Something fishy is going down in Ferguson, Mo.—and it’s not just with the cops.
While that hint of something not quite right grows with each passing retaliatory arrest and botched grand jury probe, the extent is still unclear. But at one time, political change in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing seemed like a foregone conclusion. And after months of unrest in Ferguson, the next logical step for city officials in the struggling, once-sleepy St. Louis suburb was to do what was necessary—and right—to restore peace and justice … or so we thought.
Recent reports, along with The Root’s conversations with a number of sources, suggest growing doubt that that will ever happen, with a growing sense in the community that various political and “social justice” players are either deliberately or unwittingly undermining any momentum on the ground. Instead, we’re seeing a destructive convergence of the heels-dug-in white political machine and a largely dysfunctional and fragmented collection of African-American advocates.
And this week, fresh questions were raised about the political situation in and around Ferguson when the St. Louis County Board of Elections suddenly revised an initial flood of 3,287 newly registered Ferguson residents down to just 128—how did that happen?
The reasons for the “discrepancy” are unclear, with county Elections Director Rita Heard Days being described on Twitter by USA Today’s Yamiche Alcindor as “flabbergasted” and denying any “hanky-panky.” Alcindor then followed up with Missouri Secretary of State Communications Director Laura Swinford, who confirmed that St. Louis County did, indeed, pull the wrong voter-registration report.
To many observers, that snafu is suspicious because numerous civil rights activists, celebrities, elected officials and black Greeks had hit Ferguson streets in a rapid voter-registration drive within days of Brown’s shooting and the legendary clashes along that infamous stretch of West Florissant Avenue.
Stunned, sources talking off the record are now sorting out two possibilities: 1) St. Louis County is attempting to pull off an old-fashioned racist okey-doke, whereby thousands of black voters are automatically disenfranchised in a bid to maintain Ferguson’s white power structure; and/or 2) Black advocacy organizations such as the local NAACP and 100 Black Men did not conduct proper due diligence and follow-through.
Voter-registration problems aren’t unusual. In a 2013 Brennan Center for Justice report recommending modernization of the process, experts slammed a “ramshackle voter-registration system … based on a blizzard of paper records.”
But fueling speculation is the bizarre silence of the St. Louis County NAACP and 100 Black Men as well as save-Ferguson social media sensations like St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who lit up Twitter with getting-to-the-bottom-of-this proclamations, like the Aug. 21 tweet in which he boasted of an entire “morning at the Board of Elections getting maps/data to start registering every black person in Ferguson.”
French did not initially respond to multiple requests for comment, as he was preparing for a trip to China this week. However, observers and organizers familiar with the situation describe bands of fractious “social-justice warriors” and local officials preventing any unified or coherent political effort. Others describe a Game of Thrones-like scenario in which area politics are becoming tainted over questions about who wants to go after Rep. Lacy Clay’s (D-Mo.) congressional seat—which includes Ferguson—and fear among some black politicians that a clean sweep of local white politicians may alienate critical white votes needed down the road.
And despite ongoing demonstrations, along with a seemingly endless schedule of town halls and forums, residents have not found any relief from police crackdowns with the same white mayor, white police chief and nearly all-white City Council (save one black member) remaining in power.
A main reason residents have experienced little change is that, at the moment, there is no organized and existential political threat to Ferguson’s politicians, and hopes for a recall election have been dashed by what sources point to as vicious political infighting.
It’s no secret that Missouri Revised Statutes Section 77.650 offers an immediate solution: Once activists field candidates and get petitions from 25 percent of registered Ferguson voters, new elections can be called within 60 days. Observers point to the recall threat as a potential (but unproved) motivation behind the county Board of Elections’ mysterious voter-registration debacle—especially with the announcement made one day before the state registration deadline.
“I thought that recall would’ve been a natural progression after all that’s happened,” said Missouri state Rep. Clem Smith (D-85th District).
But Missouri state Rep. Sharon Pace (D-74th District) admits that while a recall is on the table, so far, candidates to replace Ferguson’s mayor and City Council have not yet been identified.
Said Pace: “It’s in the way we execute.”
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.