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FERGUSON, Mo. - In August, Ferguson Mayor James Knowles came under fire for remarking that his city had no racial divide. Now, with the grand jury's decision expected in the coming days over whether a policeman should be charged in the death of an unarmed teenager, he's preparing for “all worst-case scenarios."
With Ferguson again on the edge, America Tonight spoke with Knowles at length about what he meant by his earlier comments, whether the police chief should keep his job and what he’d say to Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Mike Brown. Our questions and his answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Getting here, I imagined that we would see somebody that was really stressed, but you don't appear that way. How are you preparing for the announcement of the grand jury?
Early on though, I was burning the candle at both ends. It was really tough and you could see it. There’s some pictures out there and some early interviews where I had friends say, like, "Wow, you look like you got hit by a truck." It's like I hadn't slept in six days, literally.
What’s been the hardest part of this for you?
The hardest part has been seeing the community that I grew up in, the community that I love, the community I've committed to serving – I've been on the city council for almost 10 years now – to see it embroiled in this kind of racial tension, to see this kind of uproar.
I grew up in a community that was always racially diverse, a community that continuously grew more predominantly African-American. The school I went to was predominantly African-American. By the time I graduated, [I'd] never seen any kind of racial frustrations or strife. We're a community that really kind of bucked the trend when it came to white flight. If you look at the neighboring communities around Ferguson, they're all between 90 to 95 [percent], some of them are actually 100 percent African-American. Ferguson's only 67 percent and that's really because you do have a large number of white residents who stayed and really were happy with the diversity, Embraced the diversity. So for me to see this happen to our community, it took a lot of us by surprise really.
I regret saying it because it's an argument that's difficult to have. Because yes, there are racial divides in this country. There are divides between men and women. And I was defensive.
Early on you said there was no racial divide in Ferguson. Do you regret saying that?
Absolutely. I mean, I regret saying it because it's an argument that's difficult to have. Because yes, there are racial divides in this country. There are divides between men and women. And I was defensive. I took the stand that I felt somebody was attacking what I knew to be a good community who embraced diversity, who loved our neighbors … I'm obviously very, very much regretting having said that, but I think people, again, need to recognize that those divides, those differences [doesn't] mean this community didn't have good race relations before this happened.
Do you think your comments or the way your comments have been portrayed in the media have inflamed what's going on in your community?
Never denying that an African-American, even living in Ferguson, has a different life experience in general than a white resident probably does. My point was we don't see that play out in Ferguson. We do not see white residents and African-American residents looking at each other with a cautious eye or scared of each other on a daily basis.
You've talked about how you make $300 a month, you're a part-time mayor, you’ve got another job. Has there been any point where you're just like, "Look, I don't want to have to deal with this. I don't want to have to be in the public light anymore."
A lot of these issues have never come up before. On a daily basis, we sit in this City Council chambers and I heard about potholes. I hear about complaints about the neighbor's tall grass, dogs running loose, kids running through people's yards. Never once did it cross my mind that there was such fervor about an issue. But people also recognize that once those issues have been brought up, we've been quick to act. Am I quitting? Do I want to quit? No. And it is tough, but I've committed a lot of my life already to this city. To step away instead of seeing it through doesn't make sense to me. I was 25 when I got elected to the City Council.
A small community, a small community police department, a small city staff is not really equipped to deal with the issues that the United States has dealt with for 400 years.
What's been your worst moment or the most difficult part of this whole process?
There's been a few times where I felt like Ferguson was alone. And I therefore felt alone – not personally, but as a leader of the community. The city and the citizens have been extremely resilient throughout all this, and one thing that I've recognized from the beginning ... is that the issues here transcend the city of Ferguson. They're not just county issues. They're not just state issues. There are national issues at play. And a small community, a small community police department, a small city staff, is not really equipped to deal with the issues that the United States has dealt with for 400 years.
When you say others should share in the burden being shouldered by Ferguson, who are those?
There are a lot of things that people are frustrated about: school systems, education funding, health care, access to jobs. There are 25 communities within a mile radius of the city of Ferguson. All of these communities have similar issues. All of these communities have transgressions that people are angry about. All of that anger is being lumped on the city of Ferguson.
What do you hope the grand jury does?
I don't care one way or the other what the outcome is, as long as it's the legal and fair outcome under the law. Whatever happens, my hope is that we can move forward as soon as possible on the healing, because an enormous number of things have come to light. And we need to be having conversations about those issues, too. If there's more protests that can become unruly or become violent, that's going to take away from the opportunity here to make lasting change to keep things like this from happening in the future.
Have you spoken to Darren Wilson?
What would you say to him?
I don't know what I would say to him at this point. I think it would be a pretty private conversation.
Do you think the police chief should stay in his position, given all of the criticism that he's received and the calls for his resignation?
Me personally, I think the chief has done a tremendous job. I think that the chief is probably the person that could lead us through. I think chief is the person who would be committed to making the necessary changes and improvements in our department because he already has done a great deal. [He] really has shaken things up. He was the first person to promote an African-American, and promoted two to supervisor positions, and has really worked hard to make the department more diverse.
Do you think the city can move forward with him still in that slot?
I think he can. I think as soon as all the national media leaves it'll be fine.