On the fateful August day that turned out to be Michael Brown's last, the residents of Ferguson, Missouri, had no idea that their lives were about to change forever. The unarmed teenager's shooting death at the hands of former police officer Darren Wilson sparked a national movement. Protests went on for months, and a Department of Justice investigation into the patterns and practices of the city's police department confirmed the demonstrators' complaints of disparate and often cruel treatment by those whose job is to protect and serve.
On April 7, the small St. Louis suburb will once again be under a microscope. Will Ferguson's African-American voters take advantage of an opportunity to alter the racial makeup of its city council or stay at home as they historically have done during off-year elections?
Currently, only one African-American sits on the council that serves the city's three wards. Three of the five white members are stepping down, making room for two of the four African-American candidates vying for seats to take their place. In Ward 3, retiree Lee Smith and Wesley Bell, a young college professor and municipal judge, are competing for the same seat. Both are African-American.
The Ferguson of today, Smith told BET.com, bears little resemblance to the place he moved to 27 years ago. Police officers were part of the fabric of the community; the people they served were their neighbors. When Smith's 10 children were very young, he instructed them to "run and talk to the men in uniform" if they ever found themselves in trouble — a lesson he ultimately had to revise.
"Today it's run from them," he said.
Ferguson's population also has changed in the nearly three decades he has lived there, and African-Americans now comprise 67 percent of the once predominantly white community. During that time, Smith has observed the way Blacks have been harassed by police officers and used by the municipal government to fill the city's piggy bank. If elected, his top priorities will be working to ensure that the community's police officers reflect the citizens they serve and to build respect between the two sides.
"When the shooting took place, I began to look at the anger and hurt, the people suffering from those disparities," said Smith. "No one else was stepping up to be a part of changing the policies in our community, so I made a decision to run."
On the campaign trail, Ward 3 residents have told Smith they will support him on Election Day. He is optimistic and a little bit skeptical. Years of the status quo, he says, have led residents to believe their voices don't count at the ballot box so working to change that perspective has become just as important as whipping up votes.
"That has become a very important part of my message: I can't win without you and you can't win unless you vote," Smith says. "The winning is about us, the community; it's not about me."
Missouri Rep. Lacy Clay, whose congressional district includes Ferguson, also is concerned about turnout.
"Voters need to understand the impact local government has on their daily lives, be it the school board, the mayor, the city council," he told BET.com. "They are the ones who pick the city manager, the municipal court judge, the local prosecutor and the police chief."
April 7, Clay added, will be a key day in Ferguson history and turnout will tell him "whether people really want to change the look of local government."
But according to Eddie Glaude Jr., chairman of Princeton University's Center for African-American Studies, as the young protesters have demonstrated, there's more than one way to make change.
"If turnout is low, it seems we have to look at where the faith is being placed and it's not necessarily in election outcomes. It might be somewhere else and the question for us to ask is where is that somewhere else," he said. "People will say, for example, that what the students and young folks did by getting into the streets wasn't effective in the long term and we know that's not true given the city manager is no more and the chief of police is no more. They're not getting stopped as much. None of that would have happened if the young people weren't protesting and none of that had anything to do with elections at the local level."
Bell is an assistant professor of criminal justice at St. Louis Community College and a practicing attorney who has done a lot of volunteer work to aid engage the city's youth and young adults. He says that improving the relationship between the community and law enforcement is his primary campaign message.
"When you're dealing with law enforcement and even our courts, it starts with the public trust," he told BET.com. "When that's been damaged, our entire justice system is damaged as well."
One day a week, Bell works as a municipal court judge in Velda City, which is giving some people pause about his candidacy.
"I'm just amazed that he would even run," says Patricia Bynes, a Democratic Party committeewoman for Ferguson Township.
While she admires his personal accomplishments, Bynes says Bell is part of the problem that has plagued the St. Louis region, noting that Velda City is being sued by the state attorney general's office for taking in more revenue then it's supposed to.
"I don't think that sends the right message for people who are serious about change," says Bynes, who is backing Smith in the Ward 3 race.
But Bell thinks that argument is both lazy and baseless and those who are making it are perpetuating a stereotype.
"One thing we've learned in this country is that to throw a blanket over all Black people or all white people or all Asians is wrong. I think that's the same with someone's role in municipal government," he said. "It's not whether or not they have a role but what they are doing with that role. Are they help to reform the system? Are they doing positive things?"
In his case, Bell adds, the answer is yes. In addition, as someone who grew up in the area, he can personally relate to the experiences many of the city's young protesters have shared. He and his friends were pulled over by the police and forced to sit on the curb while their cars were searched several times but it wasn't until he was in law school that he began to realize, "Hey, that wasn't right."
As a municipal judge, says Bell, who also is a former public defender, he has cut excessive fines, worked out payment arrangements and in some cases dismissed citations.
"What you're getting from me is someone who has seen both sides of the fence, professionally and also my personal experience is right here in this area with the same issues," Bell said. "I think people need to realize these issues preceded Aug. 9. They didn't start seven months ago. They've been going on for a long time and there are many of us who have been fighting this good fight for a long time."
Like Smith, Bell has made voter registration and turnout a key part of his message and has encouraged residents to be more involved in their communities through such activities as neighborhood association meetings. Ward 3, he says, has the youngest demographic and many young adults are working multiple jobs and raising families, so it's difficult for them to be more active.
"I think we have to try and keep pushing," says Bell, who believes everyone must be held accountable and be more civically engaged.
Are his and others' expectations unrealistic and/or too high?
Bynes doesn't think so. Since March 7, students from universities from all over the nation have poured into Ferguson each weekend to help get out the vote. In addition to providing information about the candidates and other election details, they're "letting residents know you can't just vote people in, you have to get engaged and stay a part of the conversation."
Residents of Ferguson and communities across the nation have woken up, she said. "If people are trying to fight against police brutality and police abusing their power, they have to fight at the local level. I believe that Ferguson people understand that," Bynes added.
Glaude, who believes that democratic awakening comes in different forms, has a different take, and whatever the outcome on April 7 is, it's just another step in the process.
"If folks turn out in massive numbers, good. If they don't, good," he said. "What the election in Ferguson suggests is that no matter what's happening, it's the beginning of a new season of calling attention to what has happened. It's going to reflect that the game is changing, that something is happening, and it hasn't stopped because it got cold. In fact, the ground is thawing and summer will be hot."
Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick.
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(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)