Ferguson election: Model for other troubled communities?

A relatively large voter turnout Tuesday added two more black members to the city council in Ferguson, Mo. This could be a step toward racial healing in the town.

Robert Cohen/The St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP
Renald Smith, right, thanks Bob Hudgins, Ferguson City Council candidate, as he returns home after getting a ride to the polls in Ferguson, Mo., Tuesday, April 7, 2015.

After the fire of violence and protest, the cooling effects of the ballot box and representative democracy have begun to appear in Ferguson, Mo.

In municipal elections Tuesday, voters in Ferguson – where white police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed black teenager Michael Brown last August – added two black members to the city council, bringing the total to 3-3 in racial terms.

While voter turnout wasn’t spectacular (about 30 percent), it more than doubled last year’s voting percentage on a day when harsh weather might have kept many at home. More important, the new council is taking a roll-up-our-sleeves approach to governing a community where much healing work remains to be done – a model, perhaps, for other communities dealing with racial stress and protest.

One of the new black council members in Ferguson is Wesley Bell, a lawyer and criminal justice professor who also is a part-time municipal judge in a neighboring jurisdiction.

“This community came out in record numbers to make sure our voices were heard,” he told reporters. “When you have a community engaged, the sky is the limit.”

Marty Einig, who participated in Ferguson protests following last year's shooting, sees “raw material within this community to demonstrate hope.”

"I see a glass that's half full, and I feel that the people have the will to force change,” Ms. Einig told the Associated Press.
Charrolynn Washington agrees that the election is where real change will occur.
"As much change is needed here in Ferguson, this is where we begin – not out there in the streets, doing what they were doing – but right here," Ms. Washington said, according to AP. "They need to be voting and putting people in position to make the change and make the decisions that need to be made."

“From what I've seen today, the community became empowered and came out. That is a win,” tweeted Patricia Bynes, Democratic committeewoman of Ferguson Township in St. Louis County, who is African-American.

If Ferguson can pull itself up from distrust and despair, as such comments indicate is now possible, then it could serve as a model for other communities where recent racial issues – including police violence – still trouble America 50 years after the landmark Voting Rights Act was passed.

It’s often been an uphill fight, but ensuring free, fair, and representative elections has brought improvement elsewhere. It took years for Boston – whose history includes federally mandated school desegregation in the 1970s – to progress from a city council elected at large (which typically meant all-white) to one that includes district representation and a more racially diverse membership.

Such change can be incremental. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to reform that city’s controversial stop-and-frisk police tactic have met with political resistance, not only from NYPD union members but also from many white New Yorkers.

"It's a tale of two cities,” Maurice Carroll, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, said in releasing a poll last November. “Black voters think the mayor is terrific. White voters don't approve. And the racial gap gets wider every time we ask."

The racial gap couldn’t have been wider in Ferguson, where blacks make up two-thirds of the population but the mayor, other city officers, and – until now, at least – five of the six city council members are white.

After the police killing of Mr. Brown and the protests that followed, the city manager, police chief, and municipal judge were forced to resign, and the municipal court clerk was fired for racist e-mails. In a review of policies and practices in Ferguson, the US Justice Department found racial bias and profiling in the police department and a profit-driven municipal court system. 

“Change is coming to Ferguson,” writes Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in a CNN op-ed column Wednesday. “But the scope and breadth of that change will depend upon the ambition and discipline of activists and residents, whose passion and tenacity have already transformed the trajectory of leadership in a typical American town.”

Still needed in Ferguson (and elsewhere among US municipalities), Ms. Ifill says: reforming those governing systems that typically pair a strong city manager with a weak mayor and city council, and holding local elections with state and federal elections to encourage better turnout.

“It's not that Ferguson is so different than towns across America,” she writes. “It's precisely because Ferguson holds up a mirror to flaws in our democratic system of government in towns across this country that the stakes are so high.”

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