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Local Leaders Respond To Grand Jury's Non-Indictment

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon speaking Monday at a news conference before the grand jury announcement on Monday, Nov 25, 2014
Bill Greenblatt | UPI | File photo

Within minutes after St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced that the grand jury did not recommend that Darren Wilson face indictment for the shooting death of Michael Brown, reactions from area politicians came quickly. 

Before and after the grand jury’s decision was made public, area officials made clear Monday night that they understood the stakes.

"Together, we are all focused on making sure the necessary resources are at hand to protect lives, protect property and protect free speech," said Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon during a news conference prior to the announcement Monday night.

At that same event, St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said "now is the time to show the world" that protesters and their critics can react without violence.

In a statement, St. Louis County Executive-elect Steven Stenger said “we must come together and move forward as one community, focused on positive change.”

“Today’s decision by the grand jury causes pain to many in our community, pain that goes beyond the outcome of this case,” Stenger said. “It is now the time to begin the process of mending divided communities. Many voices have been heard on the important issues involved. We must continue to listen  —but we must also be prepared to act.”

St. Louis County Executive-elect Steve Stenger said his transition into his new office is going much more smoothly than last week.
Credit Rebecca Smith, St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive-elect Steve Stenger.

Stenger aroused the ire of some protesting Brown’s death by sticking with McCulloch during the general election campaign. Stenger ended up defeating Republican Rick Stream by a small margin.

In his statement, Stenger said that “work is underway to form a government for our county that is truly representative of and for all of its many residents.”

“Real and lasting change can only come from non-violent, peaceful dialogue coupled with positive action that brings us together rather than divides us,” he added.

Congressional delegation reacts

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-University City, said in a statement soon after the announcement that he was disappointed, but not surprised, by the grand jury's decision.

Clay said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder "has assured me that the ongoing federal investigations will be extensive, vigorous, and will follow the facts, wherever they lead. The pursuit of justice for Michael Brown, Jr. and his family is not over."

But, Clay added, "While I share the anger and frustration of so many in our community, I ask everyone to be peaceful. Be prayerful.

"And remain disciplined and dignified in everything that we must now do as we go forward together to confront the huge disparities that continue to deny equal protection under the law for persons of color in our region, and across this nation. That is the best way to honor Michael Brown’s memory.”

U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, said in a statement, "We must have faith in our judicial system and that all the facts led the grand jury to a just and fair decision. Now it's time for us all to heal together as a community ..."

Other local leaders weigh in

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal ± who represents Ferguson in the state Senate — said the anger over Brown’s death is “unresolved at this point.”

“And I do believe that there are some, still, that would like to sweep this under the rug,” Chappelle-Nadal said in an interview. “Again, what is important is to understand why people are angry and they’re hurting. It did not start on Aug. 9. There has been a systematic effort by some, not all, but a systematic effort to degrade, ignore and leave zero opportunity to minority people and young people.”

State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City
Credit Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Public Radio
State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, speaking with St. Louis Public Radio in October.

Chappelle-Nadal went onto say “there are so many people who are comfortable with the status quo and the establishment.” And this “movement is about ensuring that those that are so comfortable are also awakened.”

“We’re going to have to move forward,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “And we’re going to have to be honest. This movement is multi-racial. It’s multi-cultural. It is about justice. About fairness. About equality. About respect. And there are too many people from the top on down who don’t have any respect for people who struggle and who are targeted every single day.”

Chappelle-Nadal wasn't the only state representative to express a mixture of dismay and hope. St. Louis County Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, said she was “numb” by the decision not to indict Wilson.

“Nothing happened as a result of that child’s death,” Erby said in a telephone interview. “No one has resigned. No one has been fired. No one has been charged with anything. So, of course the people are not satisfied. I’m not satisfied. Because there’s no been no consequences. None.”

Erby said she felt “helpless in this whole situation.”

“I think what we need to do is just make sure that we have faith,” Erby said. “I hope the protesters don’t give up. I don’t believe they will. I hope will continue to protest peacefully. I hope that legislators, all of us will continue to fight for justice to make sure that this doesn’t happen again. It’s difficult when this happens.”

Ferguson Township Committeewoman Patricia Bynes said that she wasn’t surprised by the decision. She said “historically we know that police officers don’t ever seem to be indicted or ever held accountable” when they take somebody’s life.

It's OK to be frustrated at the justice system. But it's not OK to destroy properties and damage businesses and burn down businesses. I don't think that's going to solve the problem that needs to be solved -- the systemic problem that we have to deal with. -Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis.

“There seem to be two messages here,” Bynes said in a phone interview. “One: Some people do not understand that the reason why people are protesting is not just about this one case. This is bigger than this. Even within the St. Louis region, we’ve had two other police officer-involved killings. People are tired of being killed by the police and there seems to be no accountability for what’s taking place.”

Bynes said she plans to continue working to get people around north St. Louis County engaged with their local government. She added that “I hope that I’m too busy trying to work on change to continue to just be angry.”

“We’re fighting for our lives,” Bynes said. “I’m fighting for my life. I’m fighting for the life of the kids I plan on having in the future. I have to fight this. This is wrong. We’ve got to work on laws. We’ve got to work on policy. We’ve got to work on engagement.”

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said that she wants the legislature to alter the laws that deal with the use of force by police officers. But she added that she was “calling on the protesters to be peaceful and act in a non-violent manner.”

“It’s OK to be frustrated at the justice system,” Nasheed said in a phone interview. “But it’s not OK to destroy properties and damage businesses and burn down businesses. I don’t think that’s going to solve the problem that needs to be solved — the systemic problem that we have to deal with.”

Congressional comments careful, taking no sides

U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., each praised the legal process, while also avoiding any criticism of non-violent protests.

Said McCaskill in a statement, “There will be many people who are disappointed in today’s decision, even though it is a result of a deliberate legal process that’s being independently checked by Attorney General Eric Holder and the U.S. Justice Department. While we await the conclusion of that independent investigation — and continue working together for solutions to systemic issues highlighted by this tragedy — I’m praying that the good people of St. Louis and local law enforcement will remain peaceful and respectful of one another."

Blunt said, “We must balance the rights of Americans to exercise their free speech alongside the rights of people to live peacefully and safely in their communities. I join Michael Brown’s family in urging protestors to do so peacefully."

The senator also touched on concerns that he and others, including McCaskill, had earlier expressed regarding the law enforcement response. 

"I’ve talked extensively to law enforcement officials to learn more about the tactics, resources, and procedures that our first responders utilize statewide," Blunt said. "Law enforcement officials have been candid in identifying ways officers could have handled the situation in Ferguson better, and I trust those recommendations will be helpful as we continue to count on them to protect us."

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster was among those calling for attention on the broader issues of race and inequality. "The death of Michael Brown has caused every Missourian to reflect deeply on divides that continue to exist within our state," said Koster, a Democrat. "While Missouri’s law enforcement community is professional and dedicated to protecting our state’s citizens, these events call on all leaders to explore solutions that increase confidence and communication across those divides.  The most lasting lessons of Ferguson are yet to be realized."

Dooley, in a response issued after the grand jury announcement, offered up a succinct assessment of the broader challenges. “The grand jury has done its work," the county executive said. "And now, we must do ours. "

Groups for police, protesters respond

Some reactions to the grand jury announcement focused on next steps. The Ferguson Commission, created and tasked by Gov. Nixon to study the conditions brought into focus after Brown's death, said they would work on the "difficult challenges we face in our region."

"We will listen, focus on the underlying issues, and work toward practical and lasting solutions," said commission co-chairs Rev. Starsky Wilson and Rich McClure in a joint statement. "We believe in our community’s ability to rise to this challenge. There is a lot of energy on this issue in the community that we hope to see channeled into the Commission's work."

Law enforcement supporters and protest groups, as well as religious leaders, also weighed in on how to move forward.

The Don’t Shoot Coalition released a statement saying it will redouble its efforts to "demand police and criminal justice system reforms."

It called for a "thorough Federal investigation of possible criminal violations by Officer Wilson," as well as amnesty for protesters participating in civil disobedience and reforms in police practices and the criminal justice system.

Meanwhile, the St. Louis Police Wives Association said in a statement that it is collecting emergency supplies and food donations to support officers on the front lines during "this crisis in the Greater St. Louis Metropolitan area." 

The association said its supplies are near depletion and it is "in desperate need" for items like energy drinks, instant hand warmers, and grab-and-go protein snacks." It also said it is accepting monetary donations.

"We are extremely grateful to the local community, and supporters from all over the country," said the association's Hope Jones in the statement. "Our appreciation for their continued support, donations and words of encouragement cannot be overstated."

Archbishop Robert Carlson of the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis issued a challenge to the community, in a statement. He asked that: people "commit to learning how to truly love each other"; for youth to reject violence and embrace peace; for prayer; and for local leaders in the politics, law enforcement and spiritual realms to be "instruments of peace."

People of color have been harassed and killed all over this country for decades. This is just one piece of a large more systemic issue that elected officials have so far refused to address. They don't 'serve and protect' us, they are killing us. — Organization for Black Struggle chair Montague Simmons.

Metropolitan Clergy United  said while they felt the decision would further divide the community, it also called on County Executive-elect Stenger to hold a regional equity summit in the next month. They said the meeting should look to find long-term solutions to end "excessive traffic fines" and promote community policing. 

But other groups were still reeling from the decision. One of the Don't Shoot coalition members, the Organization for Black Struggle, said in a statement that McCulloch had "failed the community" and the decision is "terrible proof about how little value the justice system in this country places on the lives of Black and Brown people." 

"People of color have been harassed and killed all over this country for decades," said chair Montague Simmons in the statement. "This is just one piece of a large more systemic issue that elected officials have so far refused to address. They don’t 'serve and protect' us, they are killing us."

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