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In Ferguson, a movement builds for political engagement

A movement is building to get the city's young black residents engaged in the political process.
Protests over Michael Brown shooting
Demonstrators protest the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. on Aug. 21, 2014

FERGUSON, Missouri -- Since not long after Michael Brown's death at the hands of a white police officer, attention has focused on the racial imbalance in this city's government. Though two in three residents are black, Ferguson's leadership is almost entirely white. 

But a movement is building to change that. Over the last week, an energetic campaign has taken shape to spur greater political engagement among African-Americans in the area. Nearly two weeks after Brown was shot, that effort to invest in the slow and difficult work of creating political change may now be supplanting the raw anger and outrage that has characterized the mood here until lately.

Some of those involved in the effort say they've already seen signs of an awakening -- especially among younger residents of this St. Louis suburb who until now have largely been alienated from politics. 

"They understand now that they have a powerful voice, and that voting is one way to make that voice heard."'

Brown's Aug. 9 death and the response to it have caused a "dramatic shift," said Miranda Jones, whose social services organization, Better Family Life, set up a voter registration table at the spot on Canfield Drive where Brown died, and where a makeshift memorial now sits. "They understand now that they have a powerful voice, and that voting is one way to make that voice heard."

On Saturday, Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, who has led the police operation here, will be at the front of a NAACP march that will encourage young people to engage in the political process, Theresa Dear, a national NAACP board member said. Tables will be set up to register voters.

On Thursday at Florissant and Ferguson, right outside the corner store where police have alleged Brown stole cigars, Merdean Gales of the Progressive National Baptist Convention manned a voter registration table. In two hours of work, she and other volunteers had already registered 50 new voters.

"The climate of the community has changed," said Gales. "That was the component that was missing from the movement this week."

Alderman Antonio French, a key figure in Ferguson's peaceful protests, said he's already begun collecting information on black voting rates in Ferguson, as part of a major voter registration drive. French said on Twitter he wants to "start registering every black person in Ferguson."

French said he expects to sign a lease Thursday for a storefront on W. Florissant Ave, which he plans to use as a headquarters for the effort. He also intends to help put together a slate of candidates, and to start grooming young black political leaders. And French said a team of lawyers is examining the city charter in hopes of putting together a campaign to recall Ferguson mayor James Knowles, who many blacks here say is indifferent to their concerns.

Until now, a number of factors have combined to cause chronically low turnout rates among the city's black residents. For one thing, the black population tends to be newer to the area and more transient than the white population. Both things are associated with a reduced likelihood of voting. 

The rules also haven't helped: Ferguson holds its elections in April of odd-numbered years. That's a date that tends to lead to lower turnout rates for all groups — but the drop-off is even bigger among minorities. 

Missouri also has long been a hot-spot for Republican efforts to make voting harder. Lawmakers have recently tried to change the state's constitution to allow for a voter ID law, and have worked to limit the number of days that early voting can be offered.

"If that’s not fanning the political flames, I don’t know what is."'

The state's leaders are eager to show that they're engaged, too. In a letter sent Thursday to state lawmakers, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Republican, called for the creation of a special bipartisan legislative committee to look into the problems that led to the crisis in Ferguson, from failures of law enforcement to the lack of good jobs. 

Not everyone's happy about the activism.

“If that’s not fanning the political flames, I don’t know what is,” Matt Wills, the executive director of the state Republican Party, told Breitbart News, referring to the registration tables at Brown's memorial site. “I think it’s not only disgusting but completely inappropriate.”

But French said his campaign is a response to a growing sentiment that the only way to make life better for blacks here is to get engaged in the process.

"People were asking, what are we going to do politically?" he said. "Marching has its place, but it can only do so much."