The Nasty Truth About Missouri's Preemptive 'State of Emergency'

Authorities handling unrest in Ferguson have demonstrated repeatedly they're incapable of maintaining order while respecting civil rights.
county police

Here's some terrible news: Gov. Jay Nixon announced that Missouri would pre-emptively enter a State of Emergency on Monday, announcing that National Guard units would be present after the delivery of an upcoming grand jury decision. The grand jury is widely expected to exonerate Officer Darrell Wilson, who shot and killed 18-year-old black man Michael Brown in Ferguson in August. While Nixon denied that he had any insight into the outcome of the federal and state investigations into the circumstances of Brown's death, the message was pretty clear: Wilson will likely not be charged, and we anticipate that riots in Ferguson and other black neighborhoods are likely to be bad enough to warrant the involvement of the militia.

Here's how TheWashington Postreported the development:

“Regardless of the outcomes of the federal and state criminal investigations, there is the possibility of expanded unrest,” Nixon said in an executive order. “The state of Missouri will be prepared to appropriately respond to any reaction to these announcements.”

Nixon said in the order he directed the Missouri State Highway Patrol, St. Louis County Police Department, and St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department to “operate as a Unified Command to protect civil rights” and put the St. Louis County Police Department in charge of security in Ferguson related to protest areas and demonstrations.

He also said the adjutant general of the Missouri could “call and order into active service such portions of the organized militia as he deems necessary to protect life and property.”

As Esquire's Charles P. Pierce writes, rather than maintaining general readiness for social unrest Nixon is pretty clearly choosing sides. St. Louis County Police will be in charge of the Unified Command just a few months after removing that same agency from Ferguson. It's also pre-empting a likely federal investigation to ensure whatever outcome is announced this week was reached properly. Leaks favoring Officer Wilson's side of events were described by the DOJ as involving "an inappropriate effort to influence public opinion about this case."

The state of emergency seems designed to reassure practically nobody and assumes that a violent outcome is inevitable. Unfortunately, pretty much everyone seems to be bracing for just that - including the FBI, which issued an assessment warning that "exploitation" of popular sentiments could enable extremists to infiltrate protests with "bladed weapons or firearms, equipped with tactical gear/gas masks, or bulletproof vests to mitigate law enforcement measures."

Even the DHS is in town:

The SLCPD and mayor Francis Slay have assured the St. Louis area that the National Guard is there to keep the peace, not respond to violence. But the SLCPD is bad enough. Just months ago the agency was caught aggressively arresting reporters covering the protests, while it now claims it's interested in protecting everyone's civil rights. Amnesty International has accused the SLCPD of human rights violations. The SLCPD also lied to the FAA to ban news helicopters from covering police actions.

Mayor Slay says they've  "learned a lot," but it looks like they've decided to stay the course with a few alternations. This basically precludes the possibility of compromise with protesters, who by and large desire to have their voices heard, not riot. The biggest protest group is the Don't Shoot Coalition, representing over 50 organizations. It attempted to negotiate peaceful passage and seems about as committed to non-violence as possible given the circumstances. Several activists in the Coalition spoke to TheNew York Times:

"We've come to the conclusion that we really don’t want violence," said one organizer with Lost Voices, who goes by the name Bud Cuzz. "We want to fix this. We still want to fight to make the laws change. We still want to raise awareness. But we don't want the city to turn upside down."


[Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment organizer Derek Laney] said: "We want to appear strong and forceful because we believe in what we’re pursuing. But we also definitely want everyone to know we’re committed to nonviolence. We want to disrupt. We want to make the comfortable uncomfortable."

The angry minority who have made threats of violence are still out there and pose a risk to public safety, cop and protester alike. But there wasn't anywhere near as much attention given to Ku Klux Klan members who threatened to march in St. Louis and  use "lethal force as provided under Missouri Law to defend ourselves." Meanwhile, the Don't Shoot Coalition's plans are to remain as peaceful as possible. Even if there's been serious consideration of the role local cops played in turning the Ferguson protests violent, as Nixon claims, the promise of safety rests almost on local authorities' very uneasy credibility.

For the protesters, pessimism is the logcal choice. American police agencies have a statistically documented tendency to crack down on protests involving black people. Specifically, researchers led by political scientist Christian Davenport studied 30 years of protests and concluded that "African American protesters are more likely to draw police presence and once police are present they are more likely to make arrests, use force and violence, and use force and violence in combination with arrests at African American protest events."

A state of emergency could easily backfire if reactionary authorities turn a strained situation into a very bad one. During the original protests in August, civil rights activists including lawyer Purvi Shah reported that cops in Ferguson fired tear gas at and moved to disperse peaceful protesters hours before a midnight curfew.

Then there's the continued affront that black protesters continue to be met with the timeless force of state power. Depending on what you catch coming out of the horses' mouth, the racial bogeymen of today aren't so different from those of the past. St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar literally cited the possibility of Black Panther and communist terrorism as justification for the enhanced security measures to CBS St. Louis, adding:

"We do have concerns about that. We’re seeing on the social media, there's a lot of threats out there against police officers. Again, we’re trying to discern which of those are legitimate and which are not ... I have a feeling 99 percent of them are not going to amount to anything, but you know what? It just takes one."

Somehow I suspect that in the few months between the violence in August and today, the SLCPD has not reformed its policy of using a few bad apples as an excuse to fire tear gas at the rest. Pierce argues all the talk of looming violence and police reform will is designed to create an atmosphere in which "almost anything the police do in response" to the upcoming court decision "will be treated as justified," and it's tough not to disagree.

Either way it must feel pretty awful to have the odds so thoroughly stacked against you, backed up by the immense power of riot police and state militia. In August, Pew Research Center found that 76% of  black Americans had little to no confidence in the outcome of the investigation into Brown's death, while 65% thought that the police response to the shooting went too far. After the first round of protests met rampant aggression from the authorities, there's probably few people left in Ferguson who believe the authorities won't use similar tactics against protesters now. To residents of St. Louis and surrounding cities justifiably suspicious of the cops, this could all be the pretext to another beatdown.

Obviously none of this justifies looting or violence, and the decision of the grand jury has to be respected even if it inspires protest. But the reality is that the authorities handling unrest in Ferguson have demonstrated repeatedly they're incapable of maintaining order while respecting civil rights. So while there's still a chance the authorities could rise to the occasion and let this high-tension situation pass with the minimum of trouble, there's pretty good reason to be skeptical they won't bungle it again.

Follow me on Twitter @thetomzone.

For more on Ferguson, read a first-hand account of what it's like to be subject to excessive force by Banter's own Chez Pazienza.