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Tuesday’s election could be critical turning point for Ferguson

FERGUSON, Missouri — The Rev. Tommie Pierson had a special message for his flock on Easter Sunday. It centered, of course, on Christ’s resurrection, but it was also about the rising of a city that finds itself drowning in despair, anger and frustration.

“Ferguson, wake up,” he roared from the pulpit at Greater St. Mark Family Church. “If it’s business as usual on Tuesday, we will know Ferguson fell asleep.”

Starting at 6 in the morning Tuesday, Ferguson residents will be able to vote in a City Council election that many here say serves as a critical test of how the beleaguered city will move forward.

The vote comes after months of protests over white police Officer Darren Wilson’s August killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown last August. In November, a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson.

Then in March, the U.S. Department of Justice made public a scathing report that said the Ferguson Police Department and the city’s municipal court engaged in systematic discrimination against African-Americans.

Few black people were surprised by the Department of Justice findings. They already knew anecdotally what was happening, they say. Others in Ferguson say the department conducted a witch hunt.

Among the critics of the report is Mayor James Knowles III, who says he is frustrated by “skewed data” and “unfair conclusions.”

“They had a hypothesis, and they were out to prove it instead of the facts leading them to a conclusion,” Knowles said. “That’s not to say we couldn’t have done things better.”

After the report, three employees who sent racist emails were fired, and the city manager, John Shaw, was forced to resign. The courts appointed a new municipal judge; Police Chief Tommy Jackson resigned, and Knowles came under pressure to step down, too, although he has resisted.

In that sense, Ferguson has already started to clean house.

But now it has a chance to further alter the face of its local government. Much of America will be watching a small-town vote that normally would draw little fanfare. But then again, no one ever mentioned Ferguson in the same breath as Selma before. Ferguson has become another landmark moment in America’s civil rights movement.

Even though Ferguson is 70 percent black, the City Council, like the police department, is overwhelmingly white. Only one of the six council members is African-American. Ferguson has three wards with two council members elected from each, but elections are staggered by years. Three council members — including the lone African-American — and Knowles, who also sits on the council, are not up for re-election this year.

In many ways, residents say, Tuesday’s contest pits the old Ferguson against the new — establishment vs. change.

Among the people attending Easter service at Pierson’s church was Bobby Smith, a self-described “black revolutionary” who has been working with Ferguson youth after Brown’s death.

“You can only protest and demonstrate for so long,” he said. “We need voter education, which will lead to registration and the ultimate goal: voter participation. When I really get the attention of young people is when I tell them: ‘Hey, you can have your own police chief.’ ”

Smith was one of many at Sunday’s church service who is hopeful things will change. For years, many black Ferguson voters adopted an attitude that their participation didn’t matter.

Turnout in the 2013 municipal election was 17 percent for whites and 6 percent for blacks. Last year’s city election drew a dismal 13 percent of registered voters to the polls. But Brown’s death has helped motivate several candidates who say they are running to bring change to Ferguson. Eight candidates — four of them black — are running for three vacancies on the council.

Brown’s killing is also a reason that people might actually to go to the polls this time, Pierson said.

“There is a growing number of people who realize now that had they participated in the process all along, that perhaps Michael Brown would be alive today,” says Pierson, who in addition to leading his church represents a Missouri state House district just east of Ferguson.

“High turnout? I’m praying for that to be reality because if it is not, then much of our work has been in vain.”