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Ferguson's Mayor Faces The Heat As Forum Dissects City's Divisions

An audience member shows Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III a rubber bullet wound that he says he received during unrest in the north St. Louis County city. A forum sponsored by St. Louis Public Radio became heated, with ire being directed at Knowles.
Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
An audience member shows Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III a rubber bullet wound that he says he received during unrest in the north St. Louis County city. A forum sponsored by St. Louis Public Radio became heated, with ire being directed at Knowles.

A forum Thursday evening peering into Ferguson’s longstanding tensions as well as the St. Louis region’s racial divisions became angry and heated, with most of a crowd’s ire directed at the town’s mayor.

Audience members expressed searing criticism of Ferguson’s governance and leadership, both of which have come under fire since one of the Ferguson's police officers shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown.

The forum was held at Wellspring Church in Ferguson and drew a standing room-only crowd of more than 200. It was sponsored by St. Louis Public Radio and moderated by NPR’s Michel Martin. Panelists included Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III, former St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom, former state Sen. Rita Days, D-Bel Nor, Habitat for Humanity St. Louis CEO Kimberly McKinney and Wellspring Church Pastor Willis Johnson. 

Credit Durrie Bouscaren, St. Louis Public Radio
The forum drew a capacity crowd.

Many people in the sweltering church were fiercely upset with how Ferguson officials handled the shooting death of Brown. Some expressed anger about the incident itself. Others questioned the city’s policies on ticketing people. And many were upset that Brown’s body was in the street for several hours.

“I think that a lot of people want to know, they feel that Michael Brown’s remains were disrespected,” Martin said. “He was disrespected as a person that his family members were treated poorly. Can you speak to that?”

In response, Knowles said the body stayed on the street in order to not interfere with the St. Louis County Police Department’s investigation of a potential crime.

“As soon as the incident happened, we contacted St. Louis County,” Knowles said. “Unfortunately, [Brown] was left right there so that the investigators from St. Louis County, when they could get there, could come to a scene and investigate a scene of a potential crime that was not disturbed by anyone. Because we didn’t want anyone to feel that there would be some sort of coverup.”

Isom – who was recently tapped by Gov. Jay Nixon to be the state’s director of public safety – took issue with Knowles’ explanation.

“I think one thing all of us know is that Michael Brown should not have laid out there for four hours on the street. So you’ve got to acknowledge that was wrong. And that you’re sorry for it,” Isom said. “Because, just from a human standpoint, and if you want to just take it from a policing standpoint, it wasn’t appropriate.”

“I don’t care how under any circumstances what any kind of investigation was going on,” he added. “A person’s body does not lay out in the street for four hours.”

Knowles was constantly put on the defensive. At one point one of the audience members came forward to show rubber bullet wound he sustained during the riots.

When asked whether he would resign from office, Knowles said no. He promised that the city would create a civilian review board over the police department.

“I would hope that you would understand my sincerest apologies if you’ve been wronged,” Knowles said. “Any officer under my charge, I absolutely will again hold accountable.”

Leadership vacuum?

Some members of the crowd – especially the younger audience members – said they felt marginalized and disrespected by police and community leaders. A few were also upset there wasn’t a panelist to represent younger people. 

Credit Durrie Bouscaren, St. Louis Public Radio
From left: Habitat For Humanity St. Louis CEO Kimberly McKinney, former St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom and former Sen. Rita Days.

Jay Mitchell expressed such sentiments about the absence of young people. When Martin asked him what he wanted out of the panelists, Mitchell replied: “To take us seriously.”

“In all necessary means of what I’m saying, we’ve been hurt,” Mitchell said. “And I look past this just beyond a racial issue or police brutality. Because we also need to police ourselves and take responsibility for ourselves. But also in that action with the police brutality going forward, to pay that attention – not just let it be an underlying issue that goes beyond the means of being swept under the carpet again."

Sen. Rita Days said Brown’s death should provide more attention to how the region is divided, especially along racial lines. She also said it should provide voice to African Americans who feel disrespected by the police.

“They are not respected by police; they are not respected by any of the systems that we have,” Days said. “There’s a conspiracy of division. And that’s essentially what I feel right now. If you look at the schools, which schools are in trouble? Those are schools with predominantly people who look like me.”

Near the end of the forum, Isom expressed sorrow that leaders of St. Louis “haven’t done a really good job.” He said Brown’s death should be a time for self-reflection.

“I felt that it was my mission in life to address issues like this,” Isom said. “It doesn’t seem as if we’ve made significant progress. So, I’m looking in the mirror, at myself to see what I can do better.”

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