Ferguson rising: A critical vote for a city at a turning point

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Story highlights

  • Tuesday marks the first city election since protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri
  • Depending on turnout, the City Council could change dramatically
  • Ferguson is 70% black, but five of six council members are white

Ferguson, Missouri (CNN)The Rev. Tommie Pierson has a special message for his flock on Easter. It centers, of course, on Christ's resurrection, but it's also about the rising of a city that found itself drowning in despair, anger and frustration.

"Ferguson, wake up," he roars 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 this 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. In November, a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson.
    Supporters of candidate Lee Smith bring yard signs to an Easter/Passover dinner at Greater St. Mark Family Church.
    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 systemic discrimination against African-Americans.
    Few black people are surprised by the DOJ findings. They already knew anecdotally what was happening, they say. Others in Ferguson say the DOJ conducted a witch hunt.
    Among the critics of the DOJ 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 says. "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 alter the face of its local government further. 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 had become another landmark moment in America's civil rights movement.
    Even though Ferguson is 70% 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.
    Burned out buildings remain as scars of vandalism and arson that occurred during protests in November.
    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 is 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 says. "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 is 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% for whites and 6% for blacks. Last year's city election drew a dismal 13% 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 says.
    "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."

    Who loves Ferguson?

    Reginald Rounds speaks with Claudette Neil about voting for Bob Hudgins in Tuesday's election.
    Reginald Rounds gets out his clipboard and a bottle of an electric blue energy drink before he begins walking through a leafy Ward 2 neighborhood filled with brick ranch-style houses. The man he is supporting is Bob Hudgins, a newcomer to politics.
    "I'll be blunt with you," Rounds says. "We're trying to get candidates in place who can relate to the people. Bob is adamant about police reform."
    Hudgins attracted attention as a white man who routinely stood with protesters on the front lines. He likes to talk about how he married a black woman and has a biracial teenage son.
    "I've tried to use my white privilege to break down what's happening here to white folks," he says. "There's such a waste of human potential here. Young black people are held back because of the system."
    Candidate Bob Hudgins stood with the protesters in Ferguson and is adamant about police reform.
    Rounds has a neighborhood map and a list of registered voters identified by the Hudgins campaign as potential supporters. He starts his walking route on Olympia Drive.
    "Good morning," Rounds says to Guan Pickett, working inside his garage. "Are you planning to vote Tuesday?"
    The two men talk. Eventually Rounds asks whether Pickett would consider voting for Hudgins.
    "I'm not familiar with him," Pickett says. "But I know one thing. I'm not going to vote for Brian Fletcher."
    Rounds likes what he hears. He believes Fletcher is too entrenched with the old guard to make tangible changes for people of color.
    Fletcher, who is also white, is a former mayor of Ferguson. He has 28 years of political experience in various roles.
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    "I decided it was important that someone with experience be elected," Fletcher says in an interview. "We have three councilmen leaving. Someone with a calm head needed to be on the council."
    Fletcher's supporters, like Joyce Strain, 67, repeat two things about him: that he has a lot of political experience and that he started the "I Love Ferguson" campaign. The group raised thousands of dollars in T-shirt and other swag sales to donate to mom-and-pop business owners who lost money because of the vandalism that occurred during some of the protests.
    "I like the way Fletcher handled himself through all that," Strain tells Rounds at her doorstep.
    "Have a good day," Rounds tells her as he makes note that she is a "definite" supporter of Fletcher. His quota today is to get 11 people to say "yes." So far, he only has one definite, Pickett. But the day is still early and there is not a cloud in the sky.
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    "I'm just a foot soldier for the cause," says Rounds, 58. He used to live on Canfield Drive -- the road where Brown's body lay for four hours last summer -- until he got better affordable housing elsewhere.
    After Brown was killed, he joined the protests and got involved as an organizer. He works with a liberal coalition formed by the Working Families Party, the Organization for Black Struggle and Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment.
    It's too late to register people to vote, but Rounds offers those who plan to vote for Hudgins a ride to the polls. One of them is Claudette Neil, 75, and a great-grandmother who points to her maroon sedan filled with stuffed animals.
    "Do you see my car out there? I can still drive," she tells Rounds before giving him a mouthful about the lack of discipline these days. Parents and schools need to give kids old-fashioned whoopings if they are ever to learn good behavior, she says. That's how her generation was raised.
    "The looting and shooting and carrying on is just ridiculous," she says. She thinks the violence that broke out was counterproductive and just made the white establishment even more resistant to change.
    "What are they trying to do? Take us back to slavery?"
    Rounds nods his head. "So I can put you down for voting for Hudgins?" he asks.
    Neil responds in the affirmative.
    "You have a good day, Ms. Neil," Rounds says. He's one more closer to his quota.

    Black representation in a place of tragedy

    Wesley Bell hops out of his pale-green Range Rover near Canfield Drive. He is out here to knock on apartment doors and persuade people to vote for him.
    The predominantly black residents of Ward 3, where Bell is running, will have a black City Council member representing them for the first time regardless of who wins.
    Wesley Bell, center, campaigns near Canfield Drive, where Michael Brown was killed in August.
    It will be either Bell, a 40-year-old lawyer and criminal justice professor, or Lee Smith, a 76-year-old retiree.
    Besides being black and strong advocates of reform, the two men could not be more different.
    Bell is a part-time municipal judge, and as such he says he knows how the courts operate. He says he is precisely the kind of person Ferguson needs at this critical juncture.
    He hands out fliers to voters that lay out his platform. On the top of his agenda is community policing. He remembers how a police officer played football with him when he was a kid. How he grew up to trust that officer.
    He wants a return to those days. He wants black boys in Ferguson to turn into black men who are comfortable with law enforcement. And he wants officers to get to know the people they are supposed to be protecting.
    "I've been preaching that for years." Bell says. "I'm running because I see this as an opportunity to set a broad example to the world. It takes people in the community to step up."
    Bell moved into brand new loft housing in the trendiest patch of Ferguson when he started teaching at a nearby community college. On Friday night, he showed up for a blues show across the street from his home. But he's just as comfortable walking Canfield Drive. His supporters, too, run the gamut from affluent lawyers to working-class families who view him as a black man who succeeded in life.
    "Look and listen to the people," Elainna Hudson tells Bell, "because we live here."
    Bell says he gets it. "Last time I checked, politics is supposed to be about helping people."
    But Bell's critics say he is a part of the system and, therefore, part of the problem. Someone has been distributing a flier that links Bell to Robert McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecutor who oversaw the Darren Wilson grand jury investigation.
    "At least it's a nice picture of me," he says, stuffing it into the left back pocket of his jeans.
    "I would say it's a lazy argument," he says of the flier. "A German pilot flew a plane into a mountain. Are we going to say all pilots are bad now?"
    Maybe not, but many in Ward 3 say they don't trust Bell. They want "one of them" on the council. And that's Lee Smith.
    Lee Smith says he understands the worries and fears of the people he wants to represent.
    Born the son of an Arkansas sharecropper, Smith is old enough to remember the terrifying days of Jim Crow. One time, he says, white men put a gun to his gut and forced him to watch them beat his father to a pulp. Then they threw father and son in jail without medical attention.
    All because he and his father had demanded that the landowner they worked for pay them the $700 they had earned.
    "Guess what our fine was to get out of jail?" Smith says. "$700."
    When he turned 18, Smith left rural Arkansas for the bright lights of St. Louis. He arrived with a chip on his shoulder as "big as this house," he says, standing in the living room of the home he bought for $44,000 in 1988.
    Over the years, he worked his way up through various jobs as a supply clerk and forklift operator and became the president of the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He retired from a job at Westinghouse Electric when the plant closed in 1990.
    He says music soothed his soul and helped him get over his anger at white people. Now he wants to change the system.
    "I decided to run in December after the grand jury decision was announced," he says. "I didn't see anyone else stepping forward to try and make change."
    He admits he is inexperienced in politics but says he has something far more important.
    "I can be a good advocate for people who are hurting because I know what it feels like. This particular ward has been neglected, and it will stop with me."

    'I had to save more than my two boys'

    Adrienne Hawkins says she used to be a passive bystander. But not anymore.
    Adrienne Hawkins, 46, a federal employee and a mother of twin boys, was never politically active. Until Michael Brown died.
    She walked from her house, a half a block away from Canfield Drive, to watch as police fired tear gas at protesters and helicopters whirred overhead.
    "When all this happened, I realized I had to save more than my two boys," she says.
    So at a community reconciliation meeting last fall, she stood up for the first time and expressed her anger over the state of public schools in Ferguson. A few months later, she filed to run for City Council.
    "I have never seen anybody correct a problem they won't acknowledge," she says. Some city officials "are not even willing to acknowledge there's a problem here. That's always the elephant in the room."
    Hawkins is one of two black women -- the other is Ella Jones -- vying against two white men -- Mike McGrath and Doyle McClellan -- for the City Council post in Ward 1. Some Ferguson voters say they view the two men as representing the old Ferguson. Part of that stems from the comments they've made.
    On his website, McClellan, coordinator of the computer network security program at Lewis and Clark Community College, says he loves small-town living in Ferguson. He calls the DOJ report statistically flawed and unverified.
    "The document is a plaintiff's view of Ferguson, and it ignores favorable data to make its case," he says.
    He says the city should implement the DOJ-recommended changes but adds that city employees were humiliated by the federal investigation.
    "Much of what is in the report no longer reflects their priorities or practices. Let's judge our city employees by their performance and dedication since August," his website says.
    McGrath has been involved with Ferguson politics for a long time, serving on various boards and commissions. At a recent candidate forum, he said he did not think he would be hurt by his status quo image and said calls for change were coming from a vocal minority.
    He was quoted in The Huffington Post as saying the DOJ "went after the city" because it couldn't get Darren Wilson. He also said black residents who live in apartment complexes don't care as much about Ferguson as do homeowners.
    "I may be a silly old man in all of this, but I don't think we have a big race issue here," he said. "We have an issue with that part of town and they've been a bad part of town for a long time, sadly."
    Jones, a longtime sales director at Mary Kay cosmetics, is president of the Ferguson Township Open Democratic Club and serves on the Ferguson Human Rights Commission.
    On Easter, the Rev. Tommie Pierson encourages members of his congregation to look for new signs of life.
    She says she has been involved with the community for more than two decades and can be a salve for a community in pain.
    Jones or Hawkins, if either one wins, would become the first black woman to serve on Ferguson's City Council.

    Wake up, Ferguson

    The Easter service at Pierson's church draws to a close with inspiring gospels. The entire sanctuary is rocking. Afterward, members venture out for ham dinners with their families. Many say they are planning to vote.
    Turnout will be key Tuesday. If Ferguson's majority-black population stays at home, candidates such as Hawkins, Jones and Hudgins won't have much of a chance, political observers say.
    But if they do vote, Ferguson's City Council could end up with three black members and a white guy who protested on the streets.
    "They will understand they need to make positive change," Pierson says. "We can't have pockets of poverty filled with people who are over-policed."
    All the candidates talk about economic development. They talk about building a community that's pleasant to live in. Everyone wants to fix up the West Florissant Avenue corridor, looted and burned in November.
    But making it all happen is another thing.
    Just around the corner from Pierson's church stand reminders of all that went wrong in Ferguson. Damaged and burned buildings remain as the scars of the war that took place on the streets. The QT gas station is just as it was the day after Brown's death many months ago: charred and mangled.
    But on this day, on Easter, Pierson sends the congregation home with another thought.
    Outside, the trees that slept all winter are bursting with buds, he tells them. They are signs of new life. He urges his flock to follow their lead, wake from their slumber -- and help Ferguson start anew.