Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and activated National Guard forces in Missouri Monday, saying the state must be ready to protect residents if violent protests follow a grand jury decision on whether to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager in August.
He said the role of both police and the Missouri National Guard will be to maintain safety and protect the free-speech rights of citizens.
A grand jury decision expected any day between now and the end of the month.
“It is necessary to have these resources in place in advance of any announcement,” Governor Nixon (D) said in a statement released by his office. “These additional resources will support law enforcement’s efforts to maintain peace and protect those exercising their right to free speech.”
Some local leaders who have supported the protests voiced concern about the governor’s announcement.
“I'm hoping @GovJayNixon has info that we don't have to call a state of emergency because this as a preemptive strike doesn't work,” Patricia Bynes, a Ferguson resident active in Democratic Party politics, said on Twitter.
Both the protesters and law enforcement authorities say they share the goal of nonviolence.
Differing accounts have emerged regarding the death of Michael Brown, with some saying the black 18-year-old may have been reaching for Officer Wilson’s gun after the officer pulled alongside him in a car on Aug. 9. Other accounts say the shots that killed him occurred while the youth was holding up his hands in submission.
The grand jury will not opine on Wilson’s guilt or innocence, but it will decide whether a county prosecution is justified in moving forward. A decision not to indict the officer is likely to spark fresh protests, and tensions have been mounting in recent days.
Separate from legitimate efforts by groups or individuals to protest, law enforcement authorities are preparing for the risk that criminals or extremists could exploit the grand jury news as an opportunity for looting or seeking to harm police or government property.
The Ferguson community of some 21,000 residents has been the scene of ongoing demonstrations since Brown’s death, marked by peaceful marching but also, in the beginning, incidents of looting and of what critics say was an overly militarized police response.
“All people in the St. Louis region deserve to feel safe in their communities and to make their voices heard without fear of violence or intimidation,” said Nixon in his announcement Monday.
The governor’s announcement said St. Louis County Police will head the security response to protests. County Police Chief Jon Belmar said his officers “have undergone thousands of hours of additional training” in recent weeks, and “reached out to build strong relationships across the community.”
Protesters have been preparing for what’s ahead, too – and in many cases they’re preparing not just to make their voices heard but also to defuse the potential for their interaction with authorities to turn violent.
One group of protesters recently met to practice linking arms and being unfazed by sounds of police batons tapping, according to a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. A church pastor, the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou of the First Baptist Church in Boston, tried to help them by encouraging them to chant “love” to each tap of the baton.
Other leaders in the St. Louis area are also trying to set a tone for public action to be violence free.
State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, in a recent opinion column, described getting herself arrested for protesting in Ferguson, as a symbolic example ahead of the grand jury decision.
“How the community will respond is critical,” she wrote. “And I wanted to send the message that it is OK to be angry and frustrated, OK to protest, and even OK to be arrested. But what is not OK is using these emotions and demonstrations to vent violence and destruction.”