Five years ago, James Knowles was thrown into the middle of a firestorm. He went from being the young mayor of a diverse, relatively thriving St. Louis suburb to being a key figure in a now iconic civil rights struggle and racial unrest that was televised live around the world.
Knowles, of course, serves Ferguson. The name of the city became a household word as riots broke out and Ferguson burned following the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. Knowles’ city was ground zero for the Black Lives Matter movement and the national debate over the use of force by police.
Knowles is still the mayor of the city where he was born and raised. He’s almost 40 now and has seen the births of his two children since that fateful summer.
“My ability to be patient has certainly grown, and all of this has prepared me to have a 2- and a 4-year-old!” Knowles says with a muted laugh as he drives to one of the 12 state license offices that he manages. He says he works about 50 hours a week in his “real” job, while he puts in many more hours making $350 a month as the mayor of one of the most infamous cities in America. “No mayor in the St. Louis area or many in the country for that matter have had to deal with the sustained amount of civil unrest that I’ve had to deal with,” he says.
Knowles graduated from Florissant’s McCluer High School in 1997. He then had a double major at Kirksville’s Truman State University in political science and criminology and earned a master’s degree from the University of Missouri-St. Louis in public administration. He had to put all of his learned knowledge to the test in the first few days he took office; it was the same week as the destructive Good Friday tornado of 2011.
“I was sworn in on a Tuesday, and that Friday, 900 homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged in Ferguson,” he says. “Two years later, another tornado hit, so I spent most of my first term as mayor rebuilding.”
Despite the tornados, Ferguson was lauded for its successes under his leadership. But that all changed when the riots, looting and arson began.
“Ferguson was becoming known as the community in North County that was beating the trends, and so suddenly, to have Ferguson go from receiving accolades to being seen as some sort of ghetto was a shock,” says Knowles. “We went from being praised for our gains to being told we were doing everything wrong.”
After journalists like Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon, CNN and all the other network news crews left town, Knowles was faced with federal investigations while trying to find answers and rebuild the city.
“We thought we could actually get back to having a real conversation about how we could make things better, but the whole conversation wasn’t about Ferguson at all,” he says. “It was about police ticketing in the region, structural racism in St. Louis and then national race relations. It became more than Ferguson, but they put it all on us. … I wasn’t elected to be Nelson Mandela. I just wanted to keep people safe and fill the potholes.”
He believes he was wrongly demonized by extremists and the national media. Some even accused him of being racist.
“I was the only white kid on my baseball team,” Knowles says. “I went to diverse schools. My wedding party was diverse. I coached wrestling teams that were all black. My group of friends is diverse. I wasn’t someone who had to have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment about race. A lot of people in St. Louis did get a wake-up call, but for me, it wasn’t.”
What happened in Ferguson and what led to it will be studied and debated for years to come, and Knowles admits he doesn’t have all the answers – nobody does.
“I don’t know where we’re at in civil rights relations because people have drawn these immovable lines,” he says. “It makes me question how far we have really come.” Knowles says in some ways, he’s still the same person he was before the riots, but he’s different in others ways. “I’ve been criticized by people on both sides because I try not to take sides … ,” he says. “For me, it’s about gaining a true understanding and finding the best possible solutions for everyone.”
Knowles will be term-limited out of office next April, having gone through a firestorm that still smolders five years later.
Paul Brown is a longtime journalist on radio, on television and in print as a reporter, an anchor, a talk show host and a columnist. He’s also a media and public relations consultant with Paul Brown Media.