Friday, September 19, 2014

Report from Ferguson: "I never knew I had so much power!"

Photo:  Scott Olson, Getty
Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words.  If you want to understand the power dynamics of Ferguson, Missouri, look at the this image of the mayor and city council seated at the dais, with the citizens below standing on the floor.  Houston, we have a problem.

Last night, we attended an eye-opening community organizing meeting in Ferguson that engaged in an analysis of the power dynamics there.  I learned a lot about the underlying problems exposed by the death of Mike Brown.  This learning reinforced the organizing adage:  "You only get as much justice as you have power to compel."

I want to begin with some facts about Mike Brown's murder and its impact.  What I heard from many Ferguson residents is outrage and disgust that basic police protocols were not followed.  The officer who killed Mike Brown, Darren Wilson, fled the scene.  There are questions about the filing and handling of the incident report.  Mike Brown's body was allowed to lie in the street for four hours - uncovered for much of the time - and was then removed by a police SUV rather than an ambulance.

This contempt toward the life of a young black man was reinforced by racial epithets used by police throughout the Ferguson rebellion, revealing an undisciplined and bigoted police culture.  Ferguson residents report a long history of police violence and harassment.  This is exacerbated by the disconnect between a nearly all-white police force and a two-thirds black community.  Ferguson police are not required to live in the city and most do not.

In addition, there is a long-time practice of hiring officers who resigned from other law enforcement agencies due to disciplinary problems.  Evidently, the greater St. Louis region has a revolving door policy of moving problem officers from one jurisdiction to another.  One of the current Ferguson city council members, Kim Tihen, served for four years on the Ferguson police force and has been implicated in a police brutality case dating to her time on the force.

With respect to the case of Mike Brown's death, the county prosecutor responsible for presenting the case for a grand jury indictment, Bob McCulloch, has a reputation for protecting bad cops.  He has several family member who work or have worked for law enforcement agencies, and his father was killed by an African-American man.  All this raises questions about his impartiality, yet he has refused to recuse himself from the case.

During the state of emergency declared by Governor Jay Nixon, the Governor had the authority to appoint a special prosecutor to replace McCullough.  Nixon rescinded the state of emergency just one hour before the Don't Shoot Coalition made a public statement calling for a special prosecutor, so that he would no longer be on the hook for responding to the request.  There has been a failure of leadership and basic fairness at every level of the system.

What is to be done?

Ferguson citizens have to reclaim their power, beginning with electoral power.  There are approximately 13,745 registered voters in Ferguson, a city of about 21,000 people.  Only 11% of them voted in the last municipal election; 17% of white voters turned out and only 6% of black voters.

For example, Councilwoman Tihen won her seat by receiving just 288 out of 552 votes cast in her district.  Councilman David Conway received 72 out of the 168 votes cast in his district.  Even Mayor James Knowles running citywide garnered only 1,314 out of 1,325 votes cast.  It only requires a slight uptick in voter turnout to bring in a new city council and mayor.  The city council hires the city manager, who hires the police chief.  Accountability begins with the city council.

On Saturday, we will be canvassing in Ferguson to get out the vote; old fashioned door-to-door work.  There are a lot of newly energized voters in Ferguson who are sick and tired of being sick and tired.  They are beginning to realize what one young man said after last night's organizing event, "I never knew I had so much power."

Paul Fitzgerald, SJ, the new president of the University of San Francisco, said recently that "Roman Catholics have a moral obligation to vote."  Faith leaders in every religious community need to reaffirm our shared responsibility for the common good and encourage civic engagement at every level of our common life.

No comments: