On Tuesday, authorities in a small South Carolina city where 47 percent of the population is black but 80 percent of the police department is white announced that a white officer had been charged with murder in the killing of an unarmed black man, who was shown on a video fleeing when he was shot to death. The officer, Michael T. Slager, initially claimed that he feared for his life because the man, Walter L. Scott, was trying to take his Taser. But a video recorded by a bystander shows that Mr. Scott was already running before Mr. Slager drew his weapon and was more than 20 feet away when the eighth and final shot was fired at his back. The video then shows the officer handcuffing Mr. Scott, returning to the area of the initial struggle, picking something up from the ground, returning to the prone body and dropping it next to him.
How could something like this happen? After Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teen, was shot and killed by a policeman in Ferguson, Mo.; after Eric Garner, an unarmed African-American man selling loose cigarettes, was choked to death by a police officer in Staten Island; after Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy who was playing with a pellet gun, was shot and killed by police in Cleveland? After months of protests nationwide and Justice Department investigations, how could something like this still happen?
The sad answer to that also came on Tuesday, in Ferguson. That suburb of St. Louis had seen massive demographic change during the last few decades, with the African-American population rising from 25 percent in 1990 to 67 percent in 2010. Yet the power structure of the city of 21,000 people remained predominantly white. When Brown was shot, the mayor was white, all but one member of the city council was white, no African-Americans served on the school board, and 50 of the 53 officers in the police department (including the chief) were white. The Justice Department's investigation of the department found a pervasive pattern of racial discrimination by local officials in which blacks were far more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested than whites, were more likely to have force used against them and received harsher sentences than whites for the same crimes.
Tuesday was that community's chance to set matters straight: a municipal election. Some candidates lined up to embrace the cause of the protesters who have been a constant presence in Ferguson since August, and others stood closer to the side of the existing political establishment. If ever an election has been more clearly a chance to shape a city's future, we can't think of it.
Yet only 30 percent of the city's eligible voters bothered to cast ballots. Granted, that's a lot better than the last municipal election, when only about 12 percent turned out. The election yielded two new African-American council members, one of whom was identified with the cause of the protesters, one of whom was not. But what the people who voted chose is not so important as the fact that most Ferguson residents still chose apathy. After everything that has happened in Ferguson during the last nine months, 70 percent of people still couldn't be bothered to make their voices heard in the most basic yet most consequential way.
If what happened in Ferguson isn't enough to get the people of Ferguson involved, what hope do we have that the rest of the nation could stand together and demand change? How could we ever have expected that legislators in Maryland would listen to Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's call for reforms to make it easier to hold bad cops accountable? How could we expect them to come up with standards for the use of police body cameras? And how can we expect to see an end to the tragic parade of unarmed black men killed by the police?