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The Man Who Loves Ferguson (Just as It Is)

An interview with City Council candidate and former mayor Brian Fletcher.

Jamil Smith

There are none of Brian Fletcher’s orange campaign signs displayed in the window of the “I Love Ferguson” shop on South Florissant. Lawn signs or placards would be redundant. The entire place is an ad for Fletcher’s candidacy for City Council.

When you walk in, you see awards for Fletcher to the right of the door. More or less, you’re in his house now. A large wooden table, where you might expect to be served a refreshment and some home-cooked food, sits nearby. The rest of it is loud colors, metal racks, and red hearts. The merchandised love for Ferguson is everywhere.

Against a wall there’s a map of the world, with swarms of pushpins indicating where “I Love Ferguson” paraphernalia has been shipped. Below the map is a stack of the “I Love Ferguson” signs you can find on lawns throughout North St. Louis County. The signs supplied the feel-good story the national media grasped for after Officer Darren Wilson killed unarmed teen Michael Brown last August 9. If you ask a number of Ferguson residents still smarting from the police violence that accompanied the protests, the signs symbolize a desire to maintain the status quo. The signs say: “Hey, America, no worries: Everything’s fine!”

I recently sat down with Fletcher, who served as Ferguson’s mayor between 2005 and 2011, inside the store. On a sweater day, he was wearing a short-sleeve polo shirt stretched by his midsection. At 55, he is bald with grey hair in the back, and smiles through clenched teeth. Over the course of our conversation, which has been edited for length, it became clear that Fletcher wants very badly to get back into Ferguson’s city government.

Jamil Smith: Prior to being Mayor, did you serve in the City Council?

Brian Fletcher: Not this City Council; another city, back in the early ‘80s, Country Club Hills. I came from the Ferguson Florissant School Board directly to being mayor. I am running for City Council now, so I’m sort of doing it in reverse.

JS: The way this government is set up, the mayor has a seat on the council and is also not the top official. Can you tell me how that process works?

BF: Sure. In 1954, the city voted for a city manager form of government. That city manager is a professional who runs the day-to-day operations, the hiring and firing of employees. The only employees the City Council actually hires are the city manager and the city clerk. The city clerk and the city manager work for them—and for the residents, of course. The mayor is kind of a councilman at large. The mayor is one-seventh of the council, but runs city-wide, whereas a council-person runs by ward. If they’re a good mayor, they do have a great deal of influence. I had a great deal of influence as mayor. We accomplished a lot of the redevelopment on the downtown area. If you were here ten or 15 years ago, downtown was almost totally vacant. Now we have wine bars, and brew houses, and 24 different restaurants. So we hope to do that with the West Florissant corridor. As a matter of fact, Governor [Jay] Nixon has appropriated $2.5 million to do the engineering and the feasibility study of redoing the West Florissant area, especially now that it’s had a great deal of fires and damage.

JS: Can you tell me about where you were and your reaction to what happened last August?

BF: Well, I was not in elected office at the time. I stepped down in 2011, but I remained active. As a result of what happened, I and three other people founded the I Love Ferguson Foundation. It’s a 501(c)3 not-for-profit. The purpose was to get the national media to understand we’re not such a horrible town. We’re a very good town and people here love their community. I thought, “Well, how am I going to get a lot of attention?” The idea of a yard sign came up. And you’ll still see a lot of “I Love Ferguson” yard signs around town. Now the weather has beaten them up. We’ve done 10,450 yard signs in a community of 20,000. ... Our products are in all 50 states and 38 different countries. We've raised a quarter of a million dollars in eight months.

JS: Where does that money go?

BF: Well, the first $100,000—you'll see these large checks that we have at the store—they were issued to the Reinvest North County Fund, which went directly to businesses that were either physically or economically damaged by the unrest. Now that that fund is closed, we're contributing money. We voted this past Tuesday to give five $1,500 college scholarships to high school seniors in the Ferguson community. We authorized the purchase of 250 Lego kits for the children of the city during the Fourth of July festival. I chair that committee as well. We raise money throughout the year. We have ham and bean dinners, BBQs, cocktail parties. We cook eggs at the farmers' market. And we pay for all the music during that day, and all the rides and games and face painting, pig races, petting zoo, all those things you would see at a festival. I chair that as well.

The real story people don't know is that in 2010 we had made so much progress on all issues, including race, that we were a finalist for the All-America City in the United States. And you can look that up on the Internet. One thing we lacked—we didn't win the contest—was that we didn't have a youth group. So we established the Ferguson Youth Initiative, a wonderful program that has over 150 to 200 teens who work on different things. They have a community service program that allows teens who get traffic violations to do community service in lieu of having to pay a fine. We're hoping that they extend that to adults in our community who are unable to afford tickets.

JS:  That brings up the Department of Justice report which came out last month, which found the city had issued 16,000 warrants when the community’s population is 21,000. What are some of the creative solutions that you would employ if you were elected? Ferguson seems like, from my observation, a pretty nice place to live. How can it get nicer, especially for those who can't afford these kinds of fines?

BF: Well, let me correct the numbers. These warrants are—first of all, they're not all Ferguson residents. Many of the tickets that are issued involve people from surrounding cities that drive through our city and they get a warrant. You get a warrant if you do not show up or contact the courts when you receive a violation. That's what the warrants are issued for. Many of them are multiple warrants on the same individual. So the literature that's being passed around town—saying three out of four citizens have warrants against them—is false. You can imagine that if there were three out of four people in the city with warrants, there would be chaos, there would be a revolution that would have occurred a lot more before now.

JS: Is there anything in the DOJ report you found to be a legitimate criticism?

BF: The emails that were racist and biased were totally inappropriate. They should have been fired, whoever did that. ... So, yes, that's a concern. It's a concern that there were 14 incidents where dogs were used to help control or get a suspect, and they were all African Americans. That seems totally like—why? It's not a ton over an eight-year period, but 14 times when they were all African Americans. That certainly doesn't look right.

JS: You had mentioned in an interview with Newsmax that political correctness had “gone astray.”

BF: That's what they called the name of the article. I didn't use those exact words. (Editor’s note: Yes, he used those exact words.)

JS: Can you elaborate a bit more on what you were trying to express?

BF: I can. It's hard to explain. The fact is, no resident or business has any factor of guilt in this matter. They didn't shoot Michael Brown. The fact is, nobody knows precisely—because there have been other similar shootings since Michael Brown across the United States—why Ferguson came to this level of looting and frustration. A lot of it was because outsiders came in. We still have, right now in this election process, paid outsiders, people from as far away as New York, working on our elections. And primarily working against myself, who is deemed  “the establishment”—you've probably seen some of those.

JS: To be fair though, you did choose the city manager, John Shaw, who just resigned—and so I think that's part of the story and the campaign. Having chosen him, if you are elected, is that the kind of guy that you're looking to put back in?

BF: Not necessarily him, but we talked earlier about the downtown area being primarily vacant in the last ten to 15 years—John was a big part of getting these businesses to move in.

JS:  I've seen a number of your signs, but have you been out knocking on doors? It's the Saturday before the election, and you're here in the store.

BF: Last Saturday we went out with 50 people and blanked the area with what we call lit drop. Because of the I Love Ferguson thing, I have extremely high name recognition. Now that can cut both ways. My opponent is using it against me, saying, “He's the old establishment. He's good ol’ buddy system.” Now since when is having experience a negative thing? I have no scandals. The most I've ever made in my life, in 28 years as an elected official was as mayor, $350 a month. I've never sought this for personal fame or fortune. My opponent Bob Hudgins—I didn't know he existed until January 20. I looked his name up in Google and found very few things. Doing what we call “die-ins,” laying on the pavement in Clayton at the courthouse. It's his right to do this, but that's how he spent his time.

JS: Do you understand the anger that's swelling from a lot of folks here? Because I've been talking to residents who are still infuriated, and I feel like the DOJ report reignited those frustrations.

BF: Definitely.

JS: Can you speak to how you grasp what they are feeling?

BF: I understand it. I grew up in poverty. I lived on food stamps, Social Security. My father died when I was a teenager. I had a mother who was not a U.S. citizen. I worked my way through college on grants and working during college. And when I was 24 years old, I was a councilman in the city of Country Club Hills. I've given back to public service. In 1997, I came down with heart disease and told I had five years to live and to prepare myself and my family for my imminent death. And yet I'm still alive. I'm an early retiree, but I spent twelve years as an elected vice president for the Communication Workers of America, the union that gave Ella Jones $7,000 and gave Lee Smith $5,000 and has given me nothing. So I understand discrimination. I feel like in some sense I have been discriminated against; why a union I spent twelve years of my life representing over 4,000 members has chosen not to give me any money.

JS: Why do you think that is?

BF: Because I am not African American. That's the sole reason.

JS: You mentioned the importance of experience. Why is that so vital in Ferguson?

BF: There is great lack of participation. Not just in Ferguson, but in America. We have over 21,000 residents in the city of Ferguson, and the best candidate forum—we had four—was put on by the neighborhood league, and we had 170 residents out of 21,000 show up. We've had massive voter registration drives in Ferguson since last April and we've registered a total—over a one year period of time—of approximately 300 voters.

JS: Is there anything that your campaign is doing to try to encourage people to register?

BF: My word, when I was committee man for sixteen years, I would personally stand out front of the grocery stores and ask people as they came in, “Are you a registered voter? Can I register you?” I moved to Ferguson in 1985 and been active ever since and will continue to be. I have a commitment to myself and to God that I'm going to stay involved. Whether I win or lose Tuesday, I've done my best.