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With Ferguson City Council Seat, Activist Fran Griffin Hopes To 'Move Ferguson Forward'

Supporters congratualte Fran Griffin on her city council seat win at her election watch party in Ferguson on April 2.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Supporters congratulate Fran Griffin at her election watch party on April 2. On Tuesday, Griffin becomes Ferguson's newest city council member.

Exactly one month after a Ferguson police officer killed Michael Brown about a mile from her home, Fran Griffin attended her first city council meeting.

Determined to make her voice heard, she joined more than 600 people inside a crowded church for a contentious meeting. Since that night in 2014, Griffin has attended nearly every council meeting.

On Tuesday, the activist and mother of three will be sworn in as Ferguson’s newest council member and the first black woman to represent the city’s predominantly black third ward.

“I want to show people that we can have hope that things will change,” Griffin said. “I get asked a lot — ‘Why do you have so much hope?’ And it’s because I see the potential in us when we work collectively.”

Griffin’s supporters — many of whom protested after Brown’s death and have remained critical of city officials — believe her win over incumbent Keith Kallstrom represents a step toward hard-fought progress in Ferguson. In a closely watched race, Griffin unseated Kallstrom and won more votes than Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother.

“I cried when she won,” said Tony Rice, a Ferguson resident and prominent protester who first met Griffin while protesting outside the police department.

Unlike the handful of black candidates who’ve won council seats since Brown was killed in 2014, Griffin is the first to unseat a long-serving incumbent. Kallstrom, who is white, has served six terms since first taking office in 1996 — years before the city, which was once predominantly white, became nearly 70 percent black.

Griffin said her election gives her the opportunity to amplify voices that have been overlooked and historically left out of decision-making processes. She added that she wants to make city government more accessible and accountable to members of her community.

In recent years, Griffin started studying the city’s municipal code, became familiar with its budget process and joined groups that review the police department’s policies. She also joined the city’s parks board and helped start a neighborhood association that advocates for residents in Ferguson’s apartment complexes.

A ballot initiative that passed this month will give Griffin and other council members a say in the hiring of Ferguson’s new police chief.

“It’s not about what you want — it’s about what the people in your community want,” Griffin said of the work ahead of her. “And your ability to understand what they want and your ability to fight for what they want.”

In March 2016, more than a dozen activists wore yellow vests and silently interrupted a city council forum to urge the city to agree to the U.S. Department of Justice's proposed consent decree. Fran Griffin participated with her daughter.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
In March 2016, activists silently interrupted a city council forum to urge the city to agree to the proposed DOJ consent decree. Griffin participated with her daughter.

Spurred into action

The day after Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, Griffin joined hundreds of people on West Florissant Avenue for a candlelight vigil. She brought her 7-year-old daughter, 11-year-old son and their teenage cousin.

When police officers in riot gear advanced on the crowd, some people started running for safety. The commotion scared Griffin’s daughter, who broke away from her and briefly disappeared into the crowd.

After that, Griffin started protesting every night. She wanted to set an example for her daughter.

“I wanted to be able to teach her that she doesn’t have to be afraid, and that she can stand up for what’s right,” Griffin said. “Not just for herself, but for her community.”

Six months later, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found Ferguson’s policing and court practices unconstitutional and discriminatory. The investigation led to a consent decree, under which the city is overhauling its courts and police department.  

With the Ferguson Collaborative — a group she helped start to keep the city and DOJ accountable — Griffin pushed for there to be opportunities for public comment at consent-decree status hearings.

She also joined a city steering committee that provides feedback to the police department. When policies are posted for public comment, Griffin looks for vague language and potential loopholes in order to make recommendations to the DOJ.

The justice department’s policies are typically based on best practices from across the country, said police accountability advocate John Chasnoff. But Griffin brings something more to the process — her lived experience.

“That’s a perspective that the Department of Justice can’t really bring to the table. That somebody like me, who has worked on police policies for many years, can’t bring to the table,” said Chasnoff, who’s also a member of the steering committee.  

Many of the group’s recommendations, Griffin said, have been accepted.

“When we talk about moving Ferguson forward – it’s not just a catchphrase, it’s action,” she said. “Change has to come from us.”

Michael Brown Sr. congratulates Griffin on her city council win two weeks ago at Club Diamonds.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Michael Brown Sr. congratulates Griffin on her city council win two weeks ago at Club Diamonds.

Getting in the game

In 2016, Griffin decided she would try to change the system from the inside and launched an unsuccessful write-in campaign for Kallstrom’s seat. One hundred thirty-two people wrote in her name.

“She looked at the landscape and saw how they do it,” Rice said. “She realized she had to basically play by their rules. And in order to play by their rules, you have to get in the game with them.”

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said he looks forward to working with Griffin.

“I think she’s going to bring a perspective to the council that, you know, we obviously want to hear and we want to take into account,” Knowles said. “And I think it’ll be an interesting experience for her as well, to kind of be on the inside of how things work.”

Supporters predict Griffin will come up against challenges as she starts to work with establishment politicians.

“She knows her community like nobody else on that council does,” said Ferguson resident Emily Davis, who first met Griffin at a protest in 2014. “But when she shows up, she is going to be seen as a protester first. And that, in and of itself, comes with political backlash.”

Griffin said with her community by her side, she’s ready for any challenges ahead of her.

“I said win or lose, I was going to continue doing the work,” she said. “I’m just fighting in a different arena — but I’ve been watching, and I’m ready.”

Follow Carolina on Twitter: @CarolinaHidalgo

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Carolina Hidalgo joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as the station’s first visual journalist. She now produces photographs, digital stories and radio features with a focus on issues of race, inequality and immigration. In 2019, she reported from the United States-Mexico border as an International Women’s Media Foundation fellow. In 2018, she was named one of The Lit List’s “30 photographers to watch.” Carolina also volunteers as a mentor with NPR’s Next Generation Radio project. She is a proud native of New York City and a member of Women Photograph and Diversify Photo.