Voter Registration in Ferguson Inspires Rather Than Disgusts

This post was originally published at the Huffington Post. 

On August 9, I don't believe 18-year-old Michael Brown, Jr. woke up in the morning thinking he would not see the evening sun, his family or friends, the end of the day that started with hope and promise. That morning, I don't believe Officer Darren Wilson left for work knowing his tragic encounter with an unarmed young African American male, who he would shoot and kill, would be the spark that ignited the flame that has been slowly burning in the city of Ferguson - the need for change.

In the wake of the fatal police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri, community members and civil rights activists are proactively turning pain into power by praying, marching, meeting and yes, registering people to vote -- a move that the leader of the Missouri Republican Party, Matt Wills, said this week was "not only disgusting but completely inappropriate."

What is disgusting is that type of commentary and thinking! What is disgusting is for anyone to say, as Wills did, that "injecting race into this conversation and into this tragedy, not only is not helpful, but it doesn't help a continued conversation of justice and peace."

Is that leader aware or in denial of the Missouri Attorney General's 2013 report on racial profiling which shows that out of 5,384 Ferguson Police Department stops, 4,632 were of African Americans? That's disgusting and "completely inappropriate."

Is he aware or in denial that of the 521 arrests made during the report period, 483 were of African Americans? That out of 2,489 stops for moving violations, 1,983 were of African Americans? Shame on that leader and those who are "disgusted" by the simple act of voter registration drives to bring "light into darkness"!

In the shadow of Michael's death and the ensuing protests, I cannot imagine a more profound, inspiring response than voter registration. Justice and peace are close companions of democracy. Conducting voter registration drives at any time -- but especially at this time in a "sick and tired of being sick and tired" city that had just 12 percent turnout in this year's municipal election, 11.7 percent turnout in 2013, and 8.9 percent in 2012 -- is a critical way to address this as both a personal tragedy and a systemic tragedy.

It is not "disgusting" but deserving of those who live in a place that lacks diversity in local government, from the city council to the school board to the police department.

With deep condolences to the parents of Michal Brown, Jr. -- not wanting to "politicize" his death or exploit a grieving family who is calling for justice for the one who left out on Saturday morning and will never return -- what better way to honor them than by sowing the seeds of long-term, much needed change? Even from where I am in Washington, DC, I feel the urgency of the call for change in the homes, neighborhoods, businesses, and community of Ferguson.

The world has watched the dehumanization of a mother's child, police with military-grade gear tear-gassing protesters, journalists arrested and assaulted, and the response of helplessness and frustration that many community members must feel toward elected officials from City Hall to the halls of Congress. As Simon Maloy from Salon put it, "a week's worth of unrestrained police crackdowns...with the blessing or tacit approval of political leaders...will tend to erode whatever trust one has left in the people in charge."

So those of us who are watching should applaud, not complain about or attack, a community that turns a lack of trust in its elected officials into a movement for change.

We should applaud and not attack an inspiring vision for a different future for the rest of Michael's siblings, family and friends -- one in which the local officials are responsive to the needs of the entire community, and better reflect the community's diversity. Be "disgusted" by the city's racial profiling data. Be "disgusted" by the predicament of "driving while Black." Be "disgusted" by efforts to suppress voter participation, in Ferguson and around the country as some have "dusted off Jim Crow tactics" trying to stand in the way of men and women, youth and elder, unemployed and employed, determined to exercise their most fundamental right as citizens.

As the leader of a national alliance of African American faith leaders, I work every day with people who are often part of the first responders to tragedies like this, who walk with the family, who eulogize the deceased and who also organize, connect, and empower. They know the face of systemic injustices and of elected leaders who want to make it harder, rather than easier, for certain communities to participate in our democracy. To make the leap from pain to a promise of peace is a difficult step, but thank goodness for those who are taking it.

As one St. Louis faith leader said, pointing at a voter registration tent set up on a Ferguson street by a local woman and her daughter: "That's where change is gonna happen."

Believe is my favorite word. I truly believe "a change is gonna come." After the protests end, after the national cameras leave, after the marchers from east to west return to their homes, neighbors, and communities, there will be follow-up, there will be change.

Registering, educating and getting out the vote is not "disgusting" or "completely inappropriate." What is "disgusting" and "completely inappropriate" is not responding effectively, productively, and positively to suppression and oppression.

As I read about the homegoing (funeral) service planned for next week, I pause and pray for the family and people of Ferguson. What next comes to mind for Michael Brown, Jr. and for change in Ferguson, is: be inspired -- register and vote! For Michael's parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown, Sr. and for change in Ferguson: be inspired -- register and vote! For all those who loved "Big Mike," and all the other unnamed youth who have died to "justifiable" or "legal interventions" by law officers and know that Ferguson deserves change: be inspired -- register and vote for justice and for the fulfilled promise of peace!

PFAW Foundation