Ferguson mayor reflects on impact of unrest — and the future of his city | St. Louis Public Radio

Ferguson mayor reflects on impact of unrest — and the future of his city

Feb 17, 2015

Over the past six months, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III found out what it was like to be transformed from a part-time mayor of a mid-sized suburb to a political figure on the international stage.

While the satellite trucks and round-the-clock coverage of Ferguson are gone, the challenges for Ferguson remain. The city’s economy and reputation took a hit after rioters and arsonists destroyed businesses. Months later, the shells of burned-out stores are still there –  jarring reminders of the struggle of the last few months.

With a little more than two years left in his term, Knowles has limited power as mayor to turn things around. He doesn’t have day-to-day authority over city departments, and his legislative power depends solely on his alliances with city council members. But he says the city has plenty to do before it can turn the corner.

“Obviously, a lot of people still use the term Ferguson to mean a lot of things,” Knowles said. “And that’s still hurtful to me knowing what we’ve tried to (do) in this community for a long time. That stigma probably going to stay around for a while. I’m hoping that when people look at Ferguson from here on out, that they will actually focus on what we’re doing.”

“And hopefully, our actions will show people that we can rise what out of what’s going on,” he added.

Here are some highlights of the interview.

Several men walk by a makeshift memorial to Michael Brown on Monday in the middle of Canfield Drive in Ferguson. It's been more than six months since Brown was shot and killed by former Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

On his appearance before a Missouri Senate committee looking into Gov. Jay Nixon’s handling of the unrest in his city.

  • Knowles wasn’t alone in being “out of the loop” from Gov. Jay Nixon’s office, noting that the mayors of Dellwood and Jennings had similar experiences. That lack of communication, he said, had real consequences: Nixon "didn’t take the opportunity through us to find out what progress we were making or what was going on. And unfortunately, that may have ended up showing in his lack of preparedness leading up to Nov. 24.”
  • One of the few Republicans elected to office in North County, Knowles said: “Having no real relationship (with Nixon) before (the shooting death of Michael Brown) probably didn’t help.”
  • He didn’t buy Nixon’s argument that keeping the National Guard out of Ferguson prevented another “Kent State.”
  • He doesn’t know whether media coverage about his city government’s lack of racial diversity affected Nixon’s communication with the city. “I was concerned that (Nixon) was trying to keep at arm’s length either from me or us as the city or the government,” he said. “Was it due to my political affiliations? And the response I head time and time again was ‘this is just the way he is.’”

The remains of Hidden Treasures, an antique store on North Florissant Road in Ferguson.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio

On the challenge of turning Ferguson’s economy around.

  • He doesn’t know exactly how much protesting and rioting cost the city in sales taxes. Property values for the city would be reassessed in August, he said.
  • Insurance issues are keeping some businesses from rebuilding. “Many of them are getting what they need or at least getting something that really helps,” he said. “But a few are out there that are not going to come back because of the losses that they sustained and a lack of coverage from insurance.”
  • He’s hoping the burned-out buildings will be cleaned up within two months.

Despite numerous reports that he was going to step down, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson is still on the job. Knowles says there's little public desire to dissolve the city's police department.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

On the Ferguson Police Department:

  • The city has received no word from the Department of Justice on its investigation into the department. He emphasized that “the feds can make recommendations or they can ask us to do things. To force us to do something, they have to sue us in court.”
  • The city’s “redoubled” efforts to recruit minorities to the force.
  • There’s not much public support to dissolve the department or contract with the St. Louis County Police Department. “Right now I can tell you that the citizens I hear from by and large – and this is even from citizens who’ve been involved in protests – want nothing to do with St. Louis County Police,” he said. "Many people, for whatever they feel is wrong with a local municipal police department, feel that they have the most influence over a local municipal police department.”

Knowles’ impact on the city’s future could depend on the results of the April 7 elections for three city council seats. He said that the last six months may have soured some people on the idea of running for municipal offices. “There’s a lot of individuals who probably looked at it and said ‘why is that worth it to anybody?’”

“And to me, that’s part of my public service,” said Knowles, who makes $300 a month as mayor and has another job. “It’s part of me being committed and dedicated to this community. But that’s still a lot for anybody to ask. I mean, not everybody’s going to go through – and hopefully nobody has to go through – what we’ve gone through in Ferguson.”