Ferguson’s sole black City Council member breaks his silence

Ferguson, Missouri, has become the symbol of racial tension with police in America. It was there that an unarmed black teenager was shot dead by a white police officer on Aug. 9, 2014. The city is more than 70 percent black, yet its leadership is largely white. That discrepancy is widely believed to have set the stage for Michael Brown’s death. Only one of its six City Council members is African-American. 

Dwayne James is Ferguson’s only black City Council member. He’s notoriously media-shy. But six months after Brown’s death and only weeks before local elections — which could triple the number of black council members — he agreed to a rare interview with Al Jazeera America. We met him in the basement of Ferguson’s City Hall, where he runs the Ferguson Youth Initiative. It’s a program that aims to reach out to Ferguson teens and steer them on a path toward college. It was there that James spoke for the first time to national media about Brown’s shooting death and how it deeply affected him.

Ferguson’s sole black City Council member breaks his silence with Duarte Geraldino.

Dwayne James: The first reaction is, you — you’re sad because someone died. That’s first. And then it’s the reflection. It’s “What could I have done? What could we have done? What should we have done? And how are we going to make sure that we learn from this and move forward?” So that first period was “This is happening in my backyard. This was under our watch, my watch. I should have, could have, would have [done] a lot of different things.” And you reflect on that. And then you turn into “All right, how am I going to learn? How are we going to learn? How are we going to act a little bit better and work a little bit harder to make sure that it doesn’t happen again?” 

Duarte Geraldino: Did it strike you any deeper, as a black man who also happens to be in a position of authority?

It struck me as a black man. Because growing up, you always have those thoughts of the black murder rate for males is a little bit higher than other categories. So you’re worried about that. And then, in authority, it’s basically “This is my community. What could I have done? What should I have done?” So that hit. And that continues to hit. It continues to say, “All right, I’m not just — I’m not the only voice.” But I just need to continue to showcase my voice, just like the entire community needs to showcase their voice.

What have you learned after the Michael Brown incident? What are the lessons that you will take with you and that you hope to pass on to other people?

That no matter how much you do, there’s always more to be done.

Explain that.

For four years, we’ve been working with the Ferguson youth initiative, trying to better engage and better enrich the lives of young people. And we were doing great. You know, we had our successes. We were bringing in youth for different programs. We had our youth advisory board that was bringing back suggestions for the city. But there was more to be done. There was another sector of youth that we weren’t engaging. There was more programs that could have — that should have been done or could have been done to help enrich their lives a little bit more. So no matter how much we were doing and how great we thought we were, this was like, “All right, now it’s time to get to work.”

What do you say to your critics? Because there are a lot. There are some people who were praising you. You are in some ways more historic than your predecessor. Because while he may have been the first [black council member], you were there when Michael Brown was shot and killed.

I wasn’t there. 

But you — it was on your watch. How do you want people to remember you?

I don’t want them to remember me, per se. I want them to remember Ferguson as the community that has worked through those struggles and worked through those systematic issues and worked through those difficult conversations to figure out how, as a — as a city, as a region, as a nation we can actually work towards a better community. So it’s not so much about me. It’s just mostly how can we do it as a community. And if I’m part of it, then great … But it’s not just going to be just because I’m the black person on a council that’s going to get things done and resolved. It’s going to take all of us.

Do you think Ferguson is healing?

I think that it takes a lot of steps before you can actually heal. There is a lot of conversations that need to take place. There is a lot of investigation that needs to take place. We have to figure out what the wound actually is. What is the catalyst of that? And then go in and basically find … that problem and then work towards that problem, and then healing would actually happen. You can’t just put a Band-Aid on a wound and say, “All right, we're done.” No, we have to work through some issues. And as a nation, we have to work through those issues.

What do you think needs to be done to figure out what that wound is?

We can’t just say, “All right, we’re going to fix Ferguson, and everything else is going to fall into place.” So for Ferguson, what we’re doing is basically having those conversations that we could have had a year ago — we could have had six years ago — as far as geographical divides, racial divides, economic divides. How do we actually bring in more businesses? How do we actually support our residents in a better fashion than we did before?

Things that we were doing but things that we just need to propel a lot further, a lot quicker. So we’re doing that. And then we’re trying to bring in partners to make sure that we’re not just fixing ourselves but we’re fixing or helping or supporting other communities as well.

Why not? I mean, some people would say, after what happened to Mike Brown, maybe it would be time to sponsor an event, not just sign a resolution.

Correct. I believe it’s a time to honor all of our residents and honor, of course, the historical event that happened on Aug. 9. And we’re working towards a lot of different initiatives and working towards bettering the community in a lot of different capacities … Just honoring one sector of the community during Black History Month does not do service to every other day that we need to honor all of our residents in the entire community. So we’re doing a lot, and we’re going to continue to do a lot.

Will you run for re-election?

I’m termed out April 2016. But I will stay engaged.

So that means no more City Council for you. But there are other positions?

I’ll stay engaged.

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