Mayor-elect Ella Jones speaks during an interview Wednesday, June 3, 2020, in Ferguson, Mo. Jones, currently a city council member who was elected mayor on Tuesday, will become the first black and first woman to become mayor of the city thrust into the national spotlight after the death of Michael Brown in 2014. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Ferguson's first black Mayor-elect on city's history
03:30 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Ella Jones never planned to be a politician.

Now, after being elected as the first black mayor of Ferguson, Missouri – just years removed from the protests that followed the death of Michael Brown – she finds herself at the helm of a city still dealing with its own painful past as the nation contends with systemic racism and police brutality.

“Some people feel that when black people get in charge that the city is going to be deteriorating, and that people will – businesses will be moving. So being the first black woman of Ferguson, I have to dispel that myth because I am qualified to be the leader of Ferguson, qualified to be the mayor, qualified to bring in developers here,” said Jones, who will be sworn into office Tuesday night. “Being black, we just have to work more, prove ourselves more because our counterparts don’t believe that we are capable of doing what we can do.”

Jones, who studied and got her bachelor’s degree in chemistry, says her training is more useful than a non-scientist might think, especially in combustible environments like the one she is about to enter.

“Chemistry teaches strategy. It allows you to sit back and realize how reactions take place. I always see myself as a catalyst and a catalyst allows two chemicals to come together and react, and don’t be consumed in the midst of the reaction,” she said.

“People need a place where they can come and talk and you don’t get consumed in it, but you can be optimistic, hear people out with respect,” she added.

The city of Ferguson is known for the 2014 fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Protests and riots after Brown’s death exploded when a grand jury decided not to indict the white officer who killed him.

Nearly six years after Brown’s death, protests against police brutality and racism are happening again across the country after the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man who died in police custody in Minneapolis last month.

“The position as mayor of Ferguson is no different than what it was in 2014, it was a riot, protesting. It was looting. It was damaged. And the city is in the same disarray right now. So we can’t do nothing but go forward,” Jones said.

She has already been a key part of the reforms that took place following Brown’s death as the first black woman elected to the Ferguson City Council in 2015.

To help soothe the city’s unrest and fix a broken system, the federal government stepped in and eventually negotiated a consent decree with Ferguson for police and judicial reforms.

With her seat on the city council, Jones has been a part of that process.

“We have the police more working toward constitutional policing,” Jones said. “They wear their name badges when they stop people. They give them a business card. They are courteous to people. We have a lot of policies that have been put in place. Our police department is getting training on those policies.”

“Our courts (have) totally been reformed, people can feel like when they go to court, they’re treated with dignity and that has made a big difference,” she added.

When asked about the national movement to defund police departments, Jones said she can’t speak for other cities, but she does not support it for Ferguson.

“We’ve worked too hard to get it to where it is and not to fund it is not a good move for us,” she said.

Jones’ first mayoral run was in 2017, when she tried unsuccessfully to unseat James Knowles III, who had been in office since 2011. Knowles was term limited and could not run for reelection this year.

Jones beat opponent Heather Robinette earlier this month, making her not only the first black mayor of predominantly black Ferguson, but also the first woman in the role.

“Second, a reminder of the difference politics and voting can make in changing who has the power to make real change in a community like Ferguson with a history of blatant discriminatory law enforcement practices,” former president Barack Obama tweeted after Jones’ win.

Her own experience with racism is all too familiar

Jones grew up in New Orleans, where she said she – like black children all over the country – was taught how to speak to police in the most polite way possible in order to avoid trouble.

When she relocated to Ferguson and began working for General Motors more than 40 years ago, she and her husband moved into what she described as a mixed-race development.

She worked odd hours, often coming home after midnight, where she said she was stopped regularly by police in her own neighborhood for no reason.

Jones said police would ask her questions like: “Where, where was I going? Where was I coming from that time of night? Where am I going? Do I really live at the address that I really live at?”

“They didn’t believe that we bought a house in the neighborhood that we lived in,” she said.

When her late husband asked why she was getting home so late, and she explained that the police kept stopping her, he went to the police station to talk to them.

“He came back and said, ‘I don’t think they’ll stop you anymore,’” Jones recalled. “Being stopped as a black person takes a different meaning than being stopped as a white person,” she said.

‘I’m still pinching myself’

Jones is openly reveling in the history she is making as Ferguson’s first black mayor.

“It sends a message to the whole world that you don’t have to settle for the leadership that’s before you. You go out, do the work, get people to vote and change the leadership,” Jones said.

“I’m still pinching myself to believe it, but it means a lot to the people because the people wanted to change. They did the work, they elected me and it’s, it’s just hope. People have hope that when they come together and do the work, they can make the changes that they need,” she added.

Still, she will take the oath of office this week clear-eyed about the challenges, especially when it comes to racial harmony.

She spent the past five years on the city council working alongside a white counterpart. She said black residents from her ward almost always only went to her for help, and white residents went to the ward’s white councilwoman.

Trying to change that – becoming a mayor who people of all walks of life feel comfortable coming to for help – is her priority.

“There is common ground for people to come together on. And when people have an opportunity to sit down and talk, they realize that my life is not any different than your life. We all breathe the same air. The color of our skin shouldn’t make us to the point that we believe one person is better than another one,” Jones said.