Since the presidential campaign began in earnest, it’s become fairly common for candidates to allude to the aftermath of Michael Brown’s shooting death at the hands of a Ferguson police officer.
But according to officials that represent Ferguson, neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump has visited the city since announcing their presidential bids. And with both candidates set to debate Sunday at Washington University, some of the city’s elected leaders say it’s time for Trump and Clinton to see the town for themselves.
“I think it’s obviously an opportune time,” said Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III. “If you’re going to mention Ferguson or talk about Ferguson or reference Ferguson on how it's purported to be, I think you should take the opportunity to come and see it for yourself firsthand.”
Brown’s shooting death sparked international media attention on the divide between African-Americans and law enforcement. The topic has become especially important in the Trump-Clinton race after police shootings in Minnesota, Louisiana, Oklahoma and North Carolina.
While Clinton made a campaign stop last year in Florissant that focused on the aftermath of police-involved shootings, Knowles said the only former presidential candidates that have visited the city are U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Ben Carson. It’s not clear if that will change this weekend. Spokespeople for Trump and Clinton didn’t respond to emails from St. Louis Public Radio about whether they would visit Ferguson before Sunday’s debate.
State Rep. Courtney Curtis said he too wants to see both candidates come to his hometown. He said if they both came, “it would make them have to answer some tough questions – mainly why it took them so long to visit and what their actual plan is for preventing more Fergusons from popping up across the country.
“It would make the words more real, because they could actually say they’ve been there,” said Curtis, who as of now is the only state lawmaker who lives in Ferguson. “Until you’ve actually experienced something or spoken directly with the people in the place where international attention shined its spotlight on, it’s just more political rhetoric. To actually come there means if I do become president ... I’m not afraid to interface with the people. I’m not afraid of the political spotlight that will come with even being in a place where pictures will be taken that will forever connect me to a place that the entire country watched at one time.”
Trump comments touch nerve
Trump in particular sparked controversy earlier this year with unsubstantiated claims that Ferguson was among the most dangerous cities in the world. Not only did that statement clash with crime statistics, but it also prompted some residents to wonder how somebody who never visited the city could make that type of statement.
“It’s just him speaking out of his ignorance of what is actually happened here,” said John Powell, a Ferguson resident who paid close attention to efforts to overhaul the city’s governance since Brown’s death. “And I think it’s just another way for him to make a ‘law and order’ pledge to his base that he will help control these types of situations that happened in Ferguson… There’s no sense of trying to get to the underlying root causes of why people are upset or why people would protest or why people would see that there’s a problem with the criminal justice system in the United States.
“It’s just a way to say to the base ‘Hey, I’m on your side. I think that these protesters and people of color are out of control and I’ll stop that if I get in,’” he added.
St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, who represents Ferguson, said “when I heard Trump say Ferguson as if it was a war zone, that really upset me.”
“If they’re going to refer to Ferguson all the time, they should come and visit so that they know what they’re talking about,” Erby said. “I don’t minimize what happened. However, it’s not indicative of the kind of city that it is. And I think that they should come in visit so that they at least know what the situation is.”
Knowles said he often gets daily emails and calls from residents who read national news articles making statements about the safety of the city. He said a visit from Clinton and Trump would “be beneficial to our community especially considering what I hear from residents.”
“I think the citizens of this community, and really of the St. Louis region, would probably love to have real conversations about the issues that are involved and the issues that have been raised since August of 2014,” Knowles said. “We would like to as a community and as a region not be painted with the brush that unfortunately the community’s been painted with.”
At this point in the presidential campaign, neither candidate likely has unscheduled time to visit Ferguson -- especially when they have to visit swing states required to win on Nov. 8. Still, Powell said he hoped any hypothetical visit would be more than just a “photo op.”
“They should come to really sit down with some people of color and talk about the issues of Ferguson,” Powell said. “That doesn’t mean they can’t talk to white people or they shouldn’t talk to our city councilpeople or mayor. I’m just saying if they’re on a limited amount of time and they only had an hour or two hours, I would definitely sit down with some people of color in Ferguson and ask them: ‘What is the situation now? How has the city gotten better in the last two years and what are some things that still need to be done?’”