Wesley Bell watched the city of Ferguson, Mo., erupt outside his window almost four years ago, after the prosecutor of St. Louis County announced that he would not bring charges against the police officer who shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.
As protesters faced off against police officers in the streets, Mr. Bell was forced to leave his home. As a black lawyer, he understood the protesters’ outrage, but he felt like the best way to fix the system would be from within. First, he ran for Ferguson City Council and won.
And on Tuesday, in a Democratic primary race, Mr. Bell beat Robert McCulloch, the prosecutor who declined to charge Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Mr. Brown. It was the first time that Mr. McCulloch, who had held the job for 27 years, had faced re-election since the Ferguson protests, when critics accused him of being too close to law enforcement to properly oversee the investigation into Mr. Brown’s death.
There is no Republican candidate in the November general election, so Mr. Bell, 43, will most likely be a lock for the prosecutor’s office.
For the activists who helped galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement, Mr. McCulloch’s defeat this week felt like a form of delayed reckoning.
“I’ll never forget how smug Bob McCulloch was when he announced the non-indictment of Darren Wilson,” tweeted DeRay Mckesson, an activist who was in Ferguson at the time of the uprising. He used the hashtag #ByeBob.
But Mr. Bell and his supporters said that Tuesday’s victory, which he won by a comfortable margin, was about more than just the Michael Brown case. The county’s criminal justice system is still plagued by fundamental inequality, local activists said, with poor black residents often sitting in jail for days for minor traffic offenses.
“I’ve always disagreed with the approach and the philosophy of that office,” Mr. Bell said of Mr. McCulloch’s leadership in an interview on Wednesday. “We ran on a platform of expanding diversion programs, reforming cash bail, treating people fairly, giving them a fair shake.”
In 2015, Mr. Bell, a defense lawyer who moonlighted as a municipal court judge, won a seat on the City Council after promising to address many of the issues that protesters were angry about. He sought to put a stop to the city’s practice of raising revenue through large fees and fines levied by police officers in minor traffic stops, and he tried to bring protesters into the political process by appointing them to committees and boards.
Then this year, Mr. Bell, the son of a police officer who had served as a municipal court judge, decided to challenge Mr. McCulloch.
The prosecutor, who declined to comment and has repeatedly defended his handling of the Michael Brown case, has made some attempts to reduce the number of people behind bars. In 2014, he started a program to allow people to divert their sentences to drug treatment or other rehabilitation.
But only 36 people have had their sentences diverted under that program, said Jennifer Soble, senior legal counsel at the Justice Collaborative Engagement Project, which helps grass-roots groups elect more progressive district attorneys.
“Our jail population is out of control,” she said. “Locally elected county prosecutors have the greatest capacity to change that instantly, more than any other actor in the system.”
After Mr. Bell decided to run, activists pushed him to make concrete promises on ending the system of cash bail and expanding alternatives to prison. He was also able to tap into broader dissatisfaction with Mr. McCulloch over his handling of Mr. Brown’s shooting.
“No one was happy with it,” said James Knowles, a Republican who serves on the Ferguson City Council with Mr. Bell. Even people who were happy that the police officer was not being charged with a crime were upset that Mr. McCulloch announced the decision after dark, Mr. Knowles said.
“We sat down with crisis planners, and he literally did exactly everything they told him not to do,” he said.
In addition, Mr. McCulloch has faced criticism for his close ties to embattled county executive Steve Stenger, who has been accused of giving sweetheart deals and political favors to people who write big checks to his campaign.
Mr. Knowles added that because Missouri has open primaries, Republicans were eligible to vote on Tuesday.
”Wesley Bell had a strong base of support within the Democrat core, but I also think some Republicans supported Bell as a protest vote,” said Mr. Knowles, who also serves as Ferguson’s mayor.
Mr. Bell’s victory is part of a broader movement to elect a new breed of prosecutor — candidates who will run on promises to make the criminal justice system more fair to the poor, rather than typical tough-on-crime pledges.
“We really came to understand the essential role of prosecutors,” said Sean King, a Black Lives Matter activist who started the Real Justice PAC, a group that focuses on electing reform-minded prosecutors across the country. Mr. King’s group has supported a dozen candidates across the country and helped Mr. Bell with mailings and his digital platform.
“There’s this feeling that this gives us hope that the political system, with enough pressure applied, can work for us,’” said Sara Baker, an organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union, who spent Tuesday night at an election watch party in a bar in Florissant, a suburb of St. Louis, where some wept at the news.
Blake Strode, the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a local nonprofit legal defense organization, said that Mr. Bell’s victory is a sign of how many people wanted change.
“Tomorrow will be four years to the day since Michael Brown was killed,” Mr. Strode said on Wednesday. “I think it speaks to a shift that has been hard-fought, but slowly and steadily happening, in the years since.”