The immediate catalyst of the protests was the shooting and killing of Michael Brown. But the underlying cause was years of racial tensions between Ferguson’s minority communities, police, and local government.
Prior to the shooting, Americans were already widely discussing the history of police violence against black men, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and racism in general. This conversation particularly resonated as the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Eric Garner, among others, permeated through the national media.
In Ferguson in particular, the problems may have been further magnified by the lack of black representation in the local government. Ferguson was about 67 percent black in 2013, according to the US Census Bureau. But, in August 2014, Ferguson’s mayor and police chief were white, just one of six city council members was black, zero school board members were black, and only three out of 53 commissioned police officers were black, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The reason for these political disparities appears to be low voter turnout during local elections in March and April. MSNBC’s Zachary Roth wrote, “This year, just 12.3 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, according to numbers provided by the county. In 2013 and 2012, those figures were even lower: 11.7 percent and 8.9 percent respectively. As a rule, the lower the turnout, the more the electorate skews white and conservative.” Terry Jones, a political science professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, echoed the sentiment in an email, writing that the city’s white residents “are on average older in age and have resided in Ferguson longer. As a result, I estimate the electorate participating in the April municipal elections remains majority Caucasian.”
Whatever the cause, the lack of representation had left many in Ferguson’s black community feeling like they had no voice in their local government, leaving protests as the only outlet to respond to situations like the Brown shooting.