After the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown on their streets—leading to months of protests and a revealing Justice Department report that identified widespread racial profiling and mistreatment of Black citizens by local police—the people of Ferguson, Mo. took their anger, pain and desire for a better place to the voting booths yesterday in their most powerful statement yet.
Change can come with political power, and the residents backed up their claim of wanting citywide enhancements and fairness by electing a pair of Black city council members.
This represents an historic power shift in this town outside of St. Louis that has been the epicenter of demonstrations and a national movement to end excessive and deadly force by police. The elections of Wesley Bell in Ward 3 and Ella Jones in Ward 1 means that for the first time Ferguson, which is two-thirds African-American, will have Black politicians control half of the council.
Twenty-nine percent of eligible voters cast more than 3,700 ballots, which more than doubles the 12 percent of eligible voters who came out a year ago to vote for mayor.
“We need more representation because you have to understand the culture of the people and you need to understand how to interact with people,” Jones said.
It became imperative that Black representation make its way on the city council after the Justice Department report last month confirmed a vast culture within the police department of profiling African-Americans, unwarranted arrests and jailing citizens who could not pay fines as a cash source for officials.
Bell, 40, takes over in the area where Brown was gunned down by officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. He is a criminal justice instructor and municipal judge. He said he will focus on community policing, changing the city’s court system and spurring economic development.
“We need to double down and implement policing where departments are part of the community and not distant from the community,” Bell said.
Jones, who was a sales director for Mary Kay for 20 years, said she wants to give residents more opportunities to voice their concerns through town hall meetings and wants to look into ways to create jobs in the city.
Ferguson has been on edge since the death of Brown, with consistent protests and media from across the world trying to peek into the city’s heart. The universal call from the citizens is a desire to return to some sense of normalcy without reporters or law enforcement presence.
Heavy rain and winds came through Ferguson on voting day, drawing concerns from many that the weather would deter people from voting. The weather muted turnout early in the day, but it picked up later, as the weather cleared.
“Luckily we had no power outages, so the weather was only an irritant rather than a major issue,” said Eric Fay, the St. Louis County director of elections. Free rides and refreshments were offered to residents at the polls and volunteers knocked on doors encouraging readers to vote.
Throughout Tuesday, candidates offered residents free rides.
Fey said he was pleased with the turnout but not so certain citizens will be so active in future elections.
“I think it’s a shame that it took all the events and attention for people to come out and vote for their city council,” Fey said. “Only time will tell if people remain engaged.”