Will Mayor-elect Ella Jones be the change needed to turn Ferguson around?
I just knew black folks were going to vote Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III out of office in 2017. People resented him. I know because I documented the Ferguson uprising. I accounted for the will of the people, their interactions and determination in resistance.
We had been in direct action for many months uninterrupted, with black citizens fighting for social change. Ferguson’s local government was supposed to be part of that process, especially following the “no indictment” decision for Michael Brown’s killing.
I will never forget the preparation of the region ahead of the announcement or the excruciating pain of the family and community following it. Schools closed, and people left work early. The black side of Ferguson burned through the night, literally and figuratively. Many believed the odds had been stacked against Brown, even in death.
A goal was to fight through elections, ousting the mayor and prosecuting attorney. This did not happen for Knowles. The first time Ferguson residents went to the polls following civil unrest in 2017, he was reelected. Knowles beat Councilwoman Ella Jones in the Municipal General Election with 57% of the vote.
He had been blamed for the city government’s targeting and criminalizing of black citizens for profit and for police aggression. Ferguson’s City Council and departments were mostly white and not without fault. Employees had been found transmitting racist emails and more under his mayoral watch.
Yet Knowles was reelected. Some black residents and activists previously demanded his resignation, while others tried recalling the election.
How was the perceivably worse candidate reelected to a third term in Ferguson? How was Knowles, as a white man, with a seemingly irredeemable race record able to beat Jones in a predominately black community?
Ferguson suffers from black voter apathy and low voter turnout. It also has a sizable transient population. These are factors for how questionable candidates or elected officials gain and retain their offices. They win by default, a common trend that works to the detriment of black lives.
Ferguson is also an example for how elections gone wrong affect community development. Segregated and isolated black residents often lack needed services. Ferguson’s general fund show budgeted expenditures over $8.5 billion for Public Safety for fiscal year 2019-2020, with $241,700 for community development. This would be staggering, if not for big donations on the heels of an uprising.
“It seems like at the top they don’t have any money for this, they don’t have any money for that,” Bess (a pseudonym), 58, said in my project. “But [as] soon as the crime arise[s] and it’s a big announced crime, here comes the funds … cause they want us to calm down and be quiet.”
Three years later, Knowles faced term limits, and Ella Jones will finally be Ferguson’s first African-American and woman mayor.
Jones is inheriting a stigmatized city in a racially divided climate during a pandemic. Will she be able to turn things around? he should be held accountable for campaign promises but given the benefit of doubt. She will need support from progressive thinkers, equitable resources, and more.
As Jones takes office, all will be watching and evaluating her words and actions. She is a black woman and therefore subject to age-old race and gender political swipes. Time will reveal her supporters and antagonists. Social justice advocates will need to be intentional about protecting and ensuring fairness. The black community and white allies will need to step up for Mayor Jones.
Andrea S. Boyles is a sociologist and author of You Can't Stop the Revolution: Community Disorder and Social Ties in Post-Ferguson America and Race, Place, and Suburban Policing: Too Close for Comfort.