FERGUSON, Missouri – Lee Smith was in search of a home for his future grandchildren. With his 10 adult children preparing to start their own families, Smith and his wife left St. Louis in 1988 for the mostly white suburban towns of northern St. Louis County, where good schools seemed to promise ample opportunity and joyful childhoods. They paid $44,900 for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home on Castro Drive in Ferguson. At the time, there were two other black households -- an unmarried nurse and a family headed by a man who worked for General Motors -- on a block of about three dozen similar-looking starter homes filled with white families.
The largely white neighborhood soon became predominantly black, changes that were eventually mirrored across Ferguson -- except in the city’s government. The new black residents -- mostly renters who didn’t pay property taxes -- were stopped frequently by white police officers. As they got older, Smith’s grandchildren had “very severe issues” with Ferguson police, he said, declining to elaborate. The city’s Public Works Department stopped prioritizing quality-of-life and beautification projects in Smith’s neighborhood.
The tension between the black majority and white elites reached a boiling point last year, when 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer. Black residents took to the streets, rallying for months against decades-old inequalities and a police department that seemed to treat them as less than equal to the whites who did not flee as blacks moved in. With his family on his mind once again, Smith, now a widower with 21 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren, took another leap. He signed up to run for city council.
“After this situation in August, you can see the desperation in our community and that there is a real need for change,” he said. “I have grandchildren [Brown’s] age. That’s my main concern. If we don’t change the culture of policing and our court systems, there’s going to be more Michael Browns.”
As Ferguson holds Tuesday its first government elections since Brown was killed on a sidewalk in his hometown in August, it’s unclear if the calls for change that rose from this community of 21,000 residents and echoed across the country after his death will make a difference. An uptick in African-American candidates and ongoing efforts to turn out black voters who have largely ignored local elections in the past will likely result in more diversity on the city council for the first time in Ferguson’s 120-year history. But city officials and community leaders said they don’t expect recent events will drive new voters to the polls or translate to greater political power for blacks here.
“We have these groups coming around saying ‘black lives matter.’ Well, if we intend to make all lives matter, then we have to make our votes matter,” said Smith.
For the eight candidates who have emerged, four black and four white, an almost clear mandate for local reforms came from the Department of Justice in a searing report released on March 4. Federal investigators found that the city-approved law enforcement strategy in the Ferguson Police Department had violated the U.S. Constitution by targeting African-Americans. In the fallout, the city manager and police chief resigned.
“What Do People Have To Experience Before They Get Involved?”
Voter education and registration efforts began shortly after Brown’s death amid weeks of violent clashes between protesters and county and state police forces. When a grand jury decided against charging Wilson in Brown’s shooting, setting off a new wave of violent protests and vandalism in late November, anyone who wanted to run for city council had only a few weeks left to officially declare their candidacy.
Voter participation in municipal elections across the area has historically been low and benefited whites. Turnout was 12 percent in the mayoral election of 2014. A council election in 2013 drew 11 percent of registered voters and just 9 percent of voters in 2012, according to records kept by the county.
Outside groups traveled to Ferguson to assist in registering voters before the March 11 deadline, but it’s unclear how much of a difference those efforts made. Since August, voter registrations have increased by just 4.6 percent to 12,689, or about 72 percent of age-eligible population.
“Voter mobilization is more of an issue than voter registration in municipal elections,” said Eric Fey, who works in the office of the St. Louis County Elections Board. “The turnout has been pretty paltry.”
Patricia Bynes, a black Democratic committeewoman in Ferguson Township, a municipality separate from the city, has been actively mobilizing voters and advising candidates in recent months. Bynes predicted voter turnout will go up this year because awareness is unprecedented. “But I don’t want the media to expect that we’ll get 100 percent voter turnout” because of the protests, she said. “Any type of increase over 12 percent is going to be almost a victory in itself.”
The general disinterest in city elections puzzles longtime residents like Brian Fletcher, a former mayor of Ferguson who is running for a Ward 2 seat on the city council against a white newcomer. Fletcher, who is white and claims 28 years of experience as an elected official in the area, said he’d seen few blacks step up to serve in any of the 200 positions on local boards and commissions.
After Brown’s death, the anger expressed in the protests didn’t translate to meaningful actions, Fletcher said. Of the three election forums held since candidates were certified in December, only one drew a crowd of more than 150 people.
“What do people have to experience before they get involved?” he said. “We’ve been living this nightmare since Aug. 9, and we still haven’t woken up.”
Ella Jones, an African-American candidate vying for a seat on the Ferguson City Council, set out on a recent afternoon to recruit voters across a hilly neighborhood of modest-looking, single-family homes in the center of Ferguson. A small supply of Elect Ella Jones Ward 1 lawn signs sat in the bed of her lightly used black Ford pickup truck.
“How many registered voters live here?” Jones asked a family of five returning home from the supermarket. A young woman preoccupied with getting her grocery bags, three children and a walker-aided elderly woman inside her home replied, “We have two.” Jones shared a wide smile and began her pitch. “We’re going to turn this thing around,” she promised the family, without mentioning Brown’s name.
A 36-year resident of Ferguson, Jones blamed voter apathy in recent decades on black residents' lack of trust in city officials. “If you’re leading and you turn around and there is nobody behind you, then you are just out for a walk,” she said in a critique of the current administration. “People shouldn't have to turn on the news to find out how bad things are in their own community.”
In Ward 1, where Jones canvassed last month, Julia Rita said she has had to field calls from concerned relatives as her city made national news. She was concerned that the images and news reports broadcast for weeks from the city during the unrest had given an inaccurate picture of the city’s white residents. “This is not Ferguson,” Rita, who is white, told Jones as she accepted a campaign pamphlet. “This is not our people.”
Many white residents have said they want the city elections to bring change as much as black residents do. Angelique Kidd, an 11-year resident of Bellman Avenue, said she recognized a negative change in Ferguson when her son went from being one of a few white students in his class to being the only one, as white flight impacted the town. She said the problems revealed after Brown’s death suggest accountability among elected officials had been lost. “I want to live in the community where people can admit that things aren’t perfect, and where whites can admit their mistakes,” said Kidd, 42.
A Divided Community
For Smith, Ferguson is still a good place to live. He’s proud that several of his grandchildren attended the local public schools. He has faithfully paid his taxes and engaged the community as a deacon at his church. But it’s not the same place he moved to with high hopes.
A city that was 85 percent white and 14 percent black in 1980 became 67 percent black and 29 percent white by 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The median household income has hovered around $38,685 since 2000. The whites who left didn’t sell their homes. They rented them out instead, contributing to a transient population with few stakes in how the city was run.
Many Ferguson residents see racial disparities as a major factor in the tension that existed before and after Brown’s shooting. On a recent Saturday, protesters marched past Marley’s Bar & Grill on South Florissant Road to the police station with Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., to call for a police force that is more representative of the community’s population. The chants of “Hands up, don’t shoot” drew an angry response from some white patrons who watched from along South Florissant’s business corridor.
“Part of our problem is there’s not a central, ‘come together’ message out there,” said Sarah Nahlik, a waitress at Marley’s and a lifelong city resident who wants the police department to end racially discriminatory practices. “[Protesters] are making a lot of noise. By voting, that’s making the right noise.”
Veronica O’Neil, a longtime resident of Ferguson, said many white residents are oblivious to the civil rights issues African-Americans are protesting in the city and around the country. “We’re so accustomed to this that we know how to live with it,” said O’Neil. “My grandson is black, definitely black. I tell him, ‘Grandson, they’re running a speed trap over here tonight. Go the other way.’ And that’s what he does. They’re targeting us blacks.”
Marquaello Futrell Sr., pastor of All Creation Northview Holiness Family Church, a predominantly black congregation located off of West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, said he understands the frustration from both sides in the community. After serving nine years as an officer of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, Futrell said he has used that experience to temper his members’ outrage at local police.
During a recent, well-attended Sunday service, Futrell stressed the importance of political engagement among his Ferguson members. “Outside of protesting, we have to go to the polls,” Futrell said in an interview. “It would definitely be a setback if we didn’t. We don’t want to jump on bandwagons, to be this emotional, and then we don’t show up.”