The real lesson coming out of Ferguson, MO is how a city government can abysmally fail. Sure, they aren’t declaring bankruptcy like Orange County, CA, or bulldozing entire empty neighborhoods like Detroit, MI, but the inability to serve the needs of their citizens is just as stark. The most disturbing part of the failure is that just like being financially over-extended or turning into a ghost town, it can happen to your town too. So how do you avoid it?
If your city has low voter participation and city council attendance, that’s your canary in the coal mine. “Government belongs to the people who show up”, and when you have fewer of them showing up, city policy tends to skew to those people who are most politically active. It also makes it dangerously easy for city departments to go on autopilot and insulate themselves from the people they should be serving. It becomes detached from reality.
Once you see a lack of engagement, you need to figure out why it’s happening. Have people lost faith that their voice has any impact on city governance? Are they too busy worrying about where their next meal comes from to consider going to a city council meeting? Is government far too inaccessible and intimidating to be engaged? Whatever the cause may be, they’re marginalized groups that only engage when their anger leads them to. That’s a dangerous place to be in. Anger can manifest itself in a passionate rant during a public meeting or it can be overturning a car and lighting it on fire. It’s wildly unpredictable.
This is what happened in Ferguson. A poor and cynical population didn’t engage with their city government and the police department adopted policing methods and policies that didn’t meet with their needs and expectations. That created a toxic feedback loop that drove anger higher and participation lower until finally some straw broke the camel’s back. The city, instead of taking this as an opportunity to try to fix the problem, has doubled down on the status quo and made the problem even worse.
It’s easy to say that this is a Ferguson problem, or a racial problem, or a cop problem. The reality is that this is an everyone problem. Thinking it can’t and won’t happen in your city is wishful thinking. So what are you going to do to bring those marginalized voices to the table?