What Should Protesters Be Demanding in #Ferguson?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 19 2014 9:33 AM

What Should Protesters Be Demanding in #Ferguson?

The front page of today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch portrays an unnamed police officer firing cans of tear gas. It's an image for the ages.

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But when you read down the page, you can be excused if you don't know what the protesters want. The people who gathered in Tahrir Square in 2011 wanted Mubarak to go. The people who gathered outside the Capitol in April 2010 wanted Congress to vote down the Affordable Care Act.

What do the people in Ferguson want? We have some ideas, but they're not leading the coverage and they're not shared by the protesters. The front page of this paper gives us an update on Mike Brown's autopsy, on school closures, on how the protests are "embod[ying] conflict for viewers around the world," and on injuries sustained in the protests. In an editorial, the newspaper calls for "leaders" to "emerge" and "communicate clearly, among themselves, among each other and to the public," until the unrest can end. It's echoing the sentiments in this Julie Bosman report, which finds protesters and would-be community leaders squabbling and directionless. 

We learned three years ago, after the first Occupy protests, that mass arrests and police state tactics were surefire ways to get activists covered by the press. We also learned from Occupy that protests with uncertain themes and no leadership can peter out, leaving nothing behind but some slogans. ("We are the 99%.") In Ferguson, as at some Occupy protests, we see the arrival of some thugs who want to puff out their chests and toss Molotov cocktails in the name of "justice." (What's more cowardly than inciting violence when you know someone else, or a collective, will take the blame?)

I talked to a friend who'd been observing protests in Ferguson for an NGO, then poked through Twitter and some of the stories about the Brown family. What can the protesters demand? Here are three ideas.

1. Arrest Officer Darren Wilson. I covered the aftermath of Trayvon Martin's killing in Sanford, Florida, and while that city was on edge it never became the scene of Ferguson-style protests. You can count the reasons—the killing happened at night, in a gated community, so there was no rally; Sanford is a racially stratified city, not a mostly black suburb; the alleged killer was not a cop. "If we was in California," one Sanford resident told me, "they'd be burning this up."

But nothing burned up, and after George Zimmerman was arrested the tensions faded away. The idea that a kid could be shot and the shooter could walk away without a charge—that was the outrage. Benjamin Crump, who represented Martin's family, is representing Brown's family with the same public argument. "What else do they need to arrest the killer of my child?" he asked at a press conference yesterday, quoting Brown's mother. 

2. Demilitarize the police. The transfer of military ordnance to police departments, a sleeper story for the better part of a decade, has become a national scandal. Even in the Pew Research poll that finds whites and blacks divided in their responses to Ferguson, a plurality of whites say that the cops have gone "too far" responding to the protests. Any of them watching CNN yesterday saw Jake Tapper report, in disbelief, at "a scene out of Bagram" concocted to shoo away peaceful protesters.

Libertarians and liberals in Congress are already talking about demilitarizing the police; Georgia Rep. Hank Johnson has a bill ready to go. There might be space, too, for an investigation along the lines of the Kerner Commission, which could pull the cops out from behind their masks and anonymous threats to reporters.

3. Turn out the vote. The day after Mike Brown was shot, Mother Jones ran the numbers and noticed that Ferguson, a mostly black city, was almost entirely run by white politicians. Only three of 53 police officers were black. More than 92 percent of the police searches that happened in Ferguson happened to black people.

ThinkProgress' Ian Millhiser asks whether the timing of the city's elections—April, not November—guarantees a whiter electorate and a less representative local government. 

The fact that Ferguson’s elections are held at a time when few, if any, high-profile candidates are on the ballot contributes to an almost comically low voter turnout rate in these elections. In 2013, for example, just 11.7 percent of eligible voters actually cast a ballot.
Turnout is especially low among Ferguson’s African American residents, however. In 2013, for example, just 6 percent of eligible black voters cast a ballot in Ferguson’s municipal elections, as compared to 17 percent of white voters.

And "outside agitators"—the civil rights groups, not the bottle-throwing people—have already started responding to this. At his first speech in Ferguson, Al Sharpton condemned the city's low voter turnout. The Center for Constitutional Rights is offering voter registration near the scene where Mike Brown died. I learned this via Charlie Spiering, who reports that Missouri GOP chief Matt Wills condemned the voter registration as "not only disgusting but completely inappropriate."

That seems like a fantastic reason to do it.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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