The Rev. Al Sharpton, host of msnbc’s “Politics Nation,” spoke at the Greater Grace Church’s services yesterday, and addressed the crisis surrounding Michael Brown’s death from a variety of angles. Of particular interest, though, was one of Sharpton’s challenges to the community itself.
“Michael Brown is gonna change this town,” he said, before criticizing the paltry voting record on the area. “You all have got to start voting and showing up. 12% turnout is an insult to your children.”
That was not an exaggeration. The historical and institutional trends that created the current dynamic in Ferguson – a largely African-American population led by a largely white local government – are complex, but the fact that black voters haven’t been politically engaged has contributed to the challenges facing the community. In the most recent elections, turnout really was just 12%.
Patricia Bynes, a black woman who is the Democratic committeewoman for the Ferguson area, told the New York Times that last week’s developments may shake the complacency that too often shapes local politics. “I’m hoping that this is what it takes to get the pendulum to swing the other way,” Bynes said.
To that end, Ferguson residents have had an enormous amount of work to do over the last several days – mourn, grieve, protest, and recover, all while struggling through moments of violence – but haven’t forgotten about the importance of civic engagement in general, and voter registration in specific.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a piece over the weekend that included a striking detail (thanks to my colleague Laura Conaway for the heads-up).
Rev. Rodney Francis of the St. Louis Clergy Coalition pointed to voter registration tent at the scene. “That’s where change is gonna happen,” Francis said.Debra Reed of University City and her daughter, Shiron Hagens, were working at the registration tent. They said they set it up on their own.“We’re trying to make young people understand that this is how to change things,” Reed said.
Note, some Republican-led states have made voter-registration drives far more difficult in recent years – Florida, for example, has imposed harsh restrictions without cause – but no such hindrances exist in Missouri.
State GOP policymakers have taken steps to restrict voting rights and curtail early voting, but none of this should be seen as an excuse to discourage Ferguson residents from registering and participating. The kind of systemic changes many in the community crave can be achieved through the ballot box.
To repeat Sharpton’s message: “You all have got to start voting and showing up. 12% turnout is an insult to your children.”