Ferguson’s White City Leadership Must Change

Without mobilizing unrest into political action, the problems at the root of discontent in Ferguson, Mo., will remain.

Police Chief Thomas Jackson fields questions related to the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown during a press conference on Aug. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo.
Police Chief Thomas Jackson fields questions related to the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown during a press conference on Aug. 13, 2014, in Ferguson, Mo. Scott Olson/Getty Images

From Ferguson, Mo., to similarly afflicted hoods: It’s about time to put the hands down and roll the sleeves up.

The strategy? A shrewdly engineered calculus for political engagement that fundamentally reshapes contemporary Ferguson. Sure, most of us are not on the ground in Ferguson, so I’ll take the predictable hit from some readers as Monday-morning quarterback. I didn’t rock the obligatory plane ticket to Missouri and prove my blackness in a blaze of hands-up glory. Easy for the chatty, tweeting lot of us to work our infinite rhetorical wisdom from keyboards.

But no one is doing Ferguson’s black residents any favors if a city with a population that is 67 percent African American continues operating politically like a postmodern 12 Years a Slave sequel. The mayor is a white Republican—and former Ferguson Police Department officer. The six-member City Council is all-white, save the one black member. The longtime all-white school board just got its first black member this April, shortly after it ousted the school district’s first black superintendent.

The reasons for this are, of course, as complex as they are shady by design. St. Louis County, the suburbia in which Ferguson sits, gets a proportion of representation, with its 70 percent white population matched with six white County Council members, and the 24 percent black population getting one black council member who can’t pass a diversity contracting bill. And black County Executive Charlie Dooley just lost his primary to a white County Council member sure to keep the racial status quo locked.

Now that Ferguson has captured our attention—along with bands of preachers, activists and pundits racing to the impoverished St. Louis suburb—when does the really impactful task of political organization and engagement begin?

If we took a random poll of folks who line that raucous stretch of several blocks in Ferguson, would they know the date of the next election?

This is where rubber meets the road. It’s all a fruitless and insanely typical exercise in badly channeled outrage if, come the next city electoral cycle, Ferguson’s disproportionately black, struggling and disenfranchised residents have not been tightly mobilized into an empowered political force to be reckoned with.

Until then, let’s put money on it that Ferguson stays the same. Same indifferent and indefensibly unrepresentative city government. We’ll keep having the same recycled discourse about police strategies and racial disparities, conveniently avoiding the much more consequential discussion about who’s running the show.

Where is the political action? Clearly, there are quite a few residents with time and energy on their hands to spend days standing around in protest—some either staring down riot-geared police and others popping off in violent expression. Frustrated that his racial magic trick with black state trooper and area native Capt. Ron Johnson didn’t work (the hilarity of watching folks fall for that was classic), Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, breaks down and calls the National Guard, a move that some of us knew was coming.

But neither Nixon nor the rest of the entrenched Missouri political machine will suggest it’s time to overhaul Ferguson’s off-base system of three wards with two council members, and general election days scheduled in the middle of spring, rather than November, when few are paying attention. As a result, black voter turnout in the 2013 city election was 7 percent—compared with the relatively low white voter turnout of 17 percent.