Mayor Says Ferguson|Isn’t the Only Problem

     As the year anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting approaches, join Courthouse News in this three-part series looking at how the protests have affected Ferguson.
     FERGUSON, Mo. (CN) – Sunday is the first anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting – the day that Ferguson became a national symbol of racism and police violence. And that characterization makes Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III cringe.
     “There are a lot of issues bigger than Ferguson,” Knowles told Courthouse News. “Ferguson is often seen as, we have to be the ones that have to solve the problem. But we’re trying to focus on those issues right now that are uniquely Ferguson, or Ferguson’s part of the larger problem, and we’re hoping that at some point many of the surrounding communities in the region will be able to work pretty closely on maybe some of these broader changes.”
     With a population of 22,000, Ferguson is the eighth-largest of 90 municipalities in the St. Louis area. Ferguson’s size, along with the Brown shooting and the subsequent Justice Department investigation of the city’s police and court systems, have put a target on the city’s back.
     “We’re still just a small microcosm of a large region and people still are crying out for change and still wanting to see a difference and Ferguson has become a symbol, and I’m the leader of the symbol, but I don’t have to power to accomplish most or any of that, and that’s frustrating,” Mayor Knowles said.
     Many protesters decry the lack of economic and educational opportunities throughout the region.
     “With no educational opportunities comes no economic opportunities,” Knowles said.
     “Without economic opportunities, there’s no stability.”
     The issues permeate the region. Nearby municipalities investigated by the Missouri Attorney General’s Office for the money they make through traffic tickets. The Justice Department, and news reporters, have turned up huge disparities in the arrests and fines of black citizens in the small towns around Ferguson and St. Louis.
     Those government and news reports lend credibility to protesters’ claims that police and municipal courts see them as sources of revenue, not as citizens entitles to justice. They say the police and court systems enslave them in an unending cycle of poverty through excessive fines that poor residents will never be able to pay. The overdue fines increase and arrest warrants are issued.
     A recent story in The New Yorker, and other reports, revealed that black drivers in the north county are far more likely than white ones to be cited for three or four violations in a traffic stop – each one with its corresponding fine.
     Knowles said Ferguson has tried to ease the burden on citizens by reforming its municipal courts: getting rid of excessive fines, making the court more user friendly, keeping people from getting double- or triple-fined and getting police officers more engaged in the community.
     “I don’t know if we’ve gotten credit for that,” Knowles said. “Even today if you talk to the protesters, they don’t realize what Ferguson has done, and even the ones that do realize what Ferguson has done, I hear constantly, ‘You’re not the only one, mayor; there’s got to be more change.’ My response to them is, ‘That’s great, but I can’t do it, so let’s not keep protesting in front of Ferguson City Hall if your problem is with another city.'”
     Knowles hopes the protests this weekend will be peaceful. He said city leaders and police have spoken with many protest leaders to find common ground, so First Amendment rights can be preserved, as well as safety.
     “Obviously, there’s going to be some civil disobedience, and these are individuals who are going to want to be arrested,” Knowles said. “But it doesn’t have to be a situation where there’s a resisting arrest or a situation where things escalate further. I think we’re for the most part at a level of mutual understanding that we won’t see an escalation, and if it is escalated, most of the protest leaders will understand that this is a matter of safety and security for everyone.
     “Obviously, those are last resorts.”
     Click the hyperlinked text to go to the other stories in this series, After a Tough Year, Ferguson, Mo., Awaits Anniversary Protests and Women’s Group Has Better Idea for Ferguson.

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