Black vote must count in Ferguson

3/26/2015, 1:23 p.m.
Ferguson, Mo., will hold municipal elections April 7. The mayor and five of the six city council members are white. ...
Earl O. Hutchinson

Earl O. Hutchinson

Ferguson, Mo., will hold municipal elections April 7. The mayor and five of the six city council members are white. Three are up for re-election.

Since Michael Brown was gunned down by former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, the one loud refrain has been how could a city where African-Americans make up the overwhelming majority of the population be policed by a nearly all-white police force, and governed by a nearly all-white city administration? The thought was that the Brown slaying angered and engaged so many thousands that it was almost a done deal that the first chance black residents got they’d jam the polls and totally revamp city government in Ferguson.

The revamp would mean the election of a majority black city council and mayor. This in turn could quickly mean the hiring of a black city manager and other top level administrators. This in turn could mean an overhaul of the police department to make diversity and reform a reality. Eight months after the Brown slaying, the April elections will put that thinking to the test.

The early signs aren’t good. In the nearly three-month period between the day Michael Brown was slain and Oct. 8, a worse than anemic 204 eligible adults in Ferguson newly registered. A month later, fewer than half of the nearly 25,000 registered voters in Ferguson bothered to go to the polls in the midterm elections.

The one faint stir of optimism is the recall petition filed against current mayor James Knowles. He has made it clear he won’t step down. He moved quickly to pose as the change agent, held a high profile press conference, and has mobilized black support to beat back the recall effort. Despite his protestations and promises to jump hard on the reform train, he can’t separate himself from a rigid, racially balkanized city governmental structure that has maintained iron-clad political control, and a racially polarizing police force and city administration.

The reasons for the chronic past no-shows of black people at the Ferguson polls in part mirror the reasons for the persistent low minority voter turnout in local and national elections in past years. The oft cited reasons are apathy, disinterest, GOP voter suppression, the sense that their vote won’t change anything, that there’s little difference between the two parties, and the inherent distrust of politicians. There’s also the deep sense that the Democratic Party routinely takes the black vote for granted.

A standard rule in American politics is that politicians appeal to, mobilize and champion programs and initiatives that are dear to the voters that are likely to vote for them. The other part of that rule is that those voters and constituents are for the most part white, middle class and politically vocal. The poor, especially the black poor, have never fit that demographic. Ferguson has been a near textbook example of the cycle of neglect and snub of black residents by a city council, mayor and city administration. African-Americans in Ferguson in turn have read the political tea leafs and repaid that with their indifference and disinterest.

Despite this entrenched pattern and past voting obstacles, there are compelling reasons for black people in Ferguson to rush to barricades this time to vote. One is the prospect of a regime change at city hall and the police force. Another is they could move to dump the despicable near shakedown racket that city officials have run for years that criminalizes virtually the city’s entire black population. Police and the courts issued 16,000 arrest warrants in one year in Ferguson, a city of less than 25,000. Many of the warrants were for unpaid parking and traffic tickets. The offenders were arrested, and sometimes rearrested with the fines doubling and tripling. The fines enriched city coffers as well as the pockets of a few public officials.

Another is there’s no excuse. The only requirement to vote is to be age 18, a U.S. citizen and a resident of Ferguson.

The April 7 election can be a turning point for Ferguson. If it’s not, and Ferguson stays Ferguson, then black people have no one to blame but themselves.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.