This is why we can’t have nice things. Not because they are taken from us. Or hidden from us. Or placed behind a thousand-foot wall we can’t scale. Nope, sometimes black people can’t have nice things because we steadfastly, inexcusably, sabotage ourselves with apathy and ignorance.
On Tuesday night, James K. Knowles—the inept, whitesplaining, cop-coddling, Mike Brown-denigrating mayor of Ferguson, Mo.—was re-elected. He beat out Ella Jones, a black woman and member of the City Council, by fewer than 600 votes. This is just a few weeks after Tishaura Jones, the city treasurer, lost her bid to be St. Louis mayor by a mere 888 votes.
These results are disgraceful, inexcusable and ultimately frightening. The entire black population of metro St. Louis is in the sunken place, and I don’t think even Rod of the T.S. Mutha&^%-A could get them out.
This is becoming a pattern. Another symbolic election in the St. Louis metro area. Another city where the majority of the population is black. Another historic mayor’s race where the first African-American woman could have been elected to that office. Another stunning example of black voters failing to muster even a modicum of self-respect and civic engagement to take control of their own destiny. When you dig into the numbers of Tuesday night’s Ferguson election, it’s even more disgusting.
James Knowles, a 37-year-old white man who’s been in office for the last seven years, has now won three elections for mayor of Ferguson and two elections since the unrest and protests in the fall of 2014 over the killing of Brown. There are more than 24,000 residents in Ferguson, and the city’s population is more than 70 percent African American.
Ella Jones, who was elected to the City Council in 2015 running on a platform of forcing local police to keep cameras on at all times, demographically and statistically should have won this election going away. And yet ...
Ferguson mayor’s race:
James W. Knowles III:
With 100 percent of precincts voting, and all the votes counted a total of 3,727 people voted. There are no reports of massive voter intimidation, fraud or ballot-stealing. The people in Ferguson either don’t know, don’t show or don’t care about who runs their city. What’s worse is that given the disproportionate number of African-American voters in Ferguson, even if every white person voted for James Knowles, he still probably got about 40 percent of the black vote in order to win.
“‘Well, the black person won’t be any different than a white person in office so why should I care?’” is the mentality of many of the black voters in Ferguson, according to Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a Democratic state senator whose district encompasses the city. While she did not endorse anyone in the Ferguson mayor’s race, she says that Knowles’ victory boils down to local constituent service.
“Yeah, people didn’t like how he handled Ferguson, but he helped get that 100-year-old tree moved from their backyard, or got them a waiver to build something on their house,” Chappelle-Nadal said.
Chappelle-Nadal argues that despite the oppressive violence and white supremacy that is apparent in Ferguson, the black community needs to come up with a better candidate strategy. Poverty, environmental justice and a living wage need to be integrated into messaging about police reform.
“You can’t just be a pretty face; you have to inspire people, you have to be a hustler,” said Chappelle-Nadal in reflecting on not just Ella Jones’ loss in Ferguson but also the primary loss by Tishaura Jones.
There is some context to Chapelle-Nadal’s assessment. The ingredients are all there: Years of collusion between white Democrats and Republicans, gerrymandering, voter suppression and inept black leadership have baked a humble pie of passive black voters in and around St. Louis. Ferguson in particular had little history of protest before Mike Brown’s death. Basic strategies like get-out-the-vote and effective messaging are still a challenge.
However, the history of Ferguson can only go so far in justifying apathy. While Ella Jones may not have been the most inspiring candidate, does that mean James Knowles’ milquetoast rhetoric was inspiring? At some point, black folks have to become their own catalysts for freedom and reform. If you have to be “inspired” to vote against a mayor who twiddled his thumbs while Mike Brown’s dead body lay in the street for hours, maybe you don’t really deserve justice. That’s not how liberation works. That’s not how any part of democracy works.
This isn’t about strategy, this isn’t about white voters playing chess while black folks play checkers. This is more primal. White Americans have shown, locally, statewide and nationally, they will vote for a white candidate even against their own material self-interest, so long as that candidate shows a willingness to maintain and uphold white supremacy. Despite being the targets of state-sponsored graft and violence for decades, black folks in Ferguson can’t even be trusted to vote for their own survival if the vessel is African American and a woman.
A day before the Ferguson election, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he was basically going to rescind almost every police consent decree across the United States. This is at the same time that St. Louis County, where Ferguson is, just passed an $80 million measure to put more cops on the street. Would another state-sponsored killing of an unarmed black man be enough to inspire local voters to turn out and take control of their own political lives in Ferguson? Probably not. Some people are trying, but there aren’t enough of them. Some people don’t want to be saved.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to reflect most recent vote counts from the city of Ferguson elections.