Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has pledged zero tolerance for violence in anticipation of protests when the grand jury investigating the August shooting death of Michael Brown releases its decision later this month. But he and law enforcement officials at a Tuesday press conference made it clear that they want to protect both protesters and others' safety and property.
"As governor, the most important part of my job is keeping people safe," Nixon said. "Families must be able to see their kids off safety to school in the morning, walk their neighborhoods at night, and keep their businesses open without fear for their lives and property. Citizens must also have the right to express themselves peacefully without being threatened by individuals intent on creating violence and disorder."
The heavy-handed police response to protests that erupted right after Brown's death in August drew worldwide condemnation. Police have repeatedly said the use of tear gas was necessary to separate the violent protesters from the peaceful ones.
Nixon and law enforcement officials present Tuesday would not discuss operational tactics beyond the basics. As in August, the Missouri State Highway Patrol, St. Louis County and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department will share command of the scene. Hundreds of officers have received additional training on basic crowd control techniques as well as a refresher course on the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments. Officers are prepared to respond to protests wherever they may flare up, even it's far away from where they normally work. And Nixon said he is prepared to call in the National Guard if needed.
"These measures are not being taken because we are convinced that violence will occur, but because we have a responsibility to prepare for any contingency," Nixon said. "The public demands, and I demand that."
Officials said they have been meeting with various groups of protestors and are listening to their concerns in planning the police response.
Last week, for example, a group called the Don't Shoot Coalition released a list of 19 proposed rules of engagement, including increased tolerance of minor lawbreaking and a promise not to use tear gas or rubber bullets. St. Louis County police chief Jon Belmar, who will be part of the unified command structure, said the two sides can agree on a vast majority of those demands.
"I think recognizing that we have common ground, and not dwelling on the points where we may have disagreement, I think that puts us toward the relationship which leads us to trust," Belmar said. "And if we don’t have trust, we don’t have anything."
Reaction From The Community
Reaction to Nixon's press conference was mixed. In a statement, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who spoke at Michael Brown's funeral, said the statements were "disappointing, incomplete, and evasive, and omitted the central underlying issues in the case of Michael Brown."
Alexis Templeton, a University of Missouri-St. Louis student who’s been active in the protests over Brown’s death, didn’t find the governor's words comforting. She said fear of violence following the grand jury’s decision has been exaggerated and if police do take a hard stance it will only escalate tensions with protesters.
“Their presence brings violence,” Templeton said. “Their presence brings tension. It brings miscommunication. It brings misunderstanding.”
She added that the intention among protesters is to remain peaceful.
Not everyone was critical of Nixon’s statements. Brian Fletcher, chairman of the group I Heart Ferguson, said he is comforted by the prospect of a heavy police presence.
“I think that there is a sense that (Nixon) indicated that there would be no excuse for violence or destroying of property or any public property” Fletcher said. “That there was going to be no leniency. That they were going to take immediate action.”
Meanwhile, the group Parents for Peace, which helped organized support for students who were out of school because the Ferguson-Florissant School District delayed the start of its academic year in August, is preparing to put those supports back in place again if school is again canceled because of unrest.
“The last couple of weeks has been when formal planning has happened,” said Melissa Fitzgerald, who helped organize the parents group.
She said that as they did in August, teachers are coming forward to volunteer their time and the Ferguson Library is again offering to make space available. Ultimately, Fitzgerald said the challenge before the community isn’t to respond to immediate events, but to use them to spark lasting change and racial understanding.
“If we can do that moving forward, then I think that we can set an example for a lot of communities out there,” Fitzgerald said.
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