FERGUSON Mo. (Reuters) - This troubled suburb of St. Louis is warily awaiting the decision of a grand jury that could indict a white policeman for the killing of black teenager Michael Brown.
But African-American leaders are casting one eye beyond the decision to an election next year that might, finally, tip the balance of power in their favor.
In April, three of Ferguson’s six city council seats are up for grabs and African-Americans have a chance to end decades of white domination. Two-thirds of the town’s 21,000 population is black. But the mayor, more than 90 percent of the police, and all but one of the council members are white -- an imbalance that has stoked racial tensions in Ferguson long before Brown’s shooting in August.
In recent days, police stockpiled riot gear and businesses are prepared for trouble if the grand jury does not indict policeman Darren Wilson. A decision is expected soon. No matter what the outcome, black leaders said there is an opportunity to change police conduct and discrimination through the ballot box, despite a long tradition of low black voter turnout at local elections in Ferguson.
“People are awake now. They know who the mayor is and what kind of person he is, and they know who the council members are,” said Tory Russell, 30, a leader of Hands Up United, a local activist group.
Based on last Tuesday’s turnout, winning council seats might difficult: there was little sign of an uptick in interest in local politics. Forty-two percent of registered voters in Ferguson took part in the highest profile race -- the election for St Louis County executive, which was a drop of 10 percentage points from the last such vote in 2010.
That frustrates Patricia Bynes, a local African-American official in the Democratic Party.
“Every time there’s an election we have to show up. I don’t care if we are voting what color the trash cans are, we need to show up,” she said.
Putting up good candidates of its own will be crucial for the African-American community, added David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Russell and other organizers of street protests in the town have spoken to possible candidates to try to persuade them to run in April.
“We’ve been working on some. There are random people who we’ve said, ‘You’ve got it. You don’t know you got it but I know you got it,’ ” he said.
Ella Jones, a cosmetics saleswoman, earlier this month became the first person to collect her papers from Ferguson town hall to register as a candidate for the city council next spring. Jones, who is black, will file as a candidate when the electoral process begins fully in mid-December.
A Ferguson resident for decades, Jones has hardly any experience in politics and is not linked to the street protest movement. But if elected, black council members like her might make life difficult for James Knowles, the mayor who has been pushed to the brink of quitting by African-American criticism of his police force. He does not face re-election again until 2017.
“The best thing I can say about him is that he is a work in progress,” Jones said in an interview with Reuters.
The three council members whose seats are up for election next year are all white.
Like many others in the black community, Jones sees reforming the police department as almost the only political issue in town and seeks more training for cops and an “an end to racial profiling.”
Knowles’ administration has bought body cameras and dashboard cameras for police to increase transparency and announced a scholarship to help recruit more black officers since the Brown shooting. He was not available from comment about the police or next year’s election.
Meanwhile, angry demonstrations are likely if Wilson is not indicted. But, ultimately, such a decision would prove the need for African-Americans to vote in strong numbers next spring, said protest leader Russell.
“It’s even more reason to win power and put some checks and balances in there,” he said.
Editor: Hank Gilman; Keywords: USA ELECTIONS/FERGUSON