By Chris Hoenig
For more than a week, tensions have boiled over with a police force decked out in full-on military armor launching tear gas at protesters—many of whom have been peaceful—and journalists, all following the deadly shooting of an unarmed Black teen by a white cop.
But there is no racial divide in Ferguson, Mo. At least not according to its white mayor.
Appearing Tuesday on MSNBC’s NewsNation, Mayor James Knowles told host Tamron Hall that Ferguson is actually “a model for the region.”
“There’s not a racial divide in the city of Ferguson,” Knowles told Hall. “That is the perspective of all residents in our city, absolutely.” Hall, seemingly stunned by Knowles’ response, asked if he was listening to any of the countless residents interviewed by a variety of TV news networks who disagree.
“Absolutely,” he said. “This has affected about a half-mile strip of street in our community. The rest of the African-Americans in our community are going about their daily lives: going to our businesses, walking their dog, going to our neighborhood-watch meetings. They’re concerned for their safety and they know this is not representative of us.”
Ferguson, a suburb of about 22,000 people, has transitioned from a mostly white town to a community where nearly 70 percent of the population is Black. And Knowles proudly told Hall that the townspeople are happy with local leadership.
“St. Louis itself has had a history of segregation, that is not in dispute,” he said. “The city of Ferguson has been a model for the region about how we transitioned from a community that was predominantly white middle class to a community that is predominantly African-American middle class.”
A city council and school board that are at least 90 percent white, and a white mayor have led that transition.
Then, there’s the police force. A police force that has been studied for racial profiling. A police force that has been more than twice as likely to stop Blacks than whites. A police force in a town where 80 percent of the traffic stops and 93 percent of the arrests are of Blacks. A police force that includes just three Black officers amongst the 53 officers in its ranks.
Police Chief Thomas Jackson said he has prioritized recruiting and promoting Black officers ever since he took over. “I’m constantly trying to recruit African-Americans and other minorities,” Jackson said.
That was four years ago.
In his first year on the job, Jackson—who spent three decades working for the police departments in St. Louis (the ninth-most segregated city in the United States) and St. Louis County (which initially took over as the primary force in policing the Ferguson protests, turning out with assault rifles, camo, gas masks and armored personnel carriers)—promoted two Black officers to sergeant. One of those two has already left the force.
In his interview with Hall, Knowles acknowledged the need for a police force that better represents the city’s residents. But he seemed to suggest that better representation would come by increasing the number of white officers living in Ferguson rather than by increasing the number of Black police officers.
“We’ve been listening to the cries from the community and from the protesters out here regarding to the lack of African-Americans or diversity in our police force, or other police forces; wanting people to have buy-in in our community by being residents of our community and serving in our police department,” he told Hall. “So we’ve been looking at ways, working with the county and others, to hopefully increase the number of African-American applicants.
“Being a small community, we can’t force residency, but we are looking at ways to give larger incentives to have people live here and work here, and be invested in the community.”