In covering the violence engulfing Ferguson, Missouri, media routinely cite the following numbers to explain the frustration of the minority community there:
Ferguson’s population is two-thirds African-American, yet the mayor, five of the six City Council members and nearly the entire police force are white.
But there are other numbers. In the municipal election held last year, 52 percent of the voters were white — in a city, to repeat, that is 67 percent black.
The first set of numbers is related to the second.
Clearly, what we are calling a minority population is a majority. If most of Ferguson’s eligible African-American voters feel that the city government treats them unfairly, they have a simple remedy: They can elect a different city government.
Black city leaders have made this case, but their message has been lost in the drama of downtown burning and looting. Chaos afflicted this city in August after a white police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American. Chaos has descended again after a grand jury declined to indict the officer involved.
In between was a midterm election, in which only 42 percent of registered Ferguson voters turned out to cast ballots for the powerful office of St. Louis County executive. This participation was actually 10 percentage points below that of the previous midterm in 2010.
In the midterm elections nationally, blacks, Latinos, young people, single women and other generally progressive voting groups failed to show up in large numbers. Older white people did.
Of course, calls for civic participation are hard pressed to compete for attention with the world’s news cameras looking for excitement. The Ferguson rioters — a crowd no doubt swelled by opportunists of all variety — are not leaving much to save. When the action ends, the cameras will depart.
The purpose here is not to second-guess the grand jury’s decision. There were highly conflicting witness reports of what happened.
Nor is the purpose to advocate voting along racial (or ethnic) lines. Voters will ideally cast their ballots for candidates deemed most capable of serving their needs.
Nor must a police force perfectly reflect the racial makeup of a population, though, it must be said, Ferguson’s imbalance seems extreme. But again, Ferguson’s black community can change this situation by electing officials sensitive to their concerns.
It’s true that Ferguson’s municipal elections schedule doesn’t encourage turnout. These elections take place in April, far from the traditional voting day in November. They also occur in non-presidential years, when turnout by minorities and young people traditionally drops. In the most recent municipal election, only 12 percent of registered voters — white, black or otherwise — cast ballots. Voters can change those dates.
This poor showing frustrates civic-minded African-Americans advocating change in a normal, nondestructive way.
“Every time there’s an election, we have to show up,” Patricia Bynes, a local black Democratic official, told Reuters. “I don’t care if we are voting what color the trash cans are. We need to show up.”
At Brown’s funeral, a family member called on mourners to make themselves heard at the polls. But only 204 residents of Ferguson registered to vote from the time of the fatal shooting to the Oct. 8 registration deadline for voting this year — only 204 in a city of 21,000 people.
And as pollsters keep reminding us, what determines the end result isn’t how many people register to vote. It’s how many registered voters actually come to the polls on Election Day.
This can’t be said often enough. The power that matters in Ferguson — and everywhere else — is exercised in the voting booth.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at [email protected] To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.
Photo: A protester raises her hands in the street as police use tear gas to try to take control of the scene near a Ferguson Police Department squad car after protesters lit it on fire on Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014, in the wake of the grand jury decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Ferguson, MO teen Michael Brown. (Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/TNS)