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First black Ferguson mayor will face old problem: Protest damage

FERGUSON (AP) — Ella Jones winced as she gazed at a boarded-up restaurant, one of several businesses in Ferguson damaged in protests over the death of George Floyd. As Jones prepares to take over as the Missouri town’s first black mayor, she understands that Ferguson will always symbolize the uneasy relationship between black people and police.

She just doesn’t understand the destruction.

“I know people consider Ferguson as Ground Zero,” Jones said Wednesday. “However, every time injustice is done, they don’t have to come here and tear up our city.”

Jones, 65, defeated City Council colleague Heather Robinette, who is white, 54 percent to 46 percent in Tuesday’s mayoral election. Later this month, Jones will become the face of the St. Louis suburb that erupted into chaos nearly six years ago after a white police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, a black teenager.

Brown, 18, was walking with a friend along Canfield Drive on Aug. 9, 2014, when an argument with Officer Darren Wilson turned physical. Wilson claimed Brown — 6-foot-4 and nearly 300 pounds — had been moving menacingly toward him, prompting the shooting.

Canfield runs between apartment buildings, and some people initially claimed Brown had his hands up in surrender, though that was never proven. Dozens of businesses were burned and burglarized over the next several nights as tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets.

Wilson was eventually cleared of wrongdoing and resigned in November 2014. Months later, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report that found that Ferguson police unfairly targeted blacks for stops and arrests, and that the municipal court used fines and fees as a revenue source, a burden carried largely by black people. A consent agreement requires significant reforms, a process that is expected to continue into at least 2022.

Ferguson’s city government has already changed dramatically.

In 2014, the mayor, five of the six members of the council and most other leaders in the majority-black city were white. The police force was led by a white chief, and just three of the 53 officers were black.

Today, about half of Ferguson’s officers, including the chief, are black. Four of the City Council members are black. So is the incoming mayor.

Jones was elected to the council in 2015 and ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2017, when incumbent James Knowles III was re-elected to a three-year term. He was ineligible to run this year because of term limits.

Knowles said he was proud of how he had led Ferguson through the most tumultuous time imaginable. He said that although many expected Ferguson to die, it was in many ways stronger than ever. New lofts now sit across from the police station. Chic restaurants, bars and other trendy businesses, including many operated by African-Americans, have opened.

“It’s really been great to see not only this new investment but bringing in the types of business we want to see to build a vibrant, diverse business district,” Knowles said.

But Jones sees much more work ahead, especially now that Ferguson is cleaning up after protests turned violent yet again.

Floyd’s death after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes on May 25 sparked worldwide demonstrations. In Ferguson, several hundred people gathered Sunday night outside the police department.

Late in the evening, protesters began lobbing fireworks, rocks and bottles at a line of officers. Police scattered the crowd with tear gas, and in the chaos of the evening, several businesses were damaged.

By Wednesday afternoon, more than a dozen shops, restaurants and bars still had broken glass and boarded-up windows. Many that had just reopened after the coronavirus shutdown are now closed again.

“I’m really heartbroken,” Jones said. “I thought we had gotten past 2014 and the people who did this tried to break our spirit because we’ve been working together as a community to move forward, and now we have this.”

She said her first priority would be to seek grants to help damaged businesses regroup.

“We are a strong city and we’re going to get through this, and we’re going to get through this working together,” she said.

Laverne Mitchom, 60, a black resident of Ferguson, said Jones had a reputation for working with others to effect change.

“Ella is the leadership that we need right now — not because she’s black,” Mitchom said. “Being black is helpful because she has an understanding of the serious things that black people have gone through in this country. But she’s a people person, and she knows how to develop relationships. She’ll work with people from the outside; that will be very good for Ferguson.”

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