Nearly five years after Michael Brown’s death sparked protests and a movement over police treatment of African-Americans, his mother, Lezley McSpadden, is running for a Ferguson city council seat in the southern part of town where her son died.
“I hope that people will see that I’m still standing after all that I’ve been through,” McSpadden said. “And I’m still fighting. And I will always be a voice for Michael Brown and all of our other black and brown children who are being mistreated and who have been up against police brutality.”
McSpadden doesn’t face a clear path to a three-year council term in the city’s 3rd Ward. She faces an incumbent, Keith Kallstrom, with extensive experience on the council. And McSpadden must also get past Fran Griffin, who has support from residents that have pushed for change in Ferguson’s government.
Into the arena
After her son’s death, McSpadden became an advocate for overhauling policies around law enforcement — including testifying for a Missouri Senate bill to make police body cameras more widespread. She also wrote a book about the aftermath of her son’s death and also worked on federal mental health legislation with Howard University.
As a councilwoman, she said she wants to help lower crime and connect residents with mental health care.
“My first priority is the mental health and wellness of not only myself but others. And what happened on Aug. 9, the trauma that followed with that, I’m very concerned about the mental wellness of those folks,” McSpadden said. “Not only have they grown four years older, but that has stayed with them. And we want to see people able to move forward. We want to see a better relationship with the police. And we would like to see a better engagement between the youth and the police.”
McSpadden also said she would want to solicit input from residents about the focus of the council.
“Because that is what you’re asking for when you ask for the vote,” McSpadden said. “You’re coming in to be a servant of the community, and you want to serve. You want to help. You want to make things better. Let’s start that.”
Another challenger enters
Griffin, though, feels she’s the best person to make sure the city’s government is responsive to residents — and to bring about the changes that activists demand.
She points to her involvement on city boards and neighborhood associations to showcase her commitment to Ferguson. That includes tenure as the president of Ferguson’s parks and recreation board and two subcommittees of the Neighborhood Policing Steering Committee. That’s the community group required under a federal consent decree to provide recommendations to overhaul Ferguson’s police department.
“One thing they know is that I have been active. I’ve been trying to get people to get involved in Ferguson,” Griffin said. “There’s a small number of us who are engaged in trying to make the change.”
Indeed, some Ferguson residents who have been critical of city government since Brown’s death are backing Griffin’s campaign. And some are questioning whether McSpadden has been involved enough in the lengthy, and often contentious, effort to change Ferguson government.
That includes Latasha Brown, the president of the Southeast Ferguson Neighborhood Association.
“Most common thing I hear is, 'Where is she? How can she run in the community if she’s not here?'” Brown said. “She’s not engaged. Part of the problem is, we weren’t engaged with our city politics or how decisions were made.”
State Rep. Raychel Proudie, who lives in the 3rd Ward, echoed Brown’s sentiments and is supporting Griffin. She added that the ward needs strong representation.
“And when it comes to fighting for my area in the state House, I need to be able to call my councilpeople or call my mayor,” Proudie said.
McSpadden says her advocacy for her son and for families of people that police killed made an impact in Ferguson.
“My voice in particular — from the moment that I found out my son was laying in the street and every hour after then that I gave an interview and I talked to people and brought on that DOJ investigation — that shined a light on Ferguson and their violation of everyone’s civil rights in that moment,” McSpadden said. “Me as Michael Brown’s mother, I played a big part in that.”
Griffin emphasized that she would not be criticizing McSpadden, adding that all candidates, including herself, are being asked about their involvement in the community.
“We have an opportunity to really change the dynamics of Ferguson,” Griffin said. “There are people within the city of Ferguson who have looked for the black community not to come out and vote, so that those decisions can keep happening without us being informed and knowing what’s going on and having a say in the process.
“And so, on April 2, I would encourage any and all residents of the city of Ferguson to come out,” she added.
Before either McSpadden or Griffin make it to the council, they’ll have to defeat Kallstrom — who is the council’s longest-serving member.
Like Griffin, he points to numerous boards and commissions that he’s served on within Ferguson.
“I want to get it right. I want to be fair for everybody, not just one race or another race,” Kallstrom said. “If there’s an issue that I don’t see, hopefully somebody else is going to have a point of view that they want me to know — and they can deal with that.”
Kallstrom says his experience is important in dealing with the city’s challenges.
“Having gone through the consent-decree process, I know everything that happened there,” Kallstrom said. “And I know what we went through negotiating with the DOJ. There are some issues that still need to be addressed. But because they weren’t addressed in the consent decree, I want to finish getting us through it and getting our training in there — and make what changes need to be in there to make improvements.”
Even though McSpadden’s entry into the race sparked national attention, Kallstrom said his lengthy tenure in office and his incumbency is a big plus.
“I’m going for the seat, not against anybody,” Kallstrom said. “As I’ve done in seven other elections, and I’ll do it that way in this one. I’m hoping to counter [McSpadden’s name recognition] by my name recognition being out there. Over 25 years, I’ve been representing residents out there. So I’m hoping that my name recognition and the good work I do and have done gets recognized by the voters.
Kallstrom noted that if he wins, Ferguson’s term limits will bar him from running again. “So whoever wants to fill my seat after I’m gone, it’ll be wide open,” he added.
In addition to the 3rd Ward contest, 1st Ward Councilwoman Linda Lipka is facing a challenge from Ferguson Township Committeeman Michael Person. Second Ward Councilwoman Heather Robinet is unopposed for a second term on the council.
Whoever is elected will play a role in a host of challenges facing Ferguson. That includes complying with a Department of Justice consent decree and hiring a permanent city manager. Like other St. Louis County municipalities, Ferguson is also examining how its governance would be affected by a city-county merger taking away its power and revenue.
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