FERGUSON • The mayor of this north St. Louis County suburb would like for the questions to go away. But three years later, they persist.
“How are things in Ferguson?”
“Has it settled down?”
James Knowles III typically gives an answer befitting a good ambassador to a city thrust into the international spotlight after a white police officer fatally shot a black teen and set off months of protests and violence.
Knowles is sick of fielding questions about riots and burning buildings. He talks about a city moving forward. A city working “to make streets safer, build relationships between law enforcement and community, create jobs. … We know what we need to do.”
What he does not say is that things are back to how they once were.
“I always have to be careful with the term ‘back to normal’ because some are sensitive to that and don’t think it’s a good thing,” Knowles said. And not realistic, he concedes.
Gone are the white police chief and the white city manager, replaced by African-American men, moves that reflect the makeup of a city where more than two-thirds of its residents are black. The seven-member council, including the mayor, now has three African-American members, compared to one on Aug. 9, 2014, when Michael Brown was killed.
“I’m the only one that is still here from that,” said Knowles, who is white, referring to top city leadership. He was re-elected in April, winning nearly 57 percent of the vote. He ran against an African-American council member who had been elected two years earlier.
“Some people have made me the villain and say, ‘As long as the mayor is there, nothing is going to change,’” Knowles said. But he sees it differently.
His election to a third term, he says, demonstrates that “I’ve worked to keep what’s right going and to make necessary changes.”
Many of those changes, focused on improving police department hiring and training and court reform, came as a result of a Justice Department investigation and led to the city signing a consent decree with the federal government to make adjustments or face legal action.
City leaders say they continue to work with the federal government in honoring the agreement. An order four months ago from Attorney General Jeff Sessions that Justice Department officials review consent decrees nationwide to ensure they do not interfere with the goals of President Donald Trump’s administration to promote officer morale and safety has had no bearing on efforts in Ferguson.
“Those particular statements by the attorney general were merely diversionary to issues they were dealing with in Washington — i.e. Russia and things of that nature,” said Ferguson Councilman Wesley Bell, a lawyer and head of the criminal justice department at St. Louis Community College’s Florissant Valley campus.
“There has been no change in approach on the Justice Department side and certainly not on ours,” said Bell, an African-American elected in 2015.
A Justice Department lawyer in late June told the federal judge overseeing the consent decree that “we believe we are all working together in good faith.” That includes putting in place the tools to better recruit and retain a diverse and well-trained police force as well as setting guidelines for police use of force.
‘We can fix it’
Joshura Davis, a Ferguson business owner, agrees that the city is progressing, but not quickly enough.
His insurance office sits on West Florissant Avenue, and he and his wife, Lisa, attended the opening last month of a new job training center across the street, on the site where a QuikTrip once stood.
The convenience store burned to the ground during the unrest that followed Brown’s killing and was commonly referred to as ground zero as protests and violence continued.
Davis said he and his wife “had a front row seat to everything that happened.” After the violence that included the burning of at least two dozen buildings, small-business owners in that part of town formed the Ferguson-Dellwood West Florissant Business Association, which Davis heads. He has 45 businesses on his email list.
Davis said it was important to create a united front “to let St. Louis know we are here for the long haul and all-in to develop this side of Ferguson that was really devastated.”
Davis said he and other business owners in that part of town were asked to join the more established Ferguson Special Business District, in place since 1987. But the needs of his part of town are unique, he said. The businesses have to dig out from perceptions of danger and destruction, forever linked to one of the country’s largest news events.
Today, businesses in the corridor continue to struggle. Davis, who runs Best Insurance Agency and Always Love and Care, an in-home health care service, said business is down 50 percent since before August 2014 — something he hears from others in his association.
After the Brown shooting, Davis was among 55 business owners who received a grant from a partnership between the Regional Business Council and North County Inc. to help stay afloat. He received $2,500.
“That was just to keep the offices open. There were no grace periods to pay rent or utilities,” he said. Davis also won about $4,000 in a competition on how to best market a business. He used the money to build a website.
During a panel discussion at the National Urban League conference in downtown St. Louis last month, Davis made an emotional plea to corporate and elected leaders on the stage and in the audience.
“We do not have five, 10, 15, 20 years to rebuild West Florissant Avenue. We don’t have that kind of time,” Davis told the crowd at a session titled “Ferguson: From Anger to Action.” It was moderated by Michael Neidorff, CEO of Centene Corp., which opened a $25 million service center in Ferguson last year, and Michael McMillan, head of the local Urban League chapter.
“We have enough resources in St. Louis to fix it,” Davis said. “We broke it. We can fix it.”
Davis said later that he knew he would have a captive audience and wanted to go on record that challenges are real and the clock is ticking.
He said he is heartened by the new Ferguson Community Empowerment Center, a partnership of the Urban League and Salvation Army.
“It is really huge,” Davis said. “Before the empowerment center, every day 34,000 cars would pass by and see the ground zero site and all those vacant lots. Those were visions of the past. The empowerment site is a solid vision of the future that lets people see that someone is interested, someone is committed and the community is coming together.”
Knowles said the city is seeing more businesses open and city leaders are working to hire a Texas firm to attract more national retailers to Ferguson.
A ‘Ferguson’ near you
At a hearing in June before U.S. District Judge Catherine Perry, Ferguson’s city attorney, Apollo Carey, said that since the death of Brown, the city had waived $1.8 million in fines, dismissed or dropped about 39,000 municipal court cases and signed up 1,381 people to perform community service instead of paying fines.
It was a required status report outlined in the city’s consent decree.
While that sort of progress is getting generally good reviews, some residents who spoke at the hearing said more community input is needed in the reform process.
And in April, two months before the status hearing, Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway released the results of a review of the city’s municipal court system. She said the audit took more than a year to conduct because the city continued “putting up roadblocks” and failed to produce some court documents that appeared to have been lost. She said the information she was able to review was “in disarray” and included moldy records.
Ferguson City Manager De’Carlon Seewood said in response that more than a dozen significant changes have been made to the court system since 2015, including the exit of the lead court clerk and the firing of another employee.
As the city continues its reform efforts alongside the federal government, a nonprofit has taken up the task of addressing the findings of the Ferguson Commission. The 16-member commission was appointed in November 2014 by then Gov. Jay Nixon to offer specific recommendations for “making the St. Louis region a stronger, fairer place for everyone to live.”
The nonprofit, Forward Through Ferguson, has before it the 189 “calls to action” recommended by the Ferguson Commission, which officially completed its work in December 2015. The commission labeled 47 of its recommendations as “signature priority” items.
They include creating civilian review boards at the municipal and county levels; consolidating law enforcement agencies, municipal courts and police training centers; and eliminating incarceration for minor offenses.
Forward Through Ferguson, in partnership with the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, created a report that was made public at the Urban League’s national conference. It serves as a history lesson, of sorts, for what happened in Ferguson.
“While the Ferguson Commission and many of the efforts connected to it arose in response to a specific situation, what happened in Ferguson didn’t create that situation,” reads the report.
“It revealed difficult truths that had been the reality for many people for many decades. Deep truths that were present and manifested almost 100 years ago in the East St. Louis race riots that sparked the creation of the Urban League affiliate in St. Louis. The underlying issues that led to these situations exist today, to varying degrees, in every metropolitan area in America.”
The Rev. Traci Blackmon, a member of the Ferguson Commission, was on the Urban League panel where Davis made his plea. She told the crowd that when she speaks around the country, the message is clear: “There is a Ferguson somewhere near you.”
Knowles had a rocky relationship with the Ferguson Commission from the get-go. When Nixon announced the commission two months after Brown was killed, Knowles showed up late to the news conference, saying he had not been invited and complained that city leaders had not been briefed about the governor’s announcement beforehand.
Last week, Knowles said he had no contact with the commission and still has issues with calling it the Ferguson Commission when the problems it outlined in its report are systemic nationwide. And “I haven’t heard much” about the work Forward Through Ferguson has been doing, he said.
Knowles said his priorities are leading the city and breaking down misconceptions, including those that come from tour groups expecting to see “a bombed-out Baghdad.”
“We’ve been remarkably resilient and shown what a community can do to rebuild and come together,” Knowles said. “We’re taking this small municipality and building a model police department — I should say rebuilding — a model police department. I feel quite confident that Ferguson is in a good place.”