St. Louis braces for grand jury decision

Race Issues | Officials prepare for riots as protestors vow to take to the streets as soon as the announcement is read
by Lynde Langdon
Posted 11/18/14, 03:38 pm

For 102 days, St. Louis has waited for answers. Did Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shoot Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, in self-defense, or was his motivation something more sinister?

After Brown’s death in August, looting and riots plagued the Ferguson area for two weeks, and protests throughout St. Louis County have been a regular occurrence since then. Early on, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch handed that question over to a grand jury, the members of which have met in secret for almost three months to consider whether Wilson deserves criminal charges. McCulloch told the public to expect a decision in mid- to late-November. 

The patience of both Brown’s and Wilson’s supporters is stretched tight as a drum, and authorities don’t expect it to hold up under the weight of the grand jury’s decision, whatever it might be. Yesterday, Gov. Jay Nixon activated the National Guard, putting it on standby to support police in protecting lives and property during protests that are sure to erupt. Here are some things to expect when the grand jury verdict is finally announced.

School’s out. The St. Louis County prosecutor’s office has said it will give area school districts between three and 24 hours’ notice before announcing the grand jury’s decision, enough time to “transport students home safely,” Hazelwood School District Superintendent Grayling Tobias wrote on the district’s website. Protests in August caused school cancellations in and around Ferguson, and some of those districts are preparing for more days off. The Ferguson-Florissant and Riverview Gardens districts are sending extra homework packets home with students if school gets canceled, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Getting organized. Since August, activists have taken time to plan and prepare for their response. Numerous group have formed to try to channel the spontaneous, sporadic emotion of the August protest into action that will lead to change. They have names like Lost Voices, Hands Up United, and the Don’t Shoot Coalition. They have posted demands on their websites, asking for everything from Wilson’s arrest to a nationwide Justice Department investigation of police brutality. In training meetings, they instructed protesters on where to go when the grand jury decision is released, what to take, and how to act. The website includes a map of protest locations, a list of supplies for protesters (maps, warm clothing, portable phone chargers), and the addresses of “Safe Spaces” where protesters can go to warm up, use the bathroom, and get drinks and snacks. Even if Darren Wilson is indicted, the outcome the protesters want, leaders say the public should still expect demonstrations reflecting general anger toward racial injustice.

Police presence. As much as community leaders have implored protesters to keep things peaceful, the police in St. Louis say they want to be part of the solution, too. About 1,000 St. Louis County officers have undergone 5,000 hours of training in how to police civil disobedience, county police chief Jon Belmar told the Post-Dispatch. Officers responding to protests will carry laminated cards with clear descriptions of what they can and can’t arrest people for. The county police department also knows appearances matter, which is why they hired a social media coordinator and an extra public relations officer. Belmar also bought new uniforms for tactical officers that are traditional blue and not camouflage, “so they don’t look like they’re going into Fallujah,” he told the Post-Dispatch.

Nationwide impact. The grand jury’s decision is expected to reverberate far outside St. Louis. A group called Ferguson National Response Network has planned demonstrations in 60 locations across the country, from Oakland, Calif., to West Palm Beach, Fla. The FBI issued a bulletin Friday warning law enforcement agencies nationwide to prepare for violence after the grand jury announcement, particularly against police officers. “The announcement of the grand jury’s decision … will likely be exploited by some individuals to justify threats and attacks against law enforcement and critical infrastructure,” the bulletin said. “This also poses a threat to those civilians engaged in lawful or otherwise constitutionally protected activities.”

Reason to fear? Though police have tried to downplay violent threats and reassure the public, they cannot deny threats exist. A group called RbG Black Rebels has tweeted a picture of a hand holding a box of bullets with the caption “Pray for the best but prepare for the worst. 7.62cal will solve a lot of problems.” The Twitter account has encouraged people to tweet the locations of police officers and offered a $5,000 reward for information about Wilson’s whereabouts. A leader of the Black Rebels told the Post-Dispatch the reward was not a threat, but “We believe that the public has the right to know when there’s a killer cop staying next door to them.” The Ku Klux Klan has also threatened to respond to protesters with “lethal force.”

Lynde Langdon

Lynde is a WORLD Digital's managing editor. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, the Missouri School of Journalism, and the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Lynde resides with her family in Wichita, Kansas. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.

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