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Ferguson's mayor says he is determined to stay and bring change

'People know I'll stand up and do what it takes.... I'm willing to listen,' Ferguson mayor says

Mayor James W. Knowles III was walking down an aisle at Shop ’n Save here last week when an African American woman started shouting at him.

This is not an unusual occurrence for the white mayor of Ferguson, a city of 22,000 that's more than two-thirds black and remains, seven months after the shooting death of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer, embroiled in racial turmoil.

But the stakes had been raised for Knowles.

Days before — soon after the white police chief, city manager, court clerk and a judge were forced out following a scathing Justice Department report — two officers were shot and wounded outside the Police Department. The protesters gathered there had been calling for the force to be disbanded and the mayor removed.

Now Knowles was being confronted by Angela Coleman, 48, a 17-year resident who had met him before at city events but was now seething.

“What do you think about the judge and the chief resigning?” she asked. “I assume you're on your way out.”

Knowles surprised her by saying no, he intended to stay.

Coleman asked him what he thought about the governor's decision to stand down the National Guard the night a grand jury announced it would not indict Officer Darren Wilson in connection with Brown’s death. The guard’s absence allowed looters to rule the streets, damaging and destroying dozens of businesses, she said.

Knowles said he agreed with her.

“OK, maybe I could work with him,” Coleman said she thought later. “He's got potential. He was trying to be right, he opened up, so he's OK.”

She left the grocery store convinced that Knowles needs to stay.

“Just because you're part of the system doesn't mean you can't fix the system,” Coleman said.

Which is exactly what Knowles believes.

“People know I'll stand up and do what it takes. I don't walk away at Shop ’n Save when people give me a look. I go straight at them and I'm willing to listen,” he said later as he chatted with residents at the Corner Coffee House.

But others disagree. On Friday, residents announced they had filed the paperwork to initiate a recall and were gathering the signatures required, about 15% of registered voters, or 1,800 people.

Knowles vowed to fight, saying he still has widespread support and is often approached by those who back him. Although he doesn't agree with all the Justice Department's findings, he said, he needs to stay to ensure reforms are carried out.

Knowles, 35, grew up in Ferguson. His father, Jim, was a heating and cooling contractor and Knowles helped, installing duct work at local businesses. He met his future wife when he was 14.

At McCluer High School, which was by then predominantly black, he was elected student body president and joined the wrestling team. He  once thought of pursuing a career in law enforcement.

He went on to major in political science at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., graduating in 2002, and later earned a master's of public policy administration from the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

During college, Knowles worked campus security and spent breaks working dispatch at the Ferguson Police Department, getting to know the officers and court staff, including three forced out recently after the Justice Department found they had sent racist emails.

Knowles said he saw the toll the job took on officers seeing the worst of humanity day after day. He decided to enter politics instead. An independent, he became president of the Young Republicans and worked for two Democratic state lawmakers.

He was elected to the City Council at age 25 and six years later, in 2011, Knowles beat two challengers to become mayor. He married the next year and settled down to run a small business in town, coaching the high school wrestling team in his spare time. He was reelected last spring after running unopposed.

The Ferguson mayor is a part-time position, a three-year term that pays $350 a month in a “weak mayor” city with a $12-million budget and a city manager that controls administrative operations. Knowles has roughly the same power as the other six council members, presiding over meetings, representing the city at events and appointing certain committees.

When Michael Brown was shot Aug. 9, Knowles was up for a new job, and he and his wife were trying to have a baby.

Knowles was blindsided by the criticism that followed — of Ferguson and its police. He went on national television denying that the city had a racial divide, and was reviled by protesters.

“The thing I regret,” from those early days, Knowles said, “is being defensive.”

After the Justice Department issued its report this month, and he found himself at FBI headquarters in St. Louis being confronted by federal officials about a pattern and practice of racially biased policing, he tried to be receptive.

Among other things, the report accused Knowles of fixing tickets. While he disputed some of the statistics in the report, Knowles admitted he had requested and received a reprieve for a parking ticket issued to the director of a camp for underprivileged children where he volunteers.

The mayor has heard from residents who question the Justice Department report, and from others who trumpet it. He's been accused by protesters of supporting the status quo, but also receives calls and emails from residents threatening to move if he's ousted.

He sees the divide as more class than race, pitting longtime middle-class residents and homeowners against newcomers and apartment dwellers.

Knowles wants to stay to ensure that there is more oversight of the department and also “more community policing, more engagement in the schools and neighborhoods, more safeguards on officer behavior.”

“Somebody's got to make this happen,” he said.

Protesters don't think Knowles will.

“He thinks the DOJ report is inaccurate — that's enough” to merit his removal, said black activist Tony Rice, one of those spearheading the recall. “I don't think he ever took the people of Ferguson's side.”

Christy Nelson, 32, who was among black protesters gathered in front of the Police Department last week, dismissed the mayor as “clueless” and said that although he does not have the power of the city manager, “you still are the figurehead of the city and you need to act accordingly.”

Days later, those at another gathering in front of the department praised the mayor.

Sandy Sansevere, 55, was one of about a dozen mostly white middle-class residents from the “I Love Ferguson” group. “I hope he doesn't go anywhere. If he resigns, they'll want something else,” Sansevere, who has lived here 28 years, said of protesters. “I had a lady tell me if the police and the mayor go, she's putting her house up for sale. If we lose our city to protesters, something's wrong with us.”

Knowles isn't sure what the future holds. His wife is finally pregnant, due in May. It's a boy, whom they plan to call James. Perhaps someday he will ask his father why he stayed on as mayor.

“I hope that he will see and that, in the end, everyone will see that I did this — and by this, I mean sticking it out and sacrificing my career — to bring us together,” Knowles said. “And I hope when he says that, I can point to the community and say, ‘This is why I stayed: to help with this transition.’”

Twitter: @mollyhf

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