Stop Night Protests in Ferguson and Start Recalling City Leaders

Energy spent squaring off against an incompetent police force is better directed at the city's power structure. Protest by day, collect signatures by night.
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So long as nightly street protests continue in Ferguson, Missouri, where police and violent agitators alike use the cover of darkness to perpetrate unjustified aggression, the likelihood of additional casualties increases. The mayhem puts at risk peaceful protesters, whose frustration at local authorities is fully justified, as well as many good police officers who'd rather be anywhere else. Some have asked the majority of residents with peaceful intentions to call off protests and vigils after dark. The request is understandable—as is the refusal of outraged citizens who feel a moral and civic obligation to persist in their activism. Well-intentioned people on both sides feel they cannot in good conscience back down, yet they are unable to control the bad elements in their midst. 

It is a perilous moment—and politics offers one way forward.

In The Guardian, Gary Younge, who sympathizes with the protesters in Ferguson, observes that the highly charged scene there attracts "opportunists, macho-men and thrill-seekers as well as the righteously indignant and politically militant." (The military atmosphere created by police helps attract the thrill-seekers.) He adds that Ferguson is "a mostly black town under curfew in which the entire political power structure is white," and that some riot because doing so is "the crudest tool for those who have few options. By definition, they are chaotic. Rich people don’t riot because they have other forms of influence. Riots are a class act."

One can imagine how some Ferguson residents would conclude that they have no form of influence except taking to the streets each night. Yet given the passionate mobilization that is taking place each day, it is realistic to imagine the protesters successfully ousting the whole leadership structure of the city. Even observers who are critical of the street activism following Michael Brown's killing agree that Ferguson's leaders have been egregiously incompetent in their response. They've clearly lost the confidence of the people they represent, and only in part because, as the New York Times puts it, "Although about two-thirds of Ferguson residents are black, its mayor and five of its six City Council members are white. Only three of the town’s 53 police officers are black."

The most potent and direct method for addressing this disparity—the ballot box—has gone unused, so far. "Turnout for local elections in Ferguson has been poor. The mayor, James W. Knowles III, noted his disappointment with the turnout—about 12 percent—in the most recent mayoral election," the Times adds. "Patricia Bynes, a black woman who is the Democratic committeewoman for the Ferguson area, said the lack of black involvement in local government was partly the result of the black population’s being more transient in small municipalities and less attached to them." What better opportunity to change that unfortunate pattern? This is a historic failure of leadership. Recalls were created for moments like this one.

So recall the mayor. Recall the city council. Elect new officials who will fire the police chief. Success is not guaranteed, but it is quite plausible and perhaps even likely. The whole lot of them could be tossed out.

My reading of the relevant Missouri law suggests the legal requirements could be met easily. Incompetence is grounds for recall. If city leaders in Ferguson don't now qualify as incompetents, who ever would? And as a Daily Kos author noted days ago, "Petitions must include the signatures of 25% of registered voters, which should not be too hard to do at this point." That would trigger a recall election. Turnout would presumably be high. Many blacks have been disenfranchised due to past convictions and attempts by GOP state legislators to depress voter turnout, but with this momentum, that obstacle isn't insurmountable. 

A successful recall of Ferguson's mayor and city council is the best outcome I can imagine from a protest movement that is justifiably angry, but uncertain about how to achieve its goals and at risk of losing public support if the streets turn more violent. Protesters want transparency in the investigation into Brown's death, accountability for the police department, and an end to leadership that demonstrates such disregard and seeming contempt for the city's black people. Perhaps existing pressure on city leaders, or appeals already made to the Department of Justice, will help advance those goals—but while more night protests would seem to offer scant hope for additional gains, replacing the city's elected leadership would advance the protesters' goals directly and dramatically. The effort would be nonviolent, it might well increase civic participation for years or even generations to come, and if successful, it would send an inspiring message to those who feel powerless: that a system very much stacked against them is still a far more powerful weapon than a molotov cocktail. 

Forget pressuring Ferguson's intransigent leaders and facing off against its policemen. Just replace them. Elect new leaders who pledge transparency on the matter of Brown's death and aggressive reforms of a police department that needs an overhaul. To abandon night protests and begin gathering signatures is not backing down. It is shifting a righteous battle to terrain more favorable to victory. It is the worst nightmare of Ferguson leaders: Rather than watching their underlings fire tear-gas canisters at protesters, they'll watch, powerless, as they're fired.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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