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Race and Ferguson’s City Council

Two candidates – one black, one white – in the country’s ‘biggest local election’ on the issues facing Ferguson

It has been seven months since Michael Brown’s death triggered a national conversation about race and prejudiced policing, with Ferguson, Missouri, at its center. Next week the town will hold its first City Council elections since the fatal shooting — one that could markedly change the racial makeup of the city’s leaders.

Two-thirds of Ferguson residents are black, yet the current six-member City Council has only one black member. In the upcoming elections, there are three open seats: one ward has only white candidates; another, only black candidates.

All eyes are on in Ward 1, where there are two black and two white candidates. The victor will determine whether Ferguson’s City Council remains mostly white or divided equally between black and white members.

“America Tonight” visited Ferguson to meet two Ward 1 candidates with very different visions for their hometown. Mike McGrath, who is white, wants Ferguson to return to a time of stability, when race wasn't such an explosive issue. After serving on the city’s planning and zoning committee for eight years, he says the City Council is the next step.

Adrienne Hawkins, who is black, believes that Ferguson is racially divided and that more needs to be done to support the black community. Once a single mother on government assistance, she is now a federal employee with a master’s degree and two sons in college. Their answers have been edited for space and clarity.

On living in Ferguson

Inspired to run by the protests last summer, Adrienne Hawkins wants to serve on the City Council to help bridge Ferguson’s racial divide.
America Tonight

McGrath: I've lived in Ferguson for 21 years. I guess the main change has basically been in the race makeup, going from a community that was primarily white to a community that's primarily African-American. In the '60s it was a good bedroom community. People worked. They went to school. They hung out with the neighbors. It was probably 90 percent white in the '60s and even early '70s.

Hawkins: [I’ve lived in Ferguson for] 27 years on and off. I grew up [with] humble beginnings, as most people will say. I was on government assistance for years as I raised my children as a single mom. But that never stopped me. I went from being on government assistance to a government employee, and I'm doing well. And here I am, just a little girl from Ferguson, Missouri, who is now in the middle of the biggest local election in the country.

On why they’re running

McGrath: I really care about this town. I need to be on that council to help fix the things that need to be fixed and keep this community going forward. I will admit, after the event in August [and] when the grand jury announcement was made, it put some trepidation in whether I wanted to run. We were painted with a huge racist brush, and we still are.

Hawkins: It was the death of Michael Brown. Just the thought of my children not returning home from walking down the street was way too much to handle. And something had to change. I watched the protests, and I watched the women rise. And it filled me with hope, and I was like, "All they need is some direction, so somebody has to lead by example. Why not me?" Because the different candidates who began to rise, they weren't the candidates that I felt could lead Ferguson out of this.

On the racial divide in Ferguson

Candidate Mike McGrath says he doesn’t think Ferguson has a race problem.
America Tonight

McGrath: I don't believe there is a big racial divide. You would not find a single street in this town that was all any one race. I might be the fool for believing it, but I don't see it. When I go to the stores, I'm always in the minority, but I have no problem interacting, whether it's employees or the shoppers in the store. They interact with me. It's never like, “Oh, it's the white guy. We're not talking to him."

I know there are people that have had their feelings hurt. I understand that. But I don't think, overall, if you actually got true citizens in this town, that race would be their No. 1 issue. Because if it was, why would they still stay here?

Hawkins: Ferguson is divided. A lot of people don't want to admit that Ferguson is divided or has been divided, but I come from the side of Ferguson where most of the action occurred, and I've always felt a little disconnected.

I think that in order to deal with an issue, you have to address an issue. If you dance around the issue, you still have a problem. It's a powder keg, and one day it's going to blow a lot larger than it did in August and November. We have to acknowledge the elephant in the room or somebody could get hurt.

On not taking part in the protests

McGrath: I didn't believe [the protests] were warranted. I was on the side of the law and order, not the protesters. I used to volunteer with the police department, so I knew most of the people involved that were there responding to it.

Hawkins: It was overwhelming for me. It touched me deeply, and I was afraid for the safety of the young people, because of anger that they carried with them, and I didn't want to witness anybody else getting hurt.

‘I love Ferguson, but I need Ferguson to be more diverse and more inclusive.’

Adrienne Hawkins

candidate, Ferguson City Council

On the role of race in the elections

McGrath: It was never an issue before. I wish it wasn't now. It shouldn't be. It should be the candidate and not their race. I understand that there are going to be people that are not going to look towards qualifications. If I was the race that has been disenfranchised and I didn't see any of my race on the council, I'd be tending to vote that way. I hope they don't, for my sake, but I can understand if they do.

Hawkins: I don't like to think in terms of race, but it's huge. If you look at the people who decided to run, for instance, you have people who represent the way Ferguson has always been, then you have people who want Ferguson to change. So most of the people who are happy with the way Ferguson always been happen to be white. I love Ferguson, but I need Ferguson to be more diverse and more inclusive.

On the importance of these elections

There are eight candidates running for three open Ferguson City Council seats. To some, it may seem like a thankless job; each council member receives just 250 dollars a month.
America Tonight

McGrath: We need to somewhat go back to the norm. Now, you don't want everything [to be] the norm. Some things were bad. But you should be able to let the people go back. Let the community be a community. People who just liked each other for being people. People who could move from here but chose to stay here because they liked the community aspect. That part needs to be resumed. A lot of those people are afraid to come out of their houses. They don't know how to react to the protesters. They're scared of those people. They don't relate to them. They've never been there.

Hawkins: This election is a pivotal election in the country because we're under the microscope. If we can change things in Ferguson, the rest of the world, it's just a matter of time before things get better, all the way around. Not just for African-Americans but for everybody.

On the Department of Justice report

The report cleared Darren Wilson, the white officer who killed Brown, but found a pervasive pattern of racially biased policing in Ferguson.

McGrath: We did not expect it to be a rosy report. They went in with an agenda. Their agenda originally was to make Officer Wilson look guilty. The more they investigated, the more it validated the grand jury's findings that Officer Wilson was justified in his actions and was defending himself. Some of their other findings, they cherry-picked. You can do that with statistics. I'm not saying it's not valid. But I don't think it's as bad as they try to make it seem.

Hawkins: I was sickened by it. It's one thing to hear and to know that something is one-sided. But to have it proven in writing? It was really sickening for me, and it was difficult for me to read the report. If there's a problem with a large portion of the community, then something is wrong. Whether you choose to believe how it was reported or not, we need to fix those things.

On what they will do if elected

McGrath: Trying to have a few more town hall meetings and getting citizens involved. When there's a disaster, people get involved. When they get comfortable, they become disinvolved. But if you really want to make a difference, then you have to be involved in the process. And when you're more involved, more things get done.

Even though Ferguson is two-thirds African American, the six-member council currently has only one black member. The upcoming elections could change that.
America Tonight

Hawkins: I think that the people on my side of Ferguson need to be empowered. I think that the people on the other side of Ferguson need to be restored. I think that if we get jobs for the people who live on my side of Ferguson, help them feed their families, help them not to work two and three jobs or try to figure out how to meet their basic needs, I feel like they'll be empowered. The people who feel like they've been called racists or they've been targeted unfairly, we need to make sure that we do something to heal that wound as well and to restore them.

On the biggest issue facing Ferguson

McGrath: When I talk to people, the overwhelmingly No. 1 complaint everybody has is “my streets.” No matter what shape their streets are in, that's all I hear about. And second in line, it's the school districts. We have little pockets that aren't part of the actual main school district, and that kind of hurts. It makes people disenfranchised. The people who live there, their kids don't go to the school district.

Hawkins: Fear. There's fear on the side of most of the African-Americans who feel in disparate situations. I think it's the fear that the system won't ever change, won't ever be fair, won't ever offer them opportunity, won't ever give them any justice. And then on the other side, there's fear of losing white privilege, which a lot of people don't acknowledge that they have. There's fear that things will change and be different for them. There's fear that the black people will rise up and attack them. It's fear on all sides. All I hear is fear.

On why people should vote for them

McGrath: Mainly based on my qualifications and experience. The other three people seem like nice people, but until this election, they had done nothing. I care about this town. I care about the people, the community. This is my family. So I want to do what I think I can do to help make my family better. Because this [is] where I'm going to die.

Hawkins: I'm empowered, and I know that I can do this. My resume may not match up, but the faith inside of me, the fact that I work hard, the fact that I went to college and got my two degrees — I know I'm qualified. With my two children behind me and my family and my friends in the community, this is just another stepping stone.

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