With news of a grand jury decision likely just days away, few in Ferguson, Mo., and the greater St. Louis area are expecting that the white officer who fatally shot an unarmed black 18-year-old this summer will face any charges.
Instead, residents, activists and police departments have been engaged in contingency planning with the hopes of avoiding the kind of major unrest that exploded immediately after Michael Brown was killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.
For weeks, protesters and police have been in discussions in an effort to choreograph a response if there is not an indictment. Both sides are working to establish “rules of engagement,” with protesters insisting on peaceful demonstrations without police interference and police pledging to respect demonstrators’ right to assemble while underscoring that violence won’t be tolerated.
Almost nightly in recent weeks, meetings have been held in church basements and community buildings to try to address a single question: How do we prevent our city from burning?
Dozens of interviews with protest organizers, community leaders and local officials reveal a deep concern about the response to news that Wilson may not be legally held accountable in the Aug. 9 shooting.
Recently some young protest leaders, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about their efforts, held a national conference call to discuss protest plans. Organizers claim that hundreds participated. The Brown shooting has drawn activists from around the country.
Activists said they are planning more civil disobedience, much like the actions carried out during the “weekend of resistance” in early October, when protests unfolded in Ferguson and throughout the metro area.
Organizations such as the Don’t Shoot Coalition, which consists of more than 50 groups, said this week that it is committed to peaceful protests but didn’t shy away from challenging police conduct — insisting on a “demilitarized” police response.
“If Officer Wilson is not indicted, we will do our part to try to de-escalate violence without de-escalating action,” said co-chair Michael T. McPhearson, executive director of Veterans for Peace. “We are providing a number of supports to promote a peaceful response, but nothing will make a difference unless the police do their part by giving protesters adequate space. That’s the key to peaceful outcomes.”
Police said Thursday that they have been in almost daily discussions with protesters, community leaders and area businesses.
St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson said he, the head of the county police and officials in the Missouri Highway Patrol have spent the past three weeks talking with protesters. They’ve made the rounds of many coalition groups, Dotson said, because different groups have different agendas.
“The majority of their group are respectful but have the right to have their emotions heard,” he said.
“They don’t want that to be compromised by a small number of people,” Dotson added, referring to people who might resort to looting or violence.
Next week, Dotson said, he — along with St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar and Ron Johnson of the Highway Patrol — will appear on local radio shows and at public meetings.
“We are going to say we have a unified command with city, county and Highway Patrol,” he said. “Our resources will be shared throughout the region.”
Brian Schellman, spokesman for the county police, said the department has been preparing for weeks. That preparation has included stocking up on equipment if problems emerge.
The department has spent $37,741 on riot gear and more for pepper balls, smoke grenades, “sock rounds” and 2,000 sets of plastic handcuffs. An additional $50,000 has been set aside to repair police vehicles that may get damaged.
Officers also are undergoing training, Schellman said.
“We have had all officers who will be involved in the Ferguson detail attend or will attend a four-hour training that deals with civil disturbance training, as well as a review of the First, Fourth and 14th amendments and the rights of the press,” he added.
In October, Dotson told The Washington Post that he began to prepare his 1,300-member department weeks ago, buying shields and batons that can be used to peacefully move protesters. At the time of that interview, at least 250 officers had been trained on the new equipment.
“They learn how to stand and move as a group in a straight line. How to move in formation. How to peacefully arrest individuals,” he said. “These aren’t SWAT guys.”
In August, police confrontations with protesters, many of them peaceful, drew national attention and the concern of the White House and some Washington lawmakers. Demonstrators were sometimes met with tear gas, rubber bullets and officers in riot gear. Heavily armored tactical vehicles were employed while officers took up sniper positions, with weapons trained at times on peaceful demonstrators.
During nightly clashes, authorities accused protesters of throwing rocks and molotov cocktails.
“We want to take a relaxed attitude,” Belmar said during an October interview.
He noted Thursday, however, that while there have been meetings with protesters, he is concerned about the effectiveness of the talks.
“We meet with them, but I don’t feel like we really resolve anything,” he said. “It’s been difficult to broker a large-scale agreement because there are so many stakeholders involved in this.”
High school and college students, Belmar noted, have said they don’t feel represented by the protest groups.
“Reaching them has been difficult,” said Belmar, who said that police also are visiting high schools and college campuses.
The coalition is making several requests, including for a demilitarized response from authorities — no rubber bullets, for example — and for advance word of a grand jury announcement. Denise Lieberman, co-chair of Don’t Shoot Coalition, said she met with members of the prosecutor’s office this week to ask for an early warning.
“Police need to plan, but we do, too,” said Lieberman. “If we know ahead of time, we can help direct peaceful protests. Parents can plan for their children. Schools also need to plan.”
Some school superintendents have written to Prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s office to request that the grand jury decision be announced after 5 p.m. on a weekday or on a Sunday.
McCulloch’s office, which says news will not arrive before “mid-November,” said it would consider the school officials’ request.
Like Belmar, Lieberman expressed frustrations about the ongoing meetings with authorities.
“I’m pleased that these meetings are taking place, but the conversations are still at a broader, philosophical level,” she said. “I think there is still not enough brass tacks. We want an agreement to be reached on specific protocols — ways we will work together to de-escalate things. We are making progress, but we are not there yet.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.