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?
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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.
Let’s stop insulting the intelligence of Ferguson’s residents: Political mobilization is hard, but it is possible. Low black turnout is not just Ferguson’s or St. Louis County’s institutionalized racism at work; it’s also an epic fail on the part of community leaders who long ago should have tapped into what could be a perpetually powerful black voting bloc.
Ferguson’s residents do have options, and they must begin the important phase of exercising them. Show them how to holistically master the political game through a blend of sophisticated advocacy and digital campaigns. Show them how to change not only faces in government but also the way their city, county and state tackles chronic poverty, unemployment, crime and bad schools. Organize idling residents looking for an outlet by creating political action committees, registering them to vote, advising them on the next elections or showing them how to force emergency ones in the immediate future. Have them identify candidates and leadership who will, finally, work in their best interests.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.