FERGUSON, Missouri — For some in this bruised, little city, racked for months with anxiety following the killing of Michael Brown Jr., there’s hope that a march to the ballot box will accomplish what marching on the streets alone hasn’t.
The city on Tuesday holds its first municipal election since Brown’s shooting by a white police officer last August unleashed more than 200 days of sporadic and at times violent protests. Up for grabs are three seats on the Ferguson City Council and perhaps more so, the reins on the city’s future.
“This election is a big deal because this is our opportunity to show the world that real change is possible,” said Tony Rice, a Ferguson resident and activist. “It’s a big deal because a lot of the people sitting on the sidelines who hadn’t been part of the protests are going to get their chance to show that their way is possible. This is for the generation that said voting is the way.”
The outcome of the election will be the latest fallout from a blistering Justice Department report that found widespread federal and constitutional abuses of black citizens by Ferguson’s nearly all-white police department and its municipal courts. The police chief, the city manager and a municipal judge were ousted or resigned in the wake of the DOJ report.
City council members will be integral to the search to fill those positions and pushing corrective measures to fix the city’s broken court system. The council will also be working with other city leaders, brick by brick, to rebuild sections of the city torched and leveled by rioting that broke out in November after a grand jury declined to indict Brown’s killer, Darren Wilson.
The council will likely join police leaders and the mayor in negotiations with the DOJ over an impending (and costly) consent decree that will require specific reforms in the police department.
Beyond just replacing the cogs of what many, including federal investigators, have described as an unfair and abusive system that put profits over public safety, Tuesday’s vote offers Ferguson a chance at making history and healing after months of unrest.
With a population of about 21,000, Ferguson is 67% African-American, but there’s only one African-American on the seven-person city council. And that councilman, Dwayne T. James of Ward 2, is only the second African-American councilperson in the city’s 120-year history.
Tuesday’s election could change that.
Among the eight candidates running to fill three vacant seats representing Wards 1, 2 and 3, four are African-American— two black men and two black women.
In Ward 2, Brian Fletcher, who is white and the most recent former mayor, is facing upstart Bob Hudgins, who is also white and has actively participated in protests following Brown’s killing.
Fletcher is viewed as the establishment candidate. During his tenure as mayor, he oversaw the hiring of disgraced former police chief Tom Jackson and John Shaw, the city manager who resigned during the fallout from the DOJ’s report.
Hudgins, the father of a bi-racial child, is the de facto protest candidate whose supporters hope can be a bridge between the city’s beleaguered black community and its old-line white residents.
"This election is a big deal because this is our opportunity to show the world that real change is possible."'
In an interview with msnbc, Fletcher said the focus on Brown’s killing and the DOJ report was out of proportion to the challenges the city council faces. “We’ve done four candidate forums and most of the attention given has been about the Department of Justice findings, not the normal stuff you’d talk about during a normal election,” Fletcher told msnbc. “Ninety-five percent of our discussion has focused on what transpired over the last 7 months, but being a councilman is about things much broader than that.”
Fletcher listed other problems the city faces, like getting potholes fixed, plowing snow and clamping down on noisy pets. “What we’re going through right now is very extreme and unusual for a city to experience. And we’re going to deal with it,” Fletcher said.
A bigger mystery than who will win the elections is who will actually turn out to vote. While the overwhelming majority of adults in the city are registered to vote, voter turnout, particularly among black residents, has lagged. In the last municipal election only 12% of registered voters turned out.
Hudgins, for his part, said that if turnout remains that low this time “I will lose.” He told msnbc he hopes Tuesday’s election results will shift demographics on the council to “Three African-Americans and me.” He added, “If I lose, that means nothing changes and we have a serious democracy problem here. That is a banana republic and I have not cracked the code.”
Many activists hope there will be a surge in voter participation with all of the attention on this election and the high stakes. Optimistic estimates are hovering around 25%. Turnout could also be bolstered thanks to outside groups who’ve offered money and activists to get out the vote efforts and to support specific candidates.
A coalition of national groups including the Working Families Party, MoveOn.org and Democracy for America has teamed up with a group of state and local activists including the Organization for Black Struggle, to produce election literature and get out the vote efforts.
The coalition has thrown its support behind Lee Smith, an African-American running against Wesley Bell, also African-American, in Ward 3, and Hudgins in Ward 2. Smith is a retired union worker and Bell is a prosecutor and judge, which could be a liability in the current climate of ire aimed at local criminal justice system.
“The current leadership in the city has created a police department that is violent, hyperactive and unaccountable, and they’ve been unwilling or unable to fix it,” said Kellie Willis, a member of the Organization for Black Struggle.
The Working Families Party endorsed Smith and Hudgins, saying it was important to “elect Ferguson candidates who believe black lives matter.”
Still, the goal of bolstering turnout could be hampered if many of the young protesters and their supporters don’t show up. Many of the most vocal protest leaders have expressed their doubts about the system more broadly, arguing that voting alone cannot fix the fundamental problems in Ferguson.
“I’m just going to say it. They’ve been sitting on the sidelines. They’ve turned it over to the so-called voter community,” Tony Rice said of his protester compatriots. “Which is okay. I guess some people are just built for protesting.”
That’s the danger for the protest movement: If those on the protest line stay away from the polls and the candidates aligned with their platform aren’t elected, the results may be seen as a referendum on the state of the movement.
Eric Vickers, a veteran activist and chief of staff to St. Louis State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, said many protestors don’t see voting as a plausible path to change. “I think it’s a mistake to think that people see the solution in the election process, in fact many young people don’t see the election process really being able to provide a solution,” he said. “While that is an aspect of the movement it’s not the critical factor.”
The election, Vickers said, likely won’t make much of a dramatic difference in the short term, as the issues have “become much larger than Ferguson and really much larger than just an election of the officials there.”
Vickers was critical of the entire cast of city council candidates, none of whom have publicly endorsed the dismantling of the city’s police department, seen by many as key to reform in the city. “They want to basically maintain the status quo, and the situation is too huge for just some tweaking or just some reform,” Vickers said.
Rice, who is supporting Hudgins in the Ward 2 race, said he has volunteered countless hours trying to get his man elected. Rick said he’s knocked on hundreds of doors and planted yard signs. In recent months, Rice said, he’s also worked to gather signatures on a petition to recall Mayor Knowles, who has been somewhat of a defiant and controversial figure throughout the Ferguson ordeal.
“I’ve been on the ground. I’m not one of these administrative types, I’m knocking on doors and canvassing,” Rice said. “And many people I meet say we really want change. They are like we don’t know what change looks like or what it’s supposed to look like but they want it more than anything.”