In 2014, James Knowles had just been re-elected mayor without opposition when one of his city’s white police officers shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American. Knowles suddenly became the public face of Ferguson, Mo., a small town under intense scrutiny.
Some questioned whether Knowles would remain in his post. He did. And now, he is running for a third term.
“I don’t believe that I should stay around forever,” he says. “We do have term limits in our community. But I do believe that these next three years are critical. It’s critical that we get ourselves back on the right path, that we stay on that path and that we plot a future for the community that future generations can take up that mantle and move forward.”
Things have changed in Ferguson since Brown’s death. Its city government is more racially diverse, especially compared to 2014, when the city council and staff was largely white. The Justice Department had accused it of targeting black motorists for tickets to raise revenue.
But Ferguson still has significant challenges: declining tax revenue, understaffed city departments and having to follow a federal consent decree mandating major changes in its police department.
At a local restaurant, councilwoman Ella Jones mingles with patrons. She’s seeking to become Ferguson’s first black mayor, and she says she can provide the right type of leadership for the city.
“Every time a flashpoint happens, we don’t have to call the governor,” she says. “We can go out and talk to the people. The people want to be heard. Right now, the people are at a point that they don’t trust the leadership.”
African-Americans make up the majority of the population here. But black voter turnout had traditionally been low, in part because of a transient population.
Ferguson resident Mildred Clines worries that the African-American community is becoming exhausted with the slow pace of change and that it could affect voter turnout in Tuesday’s election.
“And I try to convince them different,” she says. “I’m trying to tell them that you have a voice. You can speak your voice. You can make a difference. But a lot of them feel like they haven’t seen enough change to make a difference.”
Activists hoped for vigorous civic participation after Brown’s death. But turnout dropped in 2016, when Heather Robinett was elected to the city council.
Robinett says while lots of residents remain invested in Ferguson’s success, the sense of perseverance is coupled with fatigue.
“We’re either brave or crazy sometimes that we continue to stick through it and work through this tricky navigation,” she says. “You know what’s the best way to move forward as a community as a whole? And when you’re looking at various viewpoints, it’s hard to converge on what that looks like.”
Whoever is elected on Tuesday will serve as mayor for three years. They’ll have to cope both with Ferguson’s controversial past and its continuing challenges.