For almost half a year, demonstrators in the St. Louis area have protested against the shooting of an unarmed black teenager at the hands of a white officer. The demonstrations, which continued Wednesday with protesters taping a list of demands to St. Louis police headquarters, including creating “a diverse citizen review board with subpoena power” to review complaints about the police, have been about more than making a statement on what was viewed as excessive police force. Protesters have also lashed out against the power structure that they said is responsible for a culture that led to the death of Mike Brown at the hands of Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, without there being any consequences.
“The whole damn system is guilty as hell” is the start to one of the many chants shouted by protesters in Ferguson and St. Louis since Aug. 8, when Brown was killed in an incident that sparked a national debate on excessive police force and racial profiling. But there’s not much evidence of people of color trying to fight the system from within. With just three days left for candidates to file to run for the Board of Aldermen, St. Louis’ legislative body, and black representation on the board among the lowest it has been in years, there are still districts with black majorities but no black contenders.
“If Ferguson taught us anything, it is the importance of having representative government. Accountability and fairness come from that,” tweeted St. Louis Alderman Antonio French, who is black and gained a national profile by participating in protests and documenting scenes on the ground in Ferguson since the Aug. 9 shooting of Mike Brown by Police Officer Darren Wilson. "Don't feel like you're being represented? Step up. Run for office."
French could not be reached by IBTimes for further comment, but he tweeted Monday that two districts -- Ward 20 and Ward 6 -- have black majorities but no black candidates. Records from the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners from Tuesday morning showed no African-Americans had filed to run since French’s tweets.
Irl Scissors, a lobbyist and former Democratic political consultant based in St. Louis, said ineffective get-out-the-vote efforts and low black-voter registration are some of the barriers black candidates face. In Ferguson, which is 67 percent black, there is only one black city councilman. There are 17 black state legislators in Missouri out of 199 seats, or about 9 percent -- fewer than the state black population of around 12 percent.
“There are cases where predominantly African-American districts are represented by white elected officials and Ferguson is no exception,” Scissors said. “I really think it has to do with voter registration, it has to do with actual voter turnout and it has to do with real grass-roots mobilizing of the African-American community.”
Ferguson’s municipal elections are scheduled for April. In the last municipal election in 2013, white voters outnumbered blacks at the polls by a 3-to-1 margin, or 17 percent of eligible white voters cast ballots, compared with 6 percent of black voters.
African-Americans have power to make a difference in local elections, Scissors said. But that influence hasn’t been demonstrated so far in the post-Mike Brown era. In the first election since Brown’s death -- the race for St. Louis county executive -- the candidate backed by some black leaders, Republican Rick Stream, lost in part because black voters cast their ballots for the Democratic candidate, Steve Stenger. Those black leaders didn’t support Stenger because he stood by St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who chose not to recuse himself from the Brown shooting investigation. McCulloch wound up not indicting Wilson, and the November decision was followed by looting and protests.
But Gregg Keller, a Republican political consultant and founder of the St. Louis-based Atlas Strategy Group, said that race shouldn’t be a test case of the influence of black political leaders. “It wasn’t like Lacy Clay was coming and turning on the Clay machine on Stream’s behalf,” he said, referring to U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr., D-Mo., an influential black congressman in the St. Louis area who didn’t support Stream.
While the protests may have sparked political activism in people who weren’t politically engaged before, it’s won’t be an easy transition from protester to public official, Keller said. The most visible faces from Ferguson -- French and Missouri State. Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal -- are already established and have the skills to be political leaders, he said. And the “white Democrat power structure” in St. Louis, which gerrymandered districts to preserve power in a city where the north and south sides are virtually segregated, makes it tougher for a neophyte to come on the scene.
“That’s not going away,” he said. “There haven’t been people who have come out of nowhere to political prominence. There’s a new reality to Ferguson where there’s leaders with new clout. But they will run into the white South Side power structure that puts up a white candidate from the South Side of the city.”
Scissors said the county executive election shouldn’t dissuade promising African-American candidates from running for office. “With recent events, a lot of the Band-Aids have been torn off and there’s some open wounds there and I think the African-American community, they certainly can control their destiny,” he said.
The political power of St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who is in his fourth term and is the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history, is also a factor, Scissors said. "He's got years and years' worth of relationships that don't allow for newcomers," and the mayor would back an ally in the case of opposition to an alderman, he said.
"St. Louis as a whole is very provincial, so people have been here a long time and it's hard for newcomers to break through," Scissors said. "Antonio French is an example of someone who has broken through those old-school barriers."
Maggie Crane, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said the Board of Aldermen could be more diverse. St. Louis is about 48 percent black, according to the latest U.S. Census data, while 11 of the city’s 28 wards, or about 40 percent, are held by African-Americans (one seat is vacant.) “I think the numbers kind of speak for themselves. That’s not 50-50 representation,” Crane said. “We encourage people to get involved in all levels of government.”
Keller said a poor recruiting effort by the St. Louis City Democratic Central Committee may also be to blame for why the board doesn’t reflect the black population. “I don’t know if they didn’t recruit well or if there’s not interest in the seats. My guess is it’s low turnout combined with a certain amount of apathy or lack of interest in the seat,” he said. “The St. Louis City Democratic Central Committee – why they are not doing that -- Job One should be recruitment.”
Rochelle Walton Gray, a Democratic member of the Missouri House of Representatives whose district includes a piece of Ferguson, said it’s up to local leaders to recruit political candidates in places like Ferguson. “We have to be more diligent with recruiting people to run for office,” she said, adding that it’s unlikely that someone will decide to get into politics on their own without any backing. “One thing I learned entering into politics is you have to ask people to run.”
Scissors said enough time has passed since Ferguson that it would be an excuse to say it’s too early to see political change. “It is up to the African-American community to identify those strong potential leaders and get them out in the public and get them out as candidates,” he said.
At least in Ferguson, there may be signs that the political status quo is changing. The shooting has led to a surge in black voter registration that might increase black clout on the city council. Gray said black candidates are also learning that running against each other splits the vote and helps a white Republican candidate.
“In St. Louis County, we have to stick together more with campaigning and not running against one another, support each other and just do better with that,” she said.