In the first mayoral election since Michael Brown’s death triggered a national conversation on policing, Ferguson residents decided to keep the status quo, choosing to keep James Knowles III in his post. Knowles, a longtime Ferguson resident who had just been reelected in 2014 when Brown was shot by a white police officer, won his third term on Tuesday with 57 percent of the vote.
Knowles’ challenger Ella Jones, a former Mary Kay saleswoman and the first black woman to serve on the Ferguson city council, ran on a platform of change she called “one Ferguson,” but failed to galvanize enough voters to deliver it. Knowles’ share of the vote jumped 50 percent since Knowles’ last contested election in 2014, and St. Louis County Board of Elections director Eric Fey confirmed that just shy of 29 percent of registered voters turned out on Tuesday. For perspective, in the last Mayoral election four months prior to Brown’s death, only around 12 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
Speaking to VICE News before the election, Jones, 62, warned that if Knowles, 37, were to win a third term “it going to be a further divide” in Ferguson along racial and class lines. She stressed that the race was more about “trust” than it was about the prospect of becoming the first person of color to be mayor in the city’s 122-year history.
Ferguson is a majority black city, with around 67 percent of the community identifying as Black or African-American.
The one-time sleepy city outside of St. Louis, MO catapulted onto the international stage in 2014, when the then-Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot Brown at least six times, sparking national protests and the Black Lives Matter movement. TV trucks and press camped out for weeks as the National Guard was eventually brought in to clear away protesters after riots broke out along the city’s streets.
Understandably media-weary, few residents wanted to air their views on camera, but when we visited Ferguson this weekend, it was clear that the city remains deeply affected by the events of August 9, 2014.
Many residents we talked to raised racial divisions and concerns that there hadn’t been enough listening since Brown’s death, and the subsequent protests it sparked. One man we talked to — a veteran and longtime resident who declined to be identified — shook his head as he recounted the resignation of many city figures who were in power at the time of Brown’s shooting, including the embattled Ferguson police chief.
They had “scattered like cockroaches,” he said, as he questioned why Knowles decided to remain and run for another term.
In an interview, Knowles remained defiant, and stressed that leadership continuity is essential if Ferguson is going to regain a strong financial footing.
“New blood is excellent, and we appreciate the new blood, but we also still need to make sure that we have some experienced leadership going forward,” Knowles said.
The mayor of Ferguson heads the city council, but has relatively limited powers compared to the city manager, who oversees the day-to-day running of the community. The part-time position comes with an annual salary of around $4,200. Knowles’ day job is running the state-contracted motor vehicle licensing office in Ferguson.
After his re-election Tuesday, Knowles will continue to steer the city through the substantial challenges ahead. In the wake of Brown’s death, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a damning 133-page report on Ferguson police practices, concluding the force was often racially biased against the city’s Black community. The DOJ report also found that African-American residents were frequently targeted for minor infractions in the name of “public safety,” but that were designed to raise revenue for the city.
Ferguson remains under a consent decree issued in March 2016, when the city agreed to DOJ guidelines to overhaul its municipal court and police departments. However on Tuesday, the day of Ferguson’s mayoral election, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told reporters that the city’s decree was one of those he wanted to subject to a “review”.
Watch some of the interview with James Knowles here: