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Michael Brown's Funeral Is Mixed With Tributes, Political Messages


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. The funeral of Michael Brown mixed personal tributes with politics. Maybe that was understandable. The shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, was a specific incident. An unarmed 18-year-old who was killed during an altercation that is still under investigation.

GREENE: But it also fed into a wider debate to which Brown's cousin Eric Davis referred.

ERIC DAVIS: We've had enough of this senseless killing. We have had enough of it. And what you guys can do to continue this is show up at the voting polls.

GREENE: In the days since the shooting some people in Ferguson have been thinking about who governs their community.

INSKEEP: Shereen Marisol Meraji of NPR's Code Switch Team recently returned from Ferguson.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: For nearly two weeks after Michael Brown's death, protestors gathered in front of the police department in Central Ferguson. Marco Watson was there and said Brown was his classmate.

MARCO WATSON: But I'm not only here for my friend,. I'm here for us as a people. This has been long-overdue. You got to stand up and fight for what you believe in because if you don't, you sitting here accepting what you against.

MERAJI: Watson said he just turned 18 and then reached into his pocket to pull out a crumpled voter registration card someone handed to him at an earlier march.

WATSON: All I need is a pen.

MERAJI: And you're going to fill that out?

WATSON: I'm going to fill this out. Yes, I will. I want to vote the right people in office.

MERAJI: Voter registration tables were set up in the protest zone and members of the black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha canvassed the neighborhood where Brown was killed, registering African-American voters. The city of Ferguson is two-thirds black, but nearly all of its elected officials are white - the mayor, 5 of the 6 city council members and 6 of the 7 school board members.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I've been here 48 years, and I've never missed an election.

MERAJI: Just just a of couple blocks away from the protests, Jim Smith and David Proost enjoyed a mid-day coffee break. Smith is 87 and Proost is in his late 70s.

Who did you gentlemen vote for in the last municipal elections?

JIM SMITH: The new mayor. And he's white. I don't know how he got in there, but people must've voted for him. Those other people who complain do not vote.

DAVID PROOST: I did vote at the last election for our current mayor. And I think our city will move forward with him.

MERAJI: Smith and Proost represent the most active voters in Ferguson - older and white - says David Kimball, a political science professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

DAVID KIMBALL: Political change often occurs - lags behind the demographic change, and in Ferguson, the African-American population, or a large part of it, has moved in in the last decade or two.

MERAJI: He says white residents have long-established community organizations that recruit candidates and campaign on their behalf. But Kimball adds there are signs that the power dynamic is starting to change. He points out that after the black superintendent of schools was suspended by an all-white school board and then resigned last spring, African-American voters took action.

KIMBALL: A group recruited a slate of three candidates to run for the three open seats on the school board in the election in April, and one African-American candidate was elected.

JASON JOHNSON: You know, civic participation is not a requirement for your human rights to be respected by local police.

MERAJI: Jason Johnson is a political science professor at Hiram College. He traveled to Ferguson to observe the protests and says activists should be careful not to suggest that Brown was shot and killed because of black voter apathy, especially considering just 12 percent of all registered voters in Ferguson turned out last election.

JOHNSON: While no one seems to want to bother to vote in municipal elections, it's clear that the African-American population feels even less responded-to by local government.

MERAJI: But Johnson adds voting can change Ferguson's future. And he hopes that the activism sparked by Michael Brown's death will draw more African-Americans to the polls. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.