Ferguson will hold municipal elections April 7. The mayor and five of the six city councilpersons are white. Three are up for reelection. Since Michael Brown was gunned down by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, the one loud refrain has repeatedly been how could a city where African-Americans make up the overwhelming majority of the population be policed by a nearly all-white police force, and governed by a nearly all-white city administration?
The thought was that the Brown slaying angered and engaged so many thousands that it was almost a done deal that the first chance black residents got they’d jam the polls and revamp city government in Ferguson.
The revamp meant the election of a majority-black city council and mayor. This, in turn, could mean the hiring of a black city manager and other top-level administrators. That could lead to an overhaul of the police department to make diversity and reform a reality. Eight months after the Brown slaying, the April elections will put that thinking to the test.
But the early signs aren’t good. In the nearly three month period between the day Brown was slain and October 8, a worse than anemic 204 eligible adults in Ferguson newly registered. A month later, less than half of the nearly 25,000 registered voters in Ferguson bothered to go to the polls in the mid-term elections.
There was no breakdown by ethnicity of the number who actually did bother to vote. But given the general pattern of less voter participation by minorities in mid-term elections, and the far greater participation of older, conservative white voters, almost certainly, the turnout of black voters in Ferguson was abysmal.
The one faint stir of optimism is the recall petition filed against the current mayor James Knowles. He has made it clear he won’t step down. He moved quickly to pose as the change agent, held a high profile press conference, and has mobilized black support to beat back the recall effort. Despite his protestations and promises to jump hard on the reform train, he can’t separate himself from a rigid, racially balkanized city governmental structure that has maintained iron-clad political control, and a racially polarizing police force and city administration.
The reasons for the chronic past no-shows of blacks from the Ferguson polls in part mirror the reasons for the persistent low minority voter turnout in local and national election in past years. The oft-cited reasons are apathy, disinterest, GOP voter suppression, the sense that their vote won’t change anything, that there’s little difference between the two parties, and the inherent distrust of politicians.
There’s also the deep sense that the Democratic Party routinely takes the black vote for granted and that Democratic elected officials, no matter their color, offer few tangible programs and initiatives to deal with poverty, joblessness, the stratospheric black incarceration rates, and the gaping health and education racial disparities.
Other than the well-publicized voter outreach and mobilization campaigns Democrats launch in the immediate run-up to a national election, there is no sustained effort to energize and engage, and keep engaged black voters.
A standard rule in American politics is that politicians appeal to, mobilize and champion initiatives that are dear to the voters that are likely to vote. The other part of that rule is that those voters and constituents are for the most part white, middle class and politically vocal. The poor, especially the black poor, have never fit that demographic. Ferguson has been a near textbook example of the cycle of neglect and the snub of blacks by a city council, mayor, and city administration. African Americans in Ferguson have read the political tea leaves and repaid that with their indifference and disinterest.
Yet despite this entrenched pattern and past voting obstacles, there are compelling reasons for blacks in Ferguson to rush to vote this time around. One is the prospect of a regime change at city hall and the police force. Another is the possibility that they could move to dump the despicable near-shakedown racket that city officials have run for years that criminalizes virtually the city’s entire black population.
Police and courts issued 16,000 arrest warrants in one year in Ferguson, a city of less than 25,000. Many of the warrants were for unpaid parking and traffic tickets. The offenders were arrested, and sometimes re-arrested with the fines doubling and tripling. The fines enriched city coffers as well as the pockets of a few public officials.
Another reason to vote is simply that there’s no excuse. The only requirement to vote is to be age 18, a U.S. citizen and resident of Ferguson. A person can register at any of dozens of locations from city hall to churches, by mail, and at all DMV offices, and welfare offices. The April 7 election could be a turning point for Ferguson. If it’s not, and Ferguson stays Ferguson, then blacks have no one to blame but themselves.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. His new book is: From King to Obama: Witness to a Turbulent History (Middle Passage Press).
He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.
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