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Former Ferguson PR strategist Devin James wants to set the record straight on his role in Ferguson

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Devin James, author, business owner and former Ferguson PR strategist joined "St. Louis on the Air" on Thursday.

Devin James, the author, business owner and former community engagement/outreach strategist for the city of Ferguson feels he has been mischaracterized for the work he did there following his firing by the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership in September of 2014. He’s trying to rectify the misperceptions in his tell-all memoir, “Inside Ferguson: A Voice for the Voiceless,” which was released last year.

“Right now, we’re just trying to get the narrative straight,” James told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh. “The narrative that was driven basically mischaracterized me, put me in the wrong role, didn’t allow the folks who should have been accountable for what they did — Common Ground handled public relations, Elasticity handled marketing and we were the subcontractors. If you put everything in the right perspective, you get an understanding of who was actually supposed to be doing what. And who was doing it up to the point when I came into the picture.”

On Thursday night, James will give a talk about his book at Left Bank Books.

He asserts that the partnership did not fire him because they were unaware of his criminal record, but rather because they needed a scapegoat for how poorly public relations were handled in the case of Ferguson.

"I think I was the voice for the black community that nobody wants to hear around here."

“I think the reason I was let go, number one, was the old mentality, the unwillingness to take my advice on changes that needed to be made,” James said. “The other piece was accountability. Thirdly, I think I was the voice for the black community that nobody wants to hear around here.”

James said that the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership and the city of Ferguson were well-aware prior to the beginning of his work in North County that he had a criminal background, after shooting and killing an unarmed man during a home invasion when he was 22.

“Anyone who works for McDonalds gets a background check,” James said. “For me to get this level of government contracting and not have been screened to the T is absolutely absurd.”

What was James’ role?

James, who says he was never paid for the work he did in Ferguson, is in the middle of ongoing litigation over such matters. He also says his official role was never to be the spokesperson—he and his team, the Devin James Group, were hired to do outreach and community engagement strategy to “repair bridges” within the Ferguson community. He did, however, on several occasions speak up for the city of Ferguson.

"Inside Ferguson," by Devin James.
Credit Devin James
"Inside Ferguson," by Devin James.

“The reason I ended up speaking was because several of the leaders, including Katy Jamboretz, advised me to step up and speak,” James said.  “I rejected speaking on behalf of the city multiple times. I also had various efforts to discover or position a spokesperson but we weren’t able to get a spokesperson. It just so happened that the Mayor and various other folks in the administration, everything they said was inappropriate. I decided to speak for them because I didn’t want any more attacks on the black community or any more insensitive or culturally irrelevant statements to be made that would damage relationships we were trying to build on the ground.”

James is a much-maligned figure from the fall of 2014, known as the mastermind behind the now-infamous apology video from former Ferguson police Chief Tom Jackson. He says everything he did during that period of time was done from a good place and that he stands by the moves he recommended.

“The purpose of my job was the bridge the gap,” James said. He said there needed to be clarification because he doesn’t want people to think he was purposefully mischaracterizing what the city of the Ferguson was doing to the community.

Why does James believe he was ‘mischaracterized’?

From James’ perspective, he considers the black community as a whole to be mistreated in Ferguson and he as another victim in such systems of oppression. Several times during the interview, he pointed out that black men are often vilified, in the way he was, by the media.

James details in his book instances of where “egos, old mentalities, and so many other things got in the way of changes that needed to take place” in Ferguson. “The folks I had to work with in leadership capacities were ill-equipped to deal with cultural issues,” he said.

He said there wasn’t enough representation of the black community “at the table” in Ferguson and that no one was interested in including those voices. In that way, he said, he felt like a voice for the voiceless…and was penalized for that role in the city of Ferguson’s PR mechanism.

“If I’m the only person in the room who has the cultural awareness or ability to communicate effectively or consider that we need to have a trauma-informed approach as we relate to these different issues, then I need to be considered a valuable resource,” James said. “That’s the reason I was brought in there. When you consider that no one was listening and look at the fact the DOJ reports and lawsuits support the very things that I was suggesting and the plan I turned over on various facets of reform that needed to take place…it doesn’t seem like my ego or me being supported by what I said was the priority. The community and their needs and the changes that needed to be made were the priority.”

"I think there's an element of racism or discrimination or lack of value of my opinion because of the color of my skin."

James said that people did not value his opinion based on the color his skin.

“There were instances where I would say something that was a recommendation for the mayor or city council to implement, when I would say it, it would seem like I’m talking to deer in headlights,” James said. “However, I put it in an email and send it to a friend of mine, a white male, who sends the exact same email and text with what I had just said, they would look at it say ‘it’s a great idea, let’s move forward.’ I think there’s an element of racism or discrimination or lack of value of my opinion because of the color of my skin.”

James’ experience with racism

James said that he has experienced racism and oppression all his life, especially coming from the South. He said he grew up in poverty, knew gang violence and was involved in the criminal justice system. He said he “never had a positive experience with law enforcement.”

 When asked if that experience conflicted with the job he was meant to do in Ferguson, James brushed it off.

“Your attempts and others to discredit my abilities and credentials is off-base,” James said. “There was never a question about my capabilities. … I was selected to do this body of work, why would all these entities select me to do that if I wasn’t qualified?

“That’s also historically what happens to black men in this country. It is nothing new. Everything that’s happened with this media outlet and others is an element of implicit bias. That’s indicative of what goes on in St. Louis.”

James said that St. Louis and Ferguson both have a “mentality problem” and that the DOJ lawsuits prove there is a serious issue with the tradition of devaluing black people in the region. He also said that Knowles’ claim the city of Ferguson doesn’t have a budget was ridiculous and that he tried to give the city advice on how to “revise their revenue problem,” but no one listened. He said he thought that Mayor Knowles was ill-equipped and that he still needs to step down.

Moving forward

James, who now lives and works in Portland, Oregon, said that he thinks everything happened the way it was supposed to happen and that he wouldn’t change anything. “I think God ordered my steps,” he said.

“I told my version of my truth,” James said. “That is basically what I was trying to maintain in the tone of my book. I wasn’t trying to sugarcoat anything.”

"I told my version of my truth."

He believes that, in the end, the protests in Ferguson got the conversation about racism happening at a national level — and that is a positive thing.

“Everything that happened brought the elements of institutional racism and implicit bias to the forefront and now the ugly monster is out and we can have an honest and open dialogue about it,” James said.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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