The One Thing Ferguson Can Do Now

It's time to rebuild.

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It's hard to fathom the mixture of incompetence, misjudgment and neglect that has characterized the last 24 hours in Ferguson, Missouri. It is equally difficult to believe that the best response to it may not come for five months, in the form of a sparsely attended municipal election.

Understanding both of these realities, however, is crucial if anything good is to come from the sorry mess that local, state and national officials have made from the case of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was shot dead in August by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.

Yesterday the local prosecutor announced that a grand jury found no probable cause to indict Wilson. Shortly thereafter, peaceful demonstrators were overrun by a violent mob, which looted, vandalized and set the town ablaze.

This criminal reaction was also a tragic setback. Almost everyone on the street, and everyone in a position of authority, wants to see something positive come of Brown’s death. Yet the riots last night were not terribly surprising, given the abject breakdown in leadership that has characterized government’s response to the shooting from the beginning.

The series of miscalculations and missteps yesterday was especially mind-boggling. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon allowed the St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, to dictate what time the grand jury’s decision would be publicly announced. By starting his news conference after 8 p.m., McCulloch failed to take public safety into account. Out on the streets, the police seemed more interested in protecting government offices than the public or private property. President Barack Obama's tepid remarks, delivered from Washington, were ill-timed and ineffective.

The possibility for more violence is real. But even if the worst is over, the wounds inflicted on the town -- physically, emotionally and psychologically -- will not soon heal, because conditions will not soon change.

What is the best that can be hoped for?

There is the Justice Department investigation of the Ferguson police department, which could result in federal oversight. Attorney General Eric Holder must force the “wholesale changes” in the department that he said are necessary. The governor has also appointed a commission that is scheduled to deliver a report on Brown's death in September.

Better police oversight is necessary, and this may well be the rare blue-ribbon commission that has an actual impact on the problem it has convened to study. For the residents of Ferguson, however, there is only one sure, small way to have an impact: They can vote.

Half of the Ferguson City Council will be up for election in April. Organizing a slate of candidates, registering voters and running election campaigns would help to channel residents’ anger in a positive direction. They could also organize a recall campaign against the mayor, who just began a three-year term last spring.

Turnout in Ferguson's local elections has been running at about 11 or 12 percent, and it is lower for black residents than for whites. After Brown’s death, there was a great deal of talk about registering voters, but two months later only 128 new names had been added to the rolls. Street demonstrations allow people to let off steam, but only political organizing can turn that steam into power.

A municipal election is inadequate to the task of addressing the profound sense of racial and economic injustice that brought people to the streets in Ferguson. But it can have a real effect on the lives of the people who live there. And the vote remains the best way -- maybe the only way -- for Americans to bring about more lasting change.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.