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In Anticipation Of Potential Unrest, Schools, Businesses And Activists Prepare

Sam's Meat Market in Ferguson. November 21, 2014
Maria Altman / St. Louis Public Radio

As the wait goes on for an announcement by the Darren Wilson grand jury, people, businesses and organizations are taking steps to prepare for possible unrest. There are random anecdotes of parents preparing to bring their children home early from school, and businesses developing plans for locking down under duress.

But there are also more concrete plans in the works.

School closings

The Jennings School District has called off classes on Monday and Tuesday of next week because of the potential for unrest. That will extend  the district's Thanksgiving break to a full week.

Aletterdated Friday from Superintendent Tiffany Anderson noted that the district “remained a peaceful place during the Ferguson unrest” at the start of the school year, though Jennings did call off classes for one day “out of an abundance of caution,” noting that police had set up their command post within the district’s boundaries.

The street where Brown was shot and killed by police office Darren Wilson on Aug. 9 is near the Jennings school district, where students walk to school because no bus service is provided. 

In her letter to Jennings parents, Anderson noted events that have been held to take note of the events following Brown’s death.

“As a district,” she said, “we believe that it is important we teach students ways to discuss and become involved in matters impacting their community. However, we also want to remind our students of the importance of becoming involved in nonviolent, peaceful ways that ultimately uplift the community overall.”

Though schools will be closed Monday and Tuesday as well as the rest of the week, as previously scheduled, Anderson said that breakfast and lunch would be provided for students at two central locations, Jennings High School and Fairview Elementary School.

The district has also established a help line, 314-653-8000, for mental-health services or other family resources; it will be monitored for one week starting Saturday. Jennings also released a list of agencies that can provide services.

Also, Anderson said, the computer lab at the Jennings Civic Center will be available from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday for students who want to access classroom information. Most materials are available online, she said, and homework packets are being sent home with students in grades kindergarten through 8 as they have been all year.

Tiffany Anderson
Credit Jennings School District
Tiffany Anderson

“While we recognize that closing school may pose an inconvenience for some families,” Anderson concluded, “our philosophy is that we can always make up a school day if it insures the safety of our students. We do hope that the additional resources provide support to our families while school is closed. We thank you for your support and cooperation as we make school closing decisions.”

Anderson did not immediately respond to a question about whether she had been given any advance notice about when the grand jury might announce its decision about whether charges would be lodged against Wilson in the death of Brown.

And as rumor swirled about an imminent grand jury announcement Friday afternoon, as of 2:30 p.m. no other school district had announced changes in its class schedule for next week.

Prosecutors have said they expect the grand jury to wrap up their work and announce whether or not an indictment would be issued by the end of the month; tensions have grown as the days went by without any word, particularly after Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency earlier this week and said National Guard troops would be available to patrol the St. Louis area.

Last month, a number of school superintendents in north St. Louis County asked Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch not to announce the grand jury decision while school is in session, to make sure that students could arrive home safely.

McCulloch’s office has said the request was under consideration.

At the start of the school year, which occurred shortly after Brown’s death, when unrest was at its peak, several north county school districts canceled classes for one or more days.

The announcement by Jennings comes as schools — both public school districts and colleges and universities — have been revising emergency plans and advising faculty, staff and students about possible precautions.

In most cases, higher education institutions have urged everyone involved to sign up for alerts by phone, email or text. They have not shared their plans with the public.

The University of Missouri-St. Louis will be closed for holiday break after classes end Saturday. Dan Kimack, spokesman for the St. Louis Community College system, said the school does not expect to have to close any of its campuses, including Florissant Valley, which is closest to Ferguson.

Ferguson small businesses

Small business owners in Ferguson say they’re standing with protesters but are asking residents to help prevent any violence or looting.

That was the message they delivered at a press conference Friday morning in front of Sam’s Meat Market, a store that was looted twice in August.

“We will wake up tomorrow and next week and next month right here in this community. So, we need to decide what that community will be tomorrow, and next week and next month,” said Jay Kanzler, an attorney representing the owner of Sam’s Meat Market and several other business owners along West Florissant Avenue.

Kanzler has been critical of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and the Missouri Highway Patrol’s efforts to prevent looting in the days following Michael Brown’s death.

Attorney Jay Kanzler, surrounded by Ferguson business owners, talking to reporters on Friday, Nov. 21.
Credit Maria Altman / St. Louis Public Radio
Attorney Jay Kanzler, surrounded by Ferguson business owners, talking to the press on Friday, Nov. 21.

“I am confident that this time around the governor, the state patrol, the St. Louis County Police, the local authorities will do the right thing and allow the peaceful protesters all the leeway they need to get their message out,” he said. “But they will not allow the few agitators that came in and wanted to start violence to take control of the protests and damage people and property.”

The owners and employees at the businesses said they’re hopeful the protests will remain non-violent, but nearly every shop is boarded up. One exception is the barbershop, Clip Appeal.

Barber Buffi Blanchard said they took their plywood boards down from the windows and are keeping them in the back.

“Whenever the verdict comes down, whatever it may be, depending on what kind of situation happens we may have to put them back up,” she said. “But we’re hoping and praying we can keep those board down and just keep living life here in Ferguson.”

Brown family, Disciples of Justice

Anthony Gray, an attorney for the family of Michael Brown, reiterated the family’s call for peace at a press conference Friday. That’s after Brown’s father, Michael Brown, Sr., put out a video calling for calm, regardless of what decision is made by the grand jury in the Ferguson Officer Darren Wilson case.

Rev. Carlton Lee, president of the Ferguson chapter of the National Action Network, discusses the role a group called the Disciples of Justice will play in maintaining peace during any protests that may happen once a grand jury decision is announced.
Credit Stephanie Lecci, St. Louis Public Radio
Rev. Carlton Lee, president of the Ferguson chapter of the National Action Network, discusses the role a group called the Disciples of Justice will play in maintaining peace during any protests that may happen once a grand jury decision is announced.

He also announced that the family supports the efforts of a group commissioned by Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network to keep peace on the streets during any demonstrations that may come.

The group called the Disciples of Justice will maintain “internal peace, order and decorum” among protesters, Gray said – a goal that is in line with the Brown family’s wishes.

“They wanted me to make it crystal clear: they do not advocate any violence, any looting, any rioting,” Gray said. “They are totally against that, and joining with the Disciples of Justice today is another sign from this family that they stand by this commitment to this community.”

Disciples of Justice director Eddie Hassaun said about 50 people have signed up so far to monitor police interactions and prevent violent reactions during any demonstrations.

"This is the wishes of the family,” Hassaun said, wearing a Disciples of Justice t-shirt. “This is the wishes of most of the people in the community is that we do peaceful demonstrations, and hopefully and prayerfully, that message get across to the people that demonstrating."

Hassaun said the group has been out during protests since the day of Brown’s death, August 9. There have been other groups present during those protests, including a self-identified “Peacekeepers” group, and Hassaun said the Disciples will work with anyone “that’s out here for peace.”

Hassaun said the group has trained on how to “hold yourself in check and not to get too emotionally involved and be able to give out the message.” He said that includes learning how to not resist arrest and preventing violent outbursts and reactions by protesters. But Hassaun said the group will not be an "arm for the police" by identifying any agitators to authorities.

“We going to just try to pullt hem to the side and say, ‘Brother, sister, let’s not put a damper on this,’” he said. “Because this is a struggle that's bigger than us breaking in something. I think that we can get more out of the whole situation right now than we can with you breaking in the store."

The group will also use cameras to record and monitor what Hassaun said has been “heavy handed” police actions. He said a commitment to peace must go both ways.

"We looking for the police department, the National Guard, Homeland Security to be as equally committed to peaceful demonstrations,” he said.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.
Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.