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Politically Speaking: Outgoing Ferguson Mayor Knowles On How His City Changed Since Michael Brown

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles takes the oath of office at Ferguson City Hall Tuesday night.
File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles took the oath of office for the last time at Ferguson City Hall in 2017.

James Knowles III was taking down tents with his father at the Ferguson Farmers Market on Aug. 9, 2014, the day one of his city’s police officers shot and killed Michael Brown. He learned about the shooting that would spark months of protests in his town and elsewhere through a phone call from Ferguson’s city manager.

“It was one of those things at 12:30 or so on an August Saturday … if the city manager’s calling me, it’s probably nothing good,” Knowles said.

Nearly six years after Brown’s death sparked change and protests in the north St. Louis County city, Knowles is stepping down as mayor tomorrow due to term limits and turning the job over to Ella Jones. On the latest episode of Politically Speaking, Knowles reflected on a consequential tenure in office that changed his town — and his life.

“I’m not one of those elected officials who saw this as another rung on the ladder to being governor or president or anything like that,” said Knowles, who has served as either mayor or a city council member in Ferguson for 15 years. “It certainly wasn’t something that I expected or something that I would want.”

The ensuing months after Brown’s death placed the city of Ferguson,and Knowles in particular, in a brighter-than-normal spotlight. Reporters and demonstrators from all over the world flocked to Ferguson in 2014 to witness widespread protests — and witness clashes between demonstrators and police. Knowles, a part-time elected official with little direct executive power, became a fixture on national television shows.  (Ferguson's mayor, however, can make big policy changes if the rest of the city council is on board.)

With increased visibility came increased scrutiny. Knowles said the fierce criticism included hate mail and death threats. He also said that many people reached out to him to support him. But it was sometimes difficult to mediate competing perspectives about what should happen after Brown’s death, he said. 

“There were times when Republicans and pro-police people were at me saying, ‘There’s a blue line and you’re way over it, Mayor!’ And I was like, ‘Look, you’ve got to have an open mind here and open your heart and consider all perspectives and people’s thoughts and feelings,’” Knowles said. “But same thing with the protesters. … There were a lot of inroads that were made. But there were people out there that were hateful. And if you weren’t going to do exactly what they wanted, when they wanted and how they wanted, you were just the enemy.

“And when you’re operating in a situation like that, it’s really hard to chart a path forward that doesn’t entail some criticism,” he added.

Police and governmental changes

A man with an American flag stands in front of a Ferguson Police car earlier in July. A wide-ranging municipal court bill that takes effect on Friday doesn't impact Ferguson as much as other cities in the St. Louis region. 2015
Credit File photo I Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
In 2015, Ferguson was still dealing with the aftermath of Michael Brown's shooting death. Knowles acknowledges there were problems with policing, but a lot has changed since then.

Knowles had to deal with criticism of Ferguson’s city government, especially how it handled fines and fees — and how its municipal court operated. He also pointed how Ferguson quickly made changes to its court system weeks after Brown’s death, well before the state took action on the matter.

Knowles said Brown’s death prompted more investment in community policing, a need that became readily apparent after 2014.

“And so, how do we take those officers and go one, two or three steps further — and connect them with people in the community?” Knowles said. “Especially the ones we heard from in 2014, who really felt disconnected and felt they didn’t have a relationship with the police. And maybe the police looked at them with a cautious eye or suspicious eye?”

Brown’s death also brought about statewide changes: The Missouri General Assemblypassed a bill placing restrictions on municipal courts and curbing the percentage of revenue from fines a city could keep in its budget.

Knowles said there is more work to do: Ferguson still has tocomply with a federal consent decree the city signed in 2016. And the city is dealing with a tough financial situation because COVID-19 forced the shutdown of many businesses that provide needed taxes.

Knowles added that while the consent decree applies to Ferguson alone, the entire region needs to own up to its own issues when it comes to policing. He said the lack of pressure from the Department of Justice for other communities to change had major consequences.

“You’ve got to ask what complicity the federal government had at that time, had in not doing anything about what they knew to be problems system-wide through St. Louis. I mean, I give our Legislature some credit for taking on some of these changes and taking on some of these issues. But still, the federal government and the city of Ferguson — this has been the focus. I think it’s given a lot of other communities the opportunity to be off the hook for having these conversations.”

Blake Strode is the executive director of ArchCity Defenders, which has filed multiple lawsuits challenging area policing and municipal court practices,including in Ferguson. He said in 2019 that “of course it would be ridiculous to think that the problems of Ferguson were limited to Ferguson.” 

“We have to have the appetite to have a much larger, more comprehensive conversation about the way in which we have organized our society and this region,” Strode said. “The way in which we’ve literally built institutions to maintain the status quo of poverty, of racial segregation, of over-investment of policing and jails, of under-investment of resources that do create conditions of public safety. That is much larger than talking about one municipality in north county.”

On George Floyd and the future

Jason Barney, center, locks arms with fellow protester Sunday June 7, 2020, in downtown St. Louis. He was among thousands who continued days of protests against police brutality.
Credit File photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Jason Barney, center, locks arms with fellow protester on June 7 in downtown St. Louis. Much of the protest movement that's erupted after a string of police killings in 2020 gained steam after Michael Brown's shooting death in 2014.

With protests erupting across the country decrying police killing black people, some are looking to Ferguson’s trajectory over the past few years as a preview of what could happen next for some cities. 

Knowles said large places like Minneapolis and Louisville will go through a much different process than a small city like Ferguson.

“Trying to have a conversation at the 50,000-foot level is just impossible,” Knowles said. “People are talking over each other and past each other and grandstanding and everything else. But if you really want to have courageous conversations, if you really want to have a dialogue, if you really want to have a discussion that leads to change, not just in your government, but you need to change the hearts and minds of people … part of what’s going to have to happen is those discussions happen in small groups.”

After Tuesday, Ella Jones will succeed Knowles as mayor. Jones,who unsuccessfully ran against Knowles in 2017, will be the first woman and first black person to hold that office in the city's history. She said she plans to not only focus on following through with the consent decree and dealing with a tough financial situation, but to also improve the city’s image.

“We just cannot sit around and when people feel like there’s an injustice in the United States, let’s run to Ferguson and tear it up,” Jones said. “We’ve got to put some other measures in place to keep this city protected.”

Asked what advice he has for Jones, Knowles said many Ferguson residents are concerned with infrastructure and public safety issues.

“No matter how many conversations we’ve had over the past five years about race or race relations or being in the national spotlight or part of the national narrative about community and community-police relations and reform, at the end of the day, when you still go to a neighborhood association meeting, the first question they’re asking about is when is our streets getting paved,” Knowles said.

Follow Jason Rosenbaum on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Music: “The Time is Wrong” by Tickle Me Pink

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.