Before and after the grand jury’s decision became public, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and other area governmental officials made clear Monday night that they understood the stakes.
“Now is the time to show the world,” said St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, that protesters and their critics can react without violence to the grand jury’s decision regarding whether to indict a Ferguson police officer who shot an unarmed teenager on Aug. 9.
Nixon declared Monday night, "Together, we are all focused on making sure the necessary resources are at hand to protect lives, protect property and protect free speech."
The governor, Dooley and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay addressed dozens of national and regional reporters at a news conference held at the University Missouri-St. Louis. The event was held more than two hours before St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch disclosed the grand jury’s decision against indicting the officer.
Protesters have been calling for months for Officer Darren Wilson to face charges in the shooting death of Michael Brown. The incident has taken on racial overtones because Wilson is white and Brown was black.
U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-University City, said in a statement soon after the announcement that he was disappointed, but not surprised, by the grand jury's decision.
The congressman said that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder "has assured me that the ongoing federal investigations will be extensive, vigorous, and will follow the facts, wherever they lead. The pursuit of justice for Michael Brown, Jr. and his family is not over."
But Clay added, "While I share the anger and frustration of so many in our community, I ask everyone to be peaceful. Be prayerful.
"And remain disciplined and dignified in everything that we must now do as we go forward together to confront the huge disparities that continue to deny equal protection under the law for persons of color in our region, and across this nation. That is the best way to honor Michael Brown’s memory.”
U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, said in a statement, "We must have faith in our judicial system and that all the facts led the grand jury to a just and fair decision. Now it's time for us all to heal together as a community...."
Such comments for peace echoed those made earlier by the governor, Dooley and Slay at the UMSL event. Nixon had emphasized, "Our shared hope and expectation is that regardless of the decision, people on all sides show tolerance, mutual respect, and restraint."
The governor added that he had spoken privately with regional clergy members Monday afternoon, to enlist their support.
Dooley called for county residents to be calm. "I do not want people ... to think they have to barricade their doors and take up arms,'' the county executive said.
Slay reaffirmed that he supported the rights of peaceful protesters, and would allow them to even march in streets. But he added, “turning violent or damaging property will not be tolerated.”
The mayor referred indirectly to some property damage incurred Sunday night in the city’s Shaw neighborhood, which has been the scene of protests ever since a fatal police shooting weeks after the Ferguson incident.
Speaking in general, the mayor called for all sides to use the tragedy to address broader issues that plague the region, and the nation. “It’s time to heal, to close the racial divide,’’ Slay said.
After the decision was announced, Nixon added that while the grand jury's work may be over, "the rest of us have much more work to do in order to use the lessons we have learned these past four months to create safer, stronger and more united communities."
Nixon: National Guard will serve only in supporting role
The governor declined to offer specifics as to how many Missouri National Guard troops have been assigned to the area. Slay had asked for 400 to be assigned to the city of St. Louis.
The governor did say, however, that the troops will be stationed outside police and fire stations around the region, as well as power facilities. He said that the power loss in Ferguson on Oct. 31 may have been the result of vandalism linked to the protests.
The state’s public safety director, former St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom, expressed “tremendous confidence in the men and women of St. Louis law enforcement’’ throughout the region.
The governor’s remarks, while brief, may be key to any effort to resurrect his national reputation, which has taken a beating for months.
Nixon’s early reluctance to get involved, until several days after the Michael Brown shooting, appeared to hurt his credibility among local Democratic leaders, many of whom were already split over McCulloch.
Nationally, he looked less than gubernatorial in his most recent public appearances, which often featured his habitual pauses as he gathered his thoughts, accompanied by a rapid change of subjects within a single sentence. As a result, Nixon looked indecisive.
Monday night, the governor appeared to make a point to stay on topic and not get distracted -- even with a man who identified himself as a journalist from an alternative news outlet called "The Revolutionary News." The man interrupted the governor during the question-answer session, began shouting and declared that millions of Americans will take to the streets if Wilson is not indicted.
Even so, Missouri House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, blasted the governor late Monday for not deploying the National Guard in a more assertive manner to prevent some of the looting and the burning of businesses in Ferguson. Jones said Nixon was ignoring pleas from Ferguson city officials, including the mayor.
Meanwhile, St. Louis County Executive-elect Steve Stenger, a Democrat at odds with some north county Democrats over his alliance with McCulloch, issued a call late Monday for "non-violent peaceful dialogue'' among all sides.
Congressional comments careful, taking no sides
U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., each praised the legal process, while also avoiding any criticism of peaceful protests.
Said McCaskill: “There will be many people who are disappointed in today’s decision, even though it is a result of a deliberate legal process that’s being independently checked by Attorney General Eric Holder and the U.S. Justice Department. While we await the conclusion of that independent investigation—and continue working together for solutions to systemic issues highlighted by this tragedy—I’m praying that the good people of St. Louis and local law enforcement will remain peaceful and respectful of one another.”
Blunt said, “We must balance the rights of Americans to exercise their free speech alongside the rights of people to live peacefully and safely in their communities. I join Michael Brown’s family in urging protestors to do so peacefully."
The senator also touched on concerns that he and others, including McCaskill, had earlier expressed regarding the law enforcement response. “I’ve talked extensively to law enforcement officials to learn more about the tactics, resources, and procedures that our first responders utilize statewide," Blunt said. "Law enforcement officials have been candid in identifying ways officers could have handled the situation in Ferguson better, and I trust those recommendations will be helpful as we continue to count on them to protect us..."
Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster was among those calling for attention on the broader issues of race and inequality. "The death of Michael Brown has caused every Missourian to reflect deeply on divides that continue to exist within our state," said Koster, a Democrat. "While Missouri’s law enforcement community is professional and dedicated to protecting our state’s citizens, these events call on all leaders to explore solutions that increase confidence and communication across those divides. The most lasting lessons of Ferguson are yet to be realized.”
Dooley, in a response issued after the grand jury announcement, offered up a succinct assessment of the broader challenges. “The grand jury has done its work," the county executive said. "And now, we must do ours. "
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