News by VICE

Ferguson Protesters Interrupt Election Party of Democrat Councilman They Wanted Ousted

Protesters had criticized St. Louis councilman Steve Stenger for his close relationship with the prosecutor in Darren Wilson's case, whom they accuse of bias.

by Alice Speri
Nov 5 2014, 11:00pm

Photo via Getty

St. Louis councilman Steve Stenger, a Democrat, narrowly won a race for executive of the county, which includes Ferguson — the town at the center of heated protests since the August killing of an unarmed teenager by a local police officer.

The win came despite many protesters throwing their weight behind his opponent and amid growing discontent with local elected officials and criticism of Stenger's close relationship with Bob McCulloch, the county's prosecutor, whom they charge with racial bias and inaction in the case of Mike Brown's killing.

Stenger had resisted protesters' calls for McCulloch to step down from the investigation, despite his personal ties to law enforcement and a tendency to not take legal action against officers accused of abuse.

Despite growing criticism, Stenger defeated Republican opponent Rick Stream by a razor-thin margin — 47.7 to 47.1 percent — to win control of a county that has remained Democratic for more than two decades, Reuters reported.

Protesters angry at the result disrupted his victory party — which was attended by McCulloch — at a Sheraton hotel in the suburb of Clayton on Tuesday night, interrupting his speech, and chanting "What side are you on?" — a "requiem for Mike Brown" they also sung at a protest at the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in October. The protest later spilled into the street, and five people were arrested, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Stream, who, like Stenger, is white, had gained the support and endorsement of a coalition of more than 30 black elected officials. Those backing him denounced both Stenger and the Democrats' lack of initiative in support of the county's black community.

"Our major issue is that the Democratic Party has not served us," Councilwoman Hazel Erby, who heads the coalition, told NBC News ahead of the vote. "And Stenger has done nothing to help our cause."

In Ferguson, a 70 percent black town, five in six city council members are white, as are 50 police officers in a force of 53.

Tensions dividing St. Louis county, often along racial lines, came to the forefront following Brown's killing, with many protesters and observers alike noting that the teen's death was only the latest manifestation of an entrenched system in which police bias was deep-running, and discrimination against minority and poor residents systematic in the county's education, economic, and justice systems.

The practice by several municipalities in the county to raise revenue through traffic stops, in particular, reached Kafkaesque levels, and nearly everyone VICE News spoke to while in Ferguson this summer reported having had countless encounters with police. Many of them said that they were regularly stopped, harassed, fined, and detained over small offenses, such as minor traffic violations.

Stream had said during his campaign that he would work to make it more difficult for municipalities to carry on with the controversial practice. He had also pledged to give a quarter of county contracts to black businesses.

"I definitely think it's put a focus on the whole issue of the racial divide in St. Louis County and, frankly, probably throughout the country," Stream told NBC News before the election, speaking of Brown's death. "What happened in Ferguson I think just kind of ripped the scab off and exposed it to everybody."

In his concession speech, he said it was time "to begin the healing of St. Louis County that we need."

Stenger, who campaigned on a platform of job creation and social programs, called the group of black leaders backing his rival a "splinter group" and accused them of wanting to take revenge on him after he beat the black incumbent county executive Charlie Dooley in the primary race in August.

Election day ran without major incidents in Ferguson and neighboring towns, where voter registration drives have been taking place alongside the protests since August.

But a couple voters reported being asked for photo IDs or multiple forms of IDs before casting their ballot — despite Missouri having no such requirement, National Bar Association Pamela Meanes told ThinkProgress.

Several voters also reported being asked for their IDs by police officers stationed at polling stations, the Guardian reported — a "deterrent to vote," Janaye Ingram of the National Action Network, Al Sharpton's civil rights nonprofit, told the paper.

The grand jury that was tasked with reviewing evidence in the case and deciding whether to indict officer Darren Wilson — who shot and killed Mike Brown this summer — with any crime is expected to make an announcement soon.

Few in Ferguson believe an indictment is likely — and both protesters and police have been gearing up for more unrest.

On Wednesday, the Don't Shoot Coalition, a group of about 50 local organizations, presented a list of 19 "rules of engagement" it asked police to abide by in the event of a non-indictment.

"If officer Wilson is not indicted, we will do our part to try to de-escalate violence without de-escalating action," Don't Shoot Coalition co-chair Michael T. McPhearson said in a release accompanying the list. "We are providing a number of supports to promote a peaceful response, but nothing will make a difference unless the police do their part by giving protesters adequate space. That's the key to peaceful outcomes."

Among other things, protesters demanded that police make the chain of command clear to the public, avoid riot gear, armored vehicles, rubber bullets and tear gas, and refrain from mass arrests, pre-emptive arrests, intimidation, and harassment.

They called on police to allow free assembly and expression, "treating protesters as citizens and not enemy combatants."

A spokesman for the St. Louis County police department told VICE News the department endorsed "the statement from the Don't Shoot Coalition regarding the sanctity and preservation of human life."  

"To that end, and in the spirit of building communications, members of the Unified Command have met with the coalition to define common goals," he added.

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi