How Ferguson’s citizens can take back power

Editor’s Note: Dorothy A. Brown is a professor of law at Emory University’s School of Law and author of “Critical Race Theory: Cases, Materials, and Problems.”

Story highlights

Dorothy Brown: Missouri Gov. Nixon appointed highway patrol chief to take over in Ferguson

She says lesson of Michael Brown case: underrepresented black citizens must vote

Most Ferguson citizens are black, but power structure dominated by whites, she says

Brown: Police out of control; young man is dead. Citizens should respond at ballot box

CNN  — 

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has appointed Capt. Ron Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, a black man, to take over the security on the ground in Ferguson. The President has issued a call for calm in the wake of a weekend police shooting that left teenager Michael Brown dead.

Hopefully we will not see a repeat of the chaos of Wednesday night, when protesters clashed with police. At this point, we ought to be thinking about what the best outcome for the citizens of Ferguson and the family of Michael Brown will be.

Monday night I was at a reception for civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis where he spoke eloquently about the importance of voting. Anyone in the black community who says voting is a waste of time because “they don’t care about us” should take a good, hard look at Ferguson, Missouri.

Dorothy A. Brown

Almost 68% of its citizens are black and just under 30% are white. Five of six city council members are white, the mayor is white, the chief of police is white, and its police force has 50 whites and three blacks. (By the way, has anyone seen any black police officers in Ferguson?)

To me the miracle of Ferguson is that the citizens have had the courage to stand up to a power structure that generally does not include them. They are finding the resilience to fight against their oppression, as they appear to have been living in a police state for a very long time. A Missouri Attorney General report on racial profiling last year showed that there were 611 searches in Ferguson: 562 of blacks; 47 of whites; one of a Hispanic; and one of a Native American.

Although whites represent almost 30% of the population, they represent less than 10% of those stopped, according to the report. Many people may think those statistics don’t look unusual because they genuinely believe blacks are more likely to commit crimes and should be stopped and searched more frequently. But consider that in instances where contraband was found, a higher percentage of whites (34%) who were stopped had contraband when compared with blacks (22%).

Against this backdrop, the citizen protest Wednesday night over Brown’s death, in the face of a militarized response, was courageous. Why? Because the police in Ferguson are clearly out of control. They have tear-gassed and reportedly shot rubber bullets at demonstrators. They have arrested two reporters – one of whom works for the Washington Post and was wearing his press credentials around his neck at the time, the other from the Huffington Post.

They have pointed high-powered rifles at unarmed citizens in front of cameras; they have refused to identify themselves when making arrests; and they have refused to identify or arrest the police officer who killed Michael Brown. The chief of police says he won’t release the name because of fears for that officer’s safety.

Now that he is in charge, perhaps Johnson will have confidence in his ability to not only guarantee the safety of the police officer, but also the safety of all the citizens of Ferguson. Witnesses say Michael Brown had his hands in the air when he was shot repeatedly by the police officer. The medical examiner’s report will put any speculation to rest; Michael Brown’s body will speak from the grave. But what will his legacy be for Ferguson, Missouri, and the nation?

Elected officials don’t have to care about black citizens as long as they don’t fear them at the ballot box. Every member of the city council who has sat by silently while citizens were treated like second-class citizens should be voted out of office; Michael Brown’s death must result in one of the largest voter registration drives in the history of the state of Missouri. That would be a lasting legacy for such a senseless and untimely death.

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