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US braces for Ferguson verdict: How semblance of peace could prevail (+video)

With protests planned around the country and greater St. Louis on a knife-edge, the question is whether any grand jury verdict in the Darren Wilson-Michael Brown case will spark protests like the ones that enveloped Ferguson, Mo., last summer.

Some 50 official activist groups in Ferguson, Mo. have signed a pact with authorities to peacefully protest the outcome of the Michael Brown case. But all eyes are on the young men and women who spontaneously took to the streets this summer to vent their anger at what they perceive as authorities who see young black men like Mr. Brown in racist terms

As a grand jury gets ready to reach its verdict on whether Officer Darren Wilson should be indicted for shooting the unarmed Brown on Aug. 9, the worst fear is that protests will turn violent and destructive. The FBI arrested two men this week who authorities say were planning a bomb attack.

Protests are expected in 100 US cities whether a grand jury indicts the police officer or not. And some protesters say they’ll see a failure to indict Wilson as a sign that peaceful protests don’t work, a fact that may ramp up passions. 

But others calling for calm note that worst fears are often unfounded, especially given a set of prevailing factors that may help to quell looting and Molotov-cocktail-throwing.

More specifically, protesters interviewed by various media say the early winter cold, concerns about arrests, the visible arming-up by business owners, and the sheer force of police, National Guard and FBI agents, could discourage a lot of the younger locals who clashed with police for three weeks in August.

“Basically, you doing what you did before, it’s suicide,” protester Aaron Davis, a Ferguson barber, told the New York Times this week. “They’re ready for you.”

Some protesters have told news media that boasting about taking part in a new round of violent protests is commonplace. Others say they expect events to spiral out of control. But Mr. Davis said he’s yet to hear anyone in his barbershop say they’ll join any protests.

Still, with protests planned around the country and greater St. Louis on a knife-edge, the question is whether any grand jury verdict will spark protests with the same or greater intensity as the ones that enveloped Ferguson in the late summer.

The grand jury is mulling whether to believe Wilson, who says he killed Brown in self-defense, or eyewitnesses who insist that Brown was trying to surrender before Wilson shot him.

So far, hundreds have been arrested, including several Thursday when protesters and police clashed in front of the Ferguson Police Station. More broadly, the shooting and the ensuing police response sparked an enduring national debate about police tactics and racial inequities.

The Brown shooting also brought renewed focus on the unique political and racial dynamics of St. Louis, a region with hundreds of small municipalities and a tradition of white flight. In the last 150 years, the US Supreme Court has had to knock down several attempts by greater St. Louis municipalities to segregate by law.

More importantly to any upcoming protests, the sometimes violent outpouring of anger and frustration gave rise to what some saw as a new civil rights movement, fueled by images of police and protester clashes that sparked comparisons to anti-black violence in the South during the civil rights era.

“That [war-zone] imagery is in people’s minds, and it’s not flattering to the powerful,” Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University in Washington, told the Monitor in September. “Whether [protesters] are in the wrong or right, it ain’t a fair fight, and there’s something very human about reacting to that.”

In that environment, a new breed of young black leaders has arisen, writes Aisha Sultan in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“The young leaders embody the passion and zeal endemic to youth,” she writes. “They challenge the assumptions of gender roles and chain-of-command hierarchies. They’ve become social media fixtures and prominent in the global media spotlight.”

But the unity of that coalition will likely be tested in the next few days. “The emotional and physical intensity of what they have experienced … has bound them like family, even when the family disagrees,” writes Ms. Sultan.

US leaders, including President Obama, joined Michael Brown’s family in pleading for nonviolence as Ferguson braces for a verdict many believe will exonerate Officer Wilson of doing anything wrong.

“This is a country that allows everybody to express their views … allows them to peacefully assemble, to protest actions that they think are unjust,” Obama told George Stephanopoulos in an ABC News interview scheduled to air Sunday. The President added, however, that “using any event as an excuse for violence is contrary to rule of law and contrary to who we are.”

Attorney General Eric Holder released a video in which he begged protesters and police to “minimize needless confrontation.”

The Disciples of Justice is one group that has vowed to help police the protests, but whose members also stand on a precipice as they prepare for the verdict.

“We want peace in the streets … [but] we also want justice for Michael Brown’s family,” Eddie Hasan, the director of the group, told the Post-Dispatch on Friday.

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