Voting after the Ferguson Uprising
International Business Times | Published April 7, 2015
By AARON MORRISON, Staff Writer
FERGUSON, Missouri – Lee Smith was in search of a home for his future grandchildren. With his 10 adult children preparing to start their own families, Smith and his wife left St. Louis in 1988 for the mostly white suburban towns of northern St. Louis County, where good schools seemed to promise ample opportunity and joyful childhoods. They paid $44,900 for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home on Castro Drive in Ferguson. At the time, there were two other black households -- an unmarried nurse and a family headed by a man who worked for General Motors -- on a block of about three dozen similar-looking starter homes filled with white families.
The largely white neighborhood soon became predominantly black, changes that were eventually mirrored across Ferguson -- except in the city’s government. The new black residents -- mostly renters who didn’t pay property taxes -- were stopped frequently by white police officers. As they got older, Smith’s grandchildren had “very severe issues” with Ferguson police, he said, declining to elaborate. The city’s Public Works Department stopped prioritizing quality-of-life and beautification projects in Smith’s neighborhood.
The tension between the black majority and white elites reached a boiling point last year, when 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer. Black residents took to the streets, rallying for months against decades-old inequalities and a police department that seemed to treat them as less than equal to the whites who did not flee as blacks moved in. With his family on his mind once again, Smith, now a widower with 21 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren, took another leap. He signed up to run for city council.
“After this situation in August, you can see the desperation in our community and that there is a real need for change,” he said. “I have grandchildren [Brown’s] age. That’s my main concern. If we don’t change the culture of policing and our court systems, there’s going to be more Michael Browns.”
As Ferguson holds Tuesday its first government elections since Brown was killed on a sidewalk in his hometown in August, it’s unclear if the calls for change that rose from this community of 21,000 residents and echoed across the country after his death will make a difference. An uptick in African-American candidates and ongoing efforts to turn out black voters who have largely ignored local elections in the past will likely result in more diversity on the city council for the first time in Ferguson’s 120-year history. But city officials and community leaders said they don’t expect recent events will drive new voters to the polls or translate to greater political power for blacks here.
“We have these groups coming around saying ‘black lives matter.’ Well, if we intend to make all lives matter, then we have to make our votes matter,” said Smith.
For the eight candidates who have emerged, four black and four white, an almost clear mandate for local reforms came from the Department of Justice in a searing report released on March 4. Federal investigators found that the city-approved law enforcement strategy in the Ferguson Police Department had violated the U.S. Constitution by targeting African-Americans. In the fallout, the city manager and police chief resigned.
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