WELDON SPRINGS, Mo. — Gov. Jay Nixon on Tuesday tried to reassure residents that the public will be safe no matter the outcome of a grand jury decision on whether to charge an officer in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.
“To all Missourians, to people around the country and around the world, we are going to keep this region safe,” said Nixon (D), flanked by officials of several local police departments that will be on guard against any potential violence.
For weeks, residents, businesses and activists have anxiously awaited news of whether Darren Wilson, the white Ferguson, Mo., police officer who fatally shot Brown, will face charges. Wilson killed Brown, who was African American, 18 and unarmed, on Aug. 9 after an encounter on a street not far from Brown’s grandmother’s home.
Unrest erupted after the shooting, including the looting and burning of some businesses. Many fear more violence will erupt if Wilson is not indicted.
Nixon insisted that officers will respect the rights of residents to protest but stopped short of discussing any specific demands made by protest groups regarding “rules of engagement,” saying only that “our dual pillars here are safety and speech.”
The governor said that 1,000 officers have undergone training to prepare for the response to potential unrest. He also noted that the National Guard could be deployed, but he would not comment on whether that deployment would happen before the grand jury announcement.
In August, in response to demonstrators, most of them peaceful, local police used militarized equipment, deployed tear gas and rubber-coated bullets and arrested hundreds — including several dozen journalists.
A number of protest groups, which have continued almost daily demonstrations, have said they want demonstrations to be peaceful as well and for weeks have been in talks with police to try to prevent violence. But they have also challenged authorities, saying it was the response of police that escalated events this summer.
“For nearly 100 days, the preponderance of violence has come from the hands of police. We have proven we can peacefully assemble and function at a protest; can the police say the same?” said Damon Davis, a member of the Don’t Shoot Coalition, a collection of scores of groups.
His comments, along with those of other activists, were released in a coalition statement before Nixon’s news conference.
For many people, there was little doubt about whether Wilson will face charges.
“Everybody knows what’s going to happen,” said Lawanda Felder, 20, a college student who lives in a Ferguson. “They are going to let that officer off, and then things are going to get wild.”
Many businesses have boarded up their windows. Local clergy have organized “safe houses” where members of their congregations can gather if rioting occurs. Nearby school districts, worried about their students, have asked that the decision not be released during school hours.
Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch initially said a decision would come by late October. He then said “the first or second week of November.” He finally said an announcement would come “mid-to-late November” and this week issued a statement underscoring that timing.
Charles Davis is the owner of the Ferguson Burger Bar. His business is around the corner from where Brown was killed, but he’s not boarding up, he said.
“I didn’t board up the first time things got chaotic, and I’m not going to board up now,” he said. “I just think it sends a strong message to the people of Ferguson.”
His goal, he said, is “to let them know that I am here and I’m not going to close up.”
But he’s one of the only ones. Every other storefront in the strip mall where the restaurant is located is covered in wood.
In an interview Monday night, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson — who The Washington Post and other media outlets have reported will ultimately resign — described the mood in the small suburb as “the calm before the storm.”
“Yeah, except that it’s not calm,” Jackson said, noting the meetings between protesters and police.
Most of those meetings have been organized by locals, and some were brokered by the Justice Department.
Meanwhile, several protest groups have been holding meetings and training sessions of their own to hash out plans for mass acts of civil disobedience. Protest organizers have brought in experienced activists and trainers and have begun scouting locations that include government buildings and the offices of local and statewide elected officials.
“We want to make sure people are still talking, are still planning,” said Montague Simmons, the chairman of the Organization for Black Struggle, an activist group. “When the decision comes, we all need to be ready.”