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With Grand Jury Decision Looming, Nixon Declares State Of Emergency

Ferguson public safety press conference, 11-11-14. Belmar, Dotson, Ron Johnson, Isom, Bret Johnson, Replogle
(UPI/Bill Greenblatt)

(Updated at 9 p.m., Mon., Nov. 17)

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has declared a state of emergency and called out the National Guard to protect “the two pillars: safety and speech’’ that he says could be tested in the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision regarding the August police shooting that killed teenager Michael Brown. 

"Our goal is to keep the peace and allow folks' voices to be heard,'' Nixon said Monday night in a conference call with reporters.

The grand jury's decision is expected within days, as are the results of a federal probe into the shooting by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. The grand jury will recommend whether Wilson should be charged with a state crime for Brown's death.  The Justice Department is investigating whether Wilson violated Brown's civil rights.

Nixon told reporters that his actions represent "a predictable, natural step forward to plan for contingencies'' — and are not aimed at adding fuel to already heightened tensions.  At noontime in Clayton, for example, about 100 protesters briefly blocked intersections as part of a demonstration to highlight their fears that Wilson won't be charged.

"My hope and expectation is that peace will prevail,'' the governor said. But he emphasized that it's his job to prepare for the possibility that it will not.

Nixon declined to say how many National Guard troops will be activated, and where they might be stationed or deployed. But he did reaffirm earlier statements that the Guard will serve in a support role and not be the primary law enforcement agency dealing with protests.

That primary job, in the city of Ferguson, will be handled by St. Louis County police, he said. The Ferguson police will be charged with dealing with "routine calls'' unrelated to any protests.

In St. Louis, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department will be in charge with handling any law-enforcement actions to address any possible protests.

U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay, D-University City, and Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City, issued a joint statement late Monday — along with Ferguson pastor F. Willis Johnson Jr. — that calls for police restraint and understanding. "Local law enforcement and leaders must not respond to anger with calls for silence, but with acknowledgement and empathy," they wrote.

"As Ferguson stands on the precipice of pandemonium, one foot on solid ground, one foot shaky and searching, all that is needed to send it off a cliff is a hurling of an epithet, a clumsy police reaction to a protester in full bluster, a misplaced word or deed," the officials and pastor continued. "Violence begets violence. Hatred begets hatred. We, as local and national leaders, warn that violence and counter-violence is Lucifer’s most lethal luxuriant."

County police to be in charge in Ferguson

In his executive order, issued earlier Monday, Nixon wrote that citizens have the right to assemble peacefully, but citizens and businesses must be protected from violence and damage.   

The executive order formally codifies the unified command, in which the St. Louis County and St. Louis' police departments, along with the Missouri State Highway Patrol, will be in charge of the law enforcement response to any protests that might erupt. It also keeps the St. Louis County police in charge of policing any protests in Ferguson.  

Nixon stumbled Monday night when asked if the executive order meant he was ultimately responsible for the law enforcement response to protests.

"“I don’t – I mean, I’m more …. I don’t spend a tremendous amount of time personalizing this vis-à-vis me," he said, with several long pauses. "I’m trying to make sure that we move forward in a predictable, peaceful manner."

Snow on the memorials to Mike Brown on the day Nixon declared a pre-emptive state of emergency.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio
Snow gathers on the memorials to Michael Brown in the Canfield Green apartments on Nov. 17.

The declaration is not a surprise. Nixon said at a news conference last week that the National Guard had been helping the three police agencies develop their plans. 

A spokesman for St. Louis County Prosecutor  Bob McCulloch, who is overseeing the grand jury investigation, said the prosecutor and his staff have not spoken to the governor. Spokesman Ed Magee reaffirmed McCulloch's earlier statement of several weeks ago that the grand jury decision will come out in mid-to-late November.

Monday saw a renewed call from some protesters for Nixon to use his emergency powers and replace McCulloch with a special prosecutor.  Critics of McCulloch, who is white, question whether he can be impartial because his father, a police officer, was killed in 1964 by a black man. McCulloch has discounted such comments, citing his previous probes of police shootings.

Slay emphasizes Guard's 'secondary role'

Nixon did not disclose the number of National Guard troops who will be deployed, or where they will be sent. But St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said in St. Louis, the National Guard would serve a secondary role if needed, guarding such things as shopping centers and government buildings.

"They’ll not be on the front lines dealing with protesters, under any circumstance, except if some kind of a major, major issue came up where they were needed," Slay said.  A spokeswoman for St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said she expected the Guard would be used in similar ways in the county. The Guard will be under the unified command once they arrive in St. Louis.

Not everyone supported the governor's decision. State Rep. Brandon Ellington, the Kansas City Democrat who chairs the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, said local police departments should be able to keep the peace in their cities.

"And if the police department is not adequate, there should be investigations," Ellington said. "Why do you have officers that cannot maintain public safety and respect the rights of citizens of Ferguson? Why is it a necessity that we have to bring in the National Guard to do the job that a local police department should be doing?"

State Sen. Maria Chapelle-Nadal, D-University City, a frequent and fierce critic of the governor despite their shared party affiliation, posted a letter on Twitter she sent to President Barack Obama asking that all National Guard troops in Missouri be placed under federal control.

Reaction in Ferguson

At the Ferguson Burger Bar on West Florissant Avenue, every patron turned to watch the governor’s announcement lead the nightly national news.

Charles Davis, who owns the restaurant with his wife, said he’s putting his faith in the community when the decision is announced. 

"I just pray that everything will be OK. I know a lot of people are going to be unhappy. I’ll be unhappy, because I already feel like I know what it is. The writing’s been on the wall for a long time," Davis said.

The Ferguson Burger Bar is one of only a few businesses on the street where the owner has chosen not to board up its windows. Davis said he has kept his doors open throughout the protests and allowed people to take shelter inside from time to time, paying for their food if they found themselves without money.

“The community needs a beacon, a light. A brighter something, and I’m going to try and be that,” Davis said.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.