The heart of Ferguson's unrest lies not with the Molotov cocktail, but in the ballot box

19 Aug 2014

The ancient Athenian leader Pericles is thought to have uttered the famous maxim: “Just because you do not take an interest in Politics, doesn’t mean that Politics won’t take an interest in you”. This rule is unfortunately being applied to the residents of the restive town of Ferguson, or "Fergustan" as it has been labelled, which has been rocked by riots over several days since the shooting of an unarmed black youth by local police. The Missouri Governor has even called in the National Guard to impose order. 

 

The fundamental root cause of this unrest I believe lies in the overwhelming inequality that exists between the St Louis suburb’s local elite and those whom they are supposed to represent. For instance, 67% of Ferguson’s population is African American, yet this is clearly not translated in the ethnicity of those who hold power. The town’s mayor and all but one of its local council members are white. The same applies to the county police force. Why then are residents so unrepresented?

The answer lies in local African Americans’ apathy in participating in local elections. On Election Day, it is the minority white population that determine where true power lays, whilst most blacks stay at home. The depressing truth is that during the 2013 Ferguson municipal elections, only 6% of African Americans turned out to vote. The result is a disconnected local elite that views the majority of the population it is meant to serve as almost alien. Similarly, the county police force looks across their increasingly militarised barricades and sees swarms of people it does not recognise as their own. What is more, this process is mutually reinforcing, with the protesters believing they are unheard by those who govern.

The best way to end the spiralling tensions in the long term then is not with Molotov cocktails but with ballots. Protesters must end their voluntary disenfranchisement and vote in candidates who better represent them and end the racial segregation that currently exists on the ballot box. Of course, the reasons for low turnout among blacks are complex and wide ranging, from historical discrimination to the unwise American preference for holding municipal elections on "odd years", that is, years without Congressional or Presidential elections. Nonetheless, only an emboldened, grassroots movement will tackle the institutionalised discrimination that currently exists in Ferguson and in countless towns like it. President Obama’s clinical, almost professorial reaction to the unrest illustrates how he appears unwilling to trudge into the racial quagmire as he enters the lame duck phase of his tenure.

It appears then that Pericles’ warning still applies today in this troubled, suburban corner of Missouri.

By Andrew Huckle

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