“There were things that
were characterized that I
know are not true”
James Knowles, Mayor Ferguson Missouri
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles was helping clean up after the farmers market one hot Saturday afternoon in August, when he saw a call on his cell phone from city manager John Shaw.
“Our city manager usually doesn’t call me on Saturday afternoon unless there is a problem,” he said. “So I knew I had to answer the phone.”
Shaw told him a policeman had shot and killed a young man. Police-involved shootings are common in surrounding Saint Louis County, but almost unheard of in Ferguson. Knowles could only recall one incident in the past 30 years and that was after a Ferguson officer was shot first.
“There is nothing right about a person losing their life, but at the same time you hope that there’s – at least they were legally justified in what happened," he said.
Ferguson could be any one of the thousands of charming, small towns that dot the midwestern United States. Known for its nature walks, festivals, and farmers market on the outskirts of Saint Louis, Ferguson is also diverse - one of it's strengths, says Knowles, who grew up in the town.
“What made me feel good about our community was going to school in a diverse community – attending schools where [there were] young people of different backgrounds, different races, different socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Knowles who is now 37. “We had a school that I felt was very cohesive. We never saw, at least at the time that I was in high school, racial tension.”
Knowles told us he never really planned on becoming mayor, even though politics was in his blood. His father ran for city council when he was a kid. Knowles remembers knocking on doors and stuffing envelopes for him late into the night. His father eventually won a city council seat and served two terms.
After college, Knowles worked as a staffer for the state legislature. He ran for the Ferguson City Council at age 25 and won. Knowles served six years before being elected mayor.
The evening of Michael Brown's death, Knowles was at home, following developments on TV, Twitter and Snapchat.
Knowles says that first night there was no information coming out about the shooting from law enforcement sources. Police had cordoned off the area with yellow police tape while Brown’s body lay in the street for four hours. Tensions were running high as people from the neighborhood gathered, demanding answers. As the crowd grew restless, police used trained dogs to move people back.
TV cameras captured Lesley McSpadden, Michael Brown's mother, pacing back and forth along the police line, unable to reach her son’s body. The early media accounts painted a disturbing picture – one of a white police officer shooting an unarmed black man who appeared to have his hands up and was backing away.
Grand jury testimony from Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown, later disputed that version of events. Wilson testified Brown was walking toward him in a menacing manner.
“When I was reading the things that were said online, the things in social media, the things that were supposedly eyewitness accounts, I mean, I was furious,” said Knowles. Some social media accounts on the scene used words like assassinate and execute. “Some said they saw the officer stand over his body and shoot 2 or 3 magazines full of bullets into him,” Knowles said. Forensic evidence found 6 bullet wounds on Michael Brown’s body.
At 6 pm Knowles got a call from a woman in San Jose, California, who found his phone number on the Internet. She, too, had been following events on Twitter and demanded Knowles hold the officer accountable and make sure justice was served. Knowles says he started to realize things could quickly spiral out of control.
“At some point in the next 24 hours I had to unplug the phone in at my house because I got continuous calls,” he told us. “Some of them, you know, very agitated or very angry, some of them threatening about what had happened.”
The investigation had already been handed over to the Saint Louis County Police Department to avoid any perception of bias. Knowles attributes the logistics of getting Saint Louis County investigators on the scene with adding to the lack of initial information and the lengthy process of gathering evidence as Michael Brown’s body lay in the street.
“The truth of the matter is another agency was doing it for the purpose of hopefully instilling in people a sense of confidence that justice would be served. In the end it completely backfired,” said Knowles. "The amount of time it took for them to get there, the amount of time it took them to complete the scene investigation only worked to enrage people further," he said.
The next day, that rage was channeled into a prayer vigil, followed by a march along West Florissant Avenue in the heart of the African American community. At the end, near a McDonald's, police officers were waiting and, according to protesters, in full riot gear.
Accounts differ about what happened next. Witnesses on the scene told VOA a police car broke through the police line and headed straight for the marchers forcing them to move out of the way. Some in the crowd then picked up rocks and other roadside debris and began throwing it at police. In their minds, the police assaulted what were peaceful protesters.
Mayor Knowles says he fully understands why people would want to protest and voice their opinion, however, he has a different take on how the violence started.
“It was surprising to me that so many people who were out there got caught in between a very small group of people who wanted to cause problems and law enforcement who was ready to deal with whatever might happen,” said Knowles. "Obviously you saw it escalate and a lot people got caught in the crossfire, who got teargassed and otherwise.”
Successive nights of confrontations with police ensued along West Florissant Avenue. Businesses were vandalized and set ablaze; police made dozens of arrests.
“A lot of people who were out there blame the police officers for inciting it or instigating it, but the officers who were there - a lot of them - were frankly fearful for their lives,” said Knowles. “You have a couple hundred police officers out there and a couple thousand individuals. It is really easy to get overrun depending on how far you are willing to go to defend yourself.”
The images on TV screens of police in armored, military-style vehicles, carrying automatic weapons furthered the narrative that the police were overreacting. VOA reporters on the ground and others noted the protests were now more about confronting what was perceived as an out-of-control police response rather than the killing of Michael Brown. Mayor Knowles does not blame the police for what happened, but when pressed he conceded that the first few nights of unrest caught law enforcement agencies off guard.
“I learned this from talking to some of the command staff people – in the past 15 years a lot of the training that used to go on in the 60’s, 70’s and probably 80’s [that] was for preparing for something like a riot or civil unrest really had been foregone for what people are more scared of now, which is counter-terrorism and active shooter situations,” he said.
He also noted that law enforcement in the area have since taken steps to better deal with civil unrest.
The night a grand jury announced there would be no charges brought against Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown, protesters gathered again – this time in front of the Ferguson police station. As the decision not to prosecute spread through the crowd, riots broke out. A police car was overturned, windows were broken out of businesses along Florissant Road, again buildings were burned, and a police officer was shot in the face.
Mayor Knowles said he had recently read through a lot of grand jury testimony for the first time.
“Under the law, obviously from the grand jury perspective, [Wilson] was acting lawfully,” said Knowles. “It’s got to be a difficult situation, to be a grand juror in that situation. I recognize that and I’ve actually been in the situation where I have had to defend myself with a firearm. It is very frightening. It is very scary knowing that you might have to use that to protect yourself.”
Knowles says he is not sure he would want to second guess how Darren Wilson reacted.
“I think even Darren Wilson would say that if there was another opportunity, if there was something he could have done differently, he would have,” said Knowles.
The shooting and riots that followed would spark a U.S. Justice Department investigation into the practices of the Ferguson police department and court system.
In a scathing report, the DOJ accused the city of Ferguson of systematically violating the civil rights of its African American citizens through made-up traffic citations and other fabrications of law. The report also accused the city of Ferguson of focusing on raising revenue rather than improving public safety.
Mayor Knowles says the most frustrating thing about the report is that the DOJ characterized what happened using examples without, he adds, giving the full story.
“We have asked the Justice Department on many occasions and they have always refused to give us the information so we can look at the whole in what was said or done in those specific examples – as opposed to reading citations of examples without more information,” Knowles said.
He also told VOA the city has never participated in a policing for profit scheme.
“The city of Ferguson has never made it a policy - not myself, not anybody on the city council – to make it a policy where we seek to make collecting revenue or collecting money as the primary goal of our law enforcement,” he told us.
Yet in 2012, the city manager wrote that, if not the primary goal, raising revenue from police efforts was a vital component of the budget.
When a city council member complained that Ferguson judge Ronald Brockmeyer's heavy-handed courtroom demeanor suggested revenue as a motive, city manager John Shaw responded: "The city cannot afford to lose any efficiency in our courts nor experience any decrease in our fines and forfeitures.”
Mayor Knowles offers that concerns about policing for profit might have been the byproduct of aggressive policing in high crime areas.
“Unfortunately that creates problems when it comes to traffic enforcement and what not because you have people who are disproportionately affected by the enforcement but that really wasn’t ever the intent of our efforts,” said Knowles. “You use those policing methods to try and do further investigatory stops to try to make the streets safe.”
This type of enforcement, what amounts to a rolling version of stop and frisk, has been dropped by several communities after it turned out to unfairly target minorities and increase friction between citizens and police.
The city of Ferguson initially failed to agree on a consent decree with the Department of Justice. After the DOJ threatened to sue the city, further negotiations were successful. Knowles, who helped lead the negotiations, says initially there were things the Justice Department wanted that the city felt were not necessary and could not do because the police force was too small.
“You have to look at it from the perspective of a budget of how many police officers you have and the staffing capability to be able to both do training and be able to keep officers on the street on a daily basis to make sure that your citizens are safe,” said Knowles.
The two sides eventually reached an agreement. The provisions of the deal include providing police with body cameras, increasing officers' pay, and implementing new training guidelines, such as teaching officers how to de-escalate situations.
Two years after Michael Brown's death, Ferguson is moving forward and Mayor Knowles is ready to move on. He received death threats after Michael Brown’s shooting and, once, someone came and broke every window in his house.
He says his hope has always been for the community to find a way to come together.
“I think when you look at citizens as a whole, the community has definitely come together," Knowles said. "I would hope that people will start to have confidence both in their police department and their city government again."