October 13, 2019

What Ferguson can learn from Los Angeles

For students of Los Angeles history, the tragic saga of Ferguson, Mo., rings bells. A brutal police department, accountable to no one and backed by a hostile white mayor and police chief, faces off with a black community that seemingly has little recourse. A largely white City Hall has very little minority representation. It could be Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, Police Chief William Parker, and a largely white city council all over again.

But the difference is that political change in L.A. long ago upset the applecart of racial injustice. For Ferguson, sadly, that political change has yet to come. Los Angeles, a city with an 18 percent black population in 1970, made changes that would have been unthinkable a decade before, when not a single African-American held public office. By 1973, the city had elected a black mayor, Tom Bradley, to the first of his five terms. Bradley appointed a police commission that regularly confronted the Los Angeles Police Department. Since 1963, when three African-Americans were elected to the council, 20 percent of the city council has been African-American, even as the city’s black population has declined to 10 percent. Near the end of Bradley’s tenure, he led a successful charge to reform the governance of the police department, through a ballot measure that stripped the chief of civil service protection and set term limits on the position.

Ferguson, a city with a two-thirds black population, shows few signs of similar political mobilization despite years of minority alienation. Writing in the Washington Post, urban and public policy experts Peter Dreier and Todd Swanstrom argue that “suburban ghettos” like Ferguson suffer from a combination of bad social conditions and few resources comparable to those that help organize minority populations in big cities. While black voters in Ferguson turn out for presidential elections, they barely participate in city elections. Many of these suburban minority communities are built on relatively new arrivals, who are less likely to vote than longtime residents.

By contrast, a recent study by the Pat Brown Institute at California State University, Los Angeles found that Los Angeles’ black voters are quite active in the city’s elections, compared to other groups in the city. (All groups, however, turn out at much lower levels for municipal elections than for presidential ones.)  Because the black community continues to be active and attentive to what happens at Los Angeles City Hall — a legacy of the historic struggles to advance civil rights and elect Bradley and support his policies — it has retained a powerful voice there.

There is a lesson in all this for the midterm elections of 2014 nationally, as well as for the future of Ferguson, Mo.

The American political system is nearly unique in the world. While most democracies use some version of a parliamentary system that vests most power in a representative body chosen in a national election, with the majority party or parties selecting the prime minister, the American system sets up a blisteringly exciting presidential election that allocates only part of the power to the winner. (Some democracies have a combined presidential and parliamentary model.) Separate votes are held for both the Senate and the House of Representatives, for governors, for state legislatures, and, if you want to get technical about it, for local offices, school boards, water boards, mosquito abatement districts, and so on. For a nation that doesn’t much like to vote, we sure do schedule a lot of elections. And we set them at all sorts of odd times sure to perplex voters. 

American voters pay close attention to the presidential election. The majority of eligible voters, and a much larger majority of those registered to vote, show up to vote for presidents. Naturally, expectations are always very high for the newly elected president, who then gets a wonderful “honeymoon” period, followed rather quickly by disappointment and disillusionment. Midterm elections, which don’t have the president on the ballot, are a great chance for the opposing party to increase gridlock, as happened in 2010.

Pundits tell the president to “get along” with Congress, or if that doesn’t work, to “boss them around like Lyndon Johnson did.” But the president faces a Congress whose election he or she may not control, or even be able to influence much. Each of the 50 states pursues its own policies under the direction of governors and legislators who have won their own elections. Counties, cities and towns have their own election schedules, with their supervisors, mayors and councils often elected in odd-numbered years when fewer working-class and minority voters come to the polls. This is the case in both Ferguson and the City of Los Angeles.

As we go down the ladder of government, voter turnout tends to decrease and skew further away from minorities, from youth, from the working class and other struggling Americans. And as these governments not under the president’s control pursue policies that frustrate or contradict those of the popularly elected president, people become frustrated and alienated: “I told you it was a waste of time to vote for that guy.”

The truth is that the people who are the most likely to become discouraged and not vote are those who most need the help of government to make things right. Like the disenfranchised African-Americans in Ferguson, or the young people who are telling pollsters that they are extremely unlikely to vote in November’s midterm elections, they drift away. The 2010 midterm elections added a new wrinkle, as state legislatures newly under Republican control began efforts to systematically disenfranchise minority and younger voters through new voting laws. This assault may be unprecedented in modern America, but it certainly underlines that when it comes to voting in non-presidential elections, the best advice is “use it or lose it.”

The particular coalition that brought Barack Obama to victory in 2008 and 2012 is precisely the most likely to both avoid non-presidential voting and to feel disappointed that Obama has not done everything they had hoped for. 

It doesn’t much pay to berate people for not voting. They already feel pretty crummy about things and believe they don’t have an impact on what happens to (not by) them in the public arena. They are often overwhelmed financially and in other ways, and may consider the time and effort it takes to vote a luxury they don’t have. To rebuild the kind of civic participation we need in order to have a fairer and more inclusive society, we need to go to the root of the problem, which is the deeply held belief that nothing can be done collectively to solve our problems. An increased level of voting is probably the result of fixing that problem.

So let’s go back to the Ferguson and Los Angeles comparison. Los Angeles, like other big cities, had a strong and assertive civil rights movement that emphasized political action to change policy at the local level. It had the attention of such civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King Jr., who came to the city in the 1960s to bolster the progressive side. And Bradley forged a durable and historic biracial coalition with Jews and other liberal whites, which helped make up for the smaller black population share. Changing police practices and opening up City Hall to diversity became driving forces for change, and but it was only the election of new people to office that could make change happen.

Ferguson, like many suburban communities with large minority populations (think Bell and other southeastern Los Angeles cities), until now has not had the kind of media attention and broad mobilization that could help connect its suffering neighborhoods to wider political action. It does not appear to have a large white liberal population with which to form coalitions. But there will be city elections in April 2015, and if ever there were a time to develop a sense of political efficacy — to identify candidates, to unify disparate local forces, to build whatever coalitions are possible, to draw on any outside resources that will support and not interfere with local organizing, to mobilize and inform the community — this is it.

When it comes to voting, showing people its value is much more powerful than talking about it. Let people see that their votes can change who leads them, and can influence the practices of police and other public servants. If that happens, there will be no going back to the days of hopelessness and alienation. 


Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State Univerisity, Los Angeles.