Waiting For The Grand Jury: Ferguson, Police, Protesters Prepare

Nov 14, 2014

The St. Louis region looks and feels as though it’s preparing for a big storm. When you drive down West Florissant Avenue in Ferguson, most of the store fronts are covered with plywood. Some nearby municipalities are even telling residents stock up on food, gas and supplies. All of this is in preparation for a possible storm of a different kind.

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It’s been more than three months since a white police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. Many are now anxiously awaiting a grand jury decision on whether Ferguson officer Darren Wilson will be charged for killing the unarmed 18 year old.

The announcement is expected soon, and many fear that violence will erupt if the officer is not indicted. Residents, protesters, politicians and police are all preparing for the day of the announcement.

“People are on edge more than I’ve ever seen in 21 years,” said Ferguson resident Christine LaPorta.

LaPorta says the grand jury announcement is hanging over the region's head. Everyone is tense worrying that people will react violently to the decision, she said. LaPorta admits that some of the fear stems from what she’s seeing on social media.

Christine LaPorta has lived in Ferguson for 21 years.
Credit Emanuele Berry | St. Louis Public Radio

“You know people are getting sucked into what they are seeing on social media; and it’s like anything on the internet, it’s 'fact,'” she said. “If you see it on the internet it must be real. People are believing what they are reading and they’re making plans and they are scaring the rest of us into doing the same thing. So it’s sort of this frenzy, like you need to do this. You haven't done this yet? You need to prepare for your house to burn to the ground.”

LaPorta admits that it all sounds crazy but “... if you hear it enough times, you start to believe it’s going to happen.”

So she has a plan. LaPorta has inventoried her house, and made arrangements for all her animals to stay in different locations.

“When the decision comes down, It’s just going to be me and my property. And then when I feel like I’m no longer safe, I will get in my car and drive away. I’m not going to board up my house or take anything from it; but I will leave if I feel like I’m in real danger.”

LaPorta has also thought about buying a  gun; and increased gun sales in the area suggest she might not be alone.

“I have a stun gun at home. I have a thing of pepper spray at home, but I don't have anything like a firearm. But it has crossed my mind,” she said. “It literally makes me sick to my stomach to even think about. I’m unsure about the whole thing. A gun is the last thing I want in my house, but it's crossed my mind, which is just crazy.”

Business Board Up

Some business along West Florissant Avenue and throughout Ferguson have boarded up their windows.

In August, a handful of protests did turn violent. Some storefronts like Dan McMullen’s, who runs Solo Insurance, were vandalized. He still has the red stones that were thrown through his window stacked on a desk. McMullen's windows are now boarded up.

“I don't have anything in here to steal. You can steal my desk, I guess you're going to have a hard time walking out with it. So breaking my windows that’s ... all you can do is break my windows.”

McMullen says he’s just accepted that his windows might be broken again. He says if it happened in August in will probably happen again, but destruction is not the right way to express yourself.

“A lot of people say, well they want to voice their opinion,” he said. “This (vandalism) is the only way they have to voice their opinion, because they have no other way. Really ? Being violent doesn't do anything to anything. All it does is chase people away from you. You hear everybody, all the peaceful ones saying we're going to take care of it. We’re going to stop them from being violent. Good. Let’s make sure it happens.”

Although many of the shops along West Florissant Avenue have been boarded up, not all of them have a plywood facade.

Ferguson Burger Bar and More opened just days before Michael Brown was shot. Owner Charles Davis said business was slow for the first few weeks.
Credit Maria Altman | St. Louis Public Radio

Charles Davis owner of Ferguson Burger Bar and More says he has no plans to board up his windows.

“Just like last time, I didn't close down," he said. "I was here and open everyday. So just my faith in God and my trust in the community, “ he said. “I don't feel it’s the community that’s doing the damage so I’m just going to trust the community and whatever God has to happen that’s what it will be.”

Davis says he understands why other businesses have taken precautions; and he hopes that people understand that destroying business won't change police or political systems.

“If you want to make a statement to them don't tear up someone's property that has nothing to do with it,” he says.“Go and make a statement to them.”

Prepare For a storm

A handful of area municipalities have sent alerts to residents. These include Berkeley, which neighbors Ferguson.

That one advises residents to stock up on food, gas and other supplies.

“ Please make sure your home and family are prepared for a period of disruption, just as you would in the event of a storm," the alert reads.

The city of Clayton, also posted a letter to residents warning that there are planned demonstrations to shut down parts of the city the morning following the Grand Jury decision. The letter, signed by Assistant Chief Kevin R. Murphy of the Clayton Police Department, said they are working to make sure that “services are not interrupted.”

Officials say in the past they have worked with protest organizers to ensure that demonstration remained peaceful and when protesters have worked independently, they have “remained as flexible as possible” and they will “ continue to be open to working cooperatively with organizing groups.”

Call for Calm, Preparing for Chaos

While it feels as though everyone is preparing for chaos, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley thinks everyone should step back from all the "hysteria."

“Take a deep breath, stand back and calm down,” Dooley said.

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay held a press conference on Wednesday to calm tensions in the run-up to a grand jury decision over Ferguson Police officer Darren Wilson.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

At a news conference this week Dooley and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay stressed that violence is not imminent after the grand jury’s decision.

But as officials ask citizens to stay calm, they too are preparing for possible chaos. On Tuesday, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon announced his plans to maintain order, saying violence will not be tolerated.

“In the days immediately following Michael Brown’s death, peaceful protests were marred by senseless acts of violence and destruction,” he said. “Vandals smashed the windows of small businesses. Criminals looted and set fire to stores ... That ugliness was not representative of Missouri, and it cannot be repeated.”

To help maintain peace, the Missouri State Highway patrol, the St. Louis County police, and the St. Louis Metropolitan police are working under unified command. Nixon says the National Guard could be deployed if needed.

Police say they’re working with community leaders and protesters to ensure safety during any demonstrations.

August Again

While police worry about possible violence from the public, some protesters are preparing for what they fear will be violence by the police.

Activist Lisa Fithian leads a training session at Greater St. Mark's Church in Dellwood.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren / St. Louis Public Radio

“I want you to move from one side of the room to the other side of the room as fast as you can without hitting anybody …”

Activist Lisa Fithian is leading a training session for demonstrators -- instructing a hundred people to shuffle through a small lime green room in the back of a nonprofit office, to simulating chaos.

“Were there any collision, now does anybody think when this non-decision comes down that it might be a little crazy like that out there,” she said.

The crowd responds with a resounding “yes.”

This session is just one in a series, in which protestors are taught methods to remain calm and ease tension. Some are also being trained as medics. Others are learning how to monitor police activities with video cameras.

Hundreds of demonstrators have prepared civil disobedience actions. At a meeting on Thursday protestors announced that they planned to “shut down” Clayton the morning after the grand jury announcement.

Demonstrations are expected to pop up along West Florissant Avenue, at the Ferguson Police Station, in the Shaw neighborhood and in downtown Clayton. Organizers are also working to set up safe spaces near protest areas.

Johnetta Elize, who’s helping lead the training, hopes that protesters will be able to demonstrate safely. But she still worries.

“If the police are anything like they were in August and September, we are going to be in trouble. They were really aggressive, incited a lot of unnecessary violence,” she said.

It’s a violence that police, protesters and even residents are all preparing for, even as they hope to avoid it.

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