change the ground game and make real change.