FERGUSON, Missouri – Missouri officials scrambled Tuesday to demonstrate law enforcement would be adequately prepared to handle unrest in this St. Louis suburb, which saw a night of chaos Monday in the wake of a grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.
The anger here over Brown’s death exploded Monday night in a wave of looting and vandalism. But that anger appeared to be intensified by a series of actions from authorities that have deepened a sense of alienation and distrust among many residents, especially younger ones.
That dynamic wasn’t new. Ever since the Aug. 9 events that cost Brown his life, the response to the crisis from leadership at all levels—from the governor to local officials to the prosecutor in charge of the case—has often seemed to many here tone-deaf, incompetent, or worse.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon pledged to ramp up the law enforcement presence Tuesday in Ferguson, including deploying 2,200 National Guardsmen to the area. “We will provide safety and security in the region,” Nixon said.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles said earlier Tuesday that Nixon’s decision to preemptively declare a state of emergency before the grand jury’s decision was announced left local officials with little ability to influence efforts, despite their efforts to do so. And Knowles offered a window into some of the failures of official leadership throughout the Ferguson crisis when he said he and Nixon haven’t talked since the summer. “I have not spoken to the governor since maybe the third week of August. I would appreciate being kept in the loop maybe a little better.”
Asked whether his relationship with Nixon was strained, Knowles said: “I don’t have enough of a relationship with the governor to say that it’s strained.”
On Monday night, as knots of young men smashed windows, robbed stores, and burned buildings and police cars in Ferguson and St. Louis, figures of authority stayed mostly out of sight. St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson didn’t appear to arrive on the scene until a 7:30 a.m. ET press conference, alongside Mayor Francis Slay, where he seemed to concede that officers had been too laissez-faire.
From now on, Dotson said, “you will see an intervention much more quickly than you did last night.” And he acknowledged: “Resources were overwhelmed.” Governor Jay Nixon on Tuesday afternoon said there would be more enforcement from the National Guard in the St. Louis region heading into a new night of potential violence.
The National Guard, whose presence in the region had been a subject of intense media focus in recent weeks, was mostly a bystander Monday evening.
Even federal officials, from Attorney General Eric Holder to President Obama himself, seemed to have little ability to influence events, their pleas for peace going unheeded. Holder’s Justice Department even had to provide assurances Tuesday that the federal civil rights probe of the shooting continues, despite the grand jury decision.
At least in Ferguson, the epicenter of the chaos, most individual police officers acted professionally, standing silent and impassive even when some protesters hurled, and sometimes glass bottles, in their direction. But the city’s leadership – Mayor James Knowles and Police Chief Thomas Jackson – appeared to be AWOL after protests erupted Monday night, sidelined long before by state and county leaders after missteps over the summer that fanned the flames of protest. And Gov. Jay Nixon disappeared from view after a late afternoon press conference, re-emerging on Twitter Tuesday morning.
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Monday evening also revived questions about St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch’s handling of the case. Some Ferguson residents wondered why he announced the news after dark at 8:30 p.m., suggesting he was seeking to encourage a violent response in order to discredit protesters. Others said that by dwelling at his press conference on the conflicting nature of the evidence, McCulloch seemed more like a defense lawyer for Wilson than a zealous prosecutor looking to build a case.
Authorities have said that the announcement was timed to avoid rush hour, when residents might be unable to avoid being out in public.
Already, McCulloch — who has close family ties to St. Louis police and whose police officer father was killed in the line of duty—was deeply distrusted by many in Ferguson. His very first decision in the case, to impanel a grand jury, triggered suspicion among Brown supporters, including the family’s legal team, who have argued there was enough evidence for McCulloch to indict Wilson right away.
McCulloch has said being impartial has not been a problem, and that he chose to convene a grand jury, which is not unusual in such cases, because of the complex nature of the evidence.
Ladeatria Pulliam, sitting at Starbucks Tuesday near last nights destruction, said on McCulloch: “I’m upset about it. It was like he was doing his job more on Darren Wilson’s side as opposed to really looking out for the young man (Brown).”
The grand jury process itself has been plagued by leaks that have further undermined confidence in the process. Last month, anonymous sources leaked to the news media information about the grand jury evidence that appeared supportive of Wilson’s defense.
Then there was Gov. Jay Nixon, a frequent target of criticism since Brown’s death. Perhaps more than any other single move, his announcement last week that he was declaring a state of emergency and calling in the National Guard in advance of a decision inflamed feelings among protesters.
“I think the message it sends is that when black people start organizing then it’s time for a state of emergency,” said Ashley Gray, as she walked in a protest march Sunday in the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis.
Throughout the months-long controversy, Nixon, a Democrat, has struggled to appear in command.
His stumbling, evasive answer when asked last week by a reporter whether the buck stopped with him — a softball question for most experienced politicians — went viral.
At a press conference a week after the shooting, Nixon gave a halting, hesitant performance, frequently relying for information on Capt. Ron Johnson of the state Highway Patrol — one of the few officials to have received widespread praise for his performance during the crisis.
And in August, Nixon engaged in a days-long back-and-forth with McCulloch over whether the prosecutor should step aside, amid claims that his personal ties to police might prevent him from being impartial. At times Nixon appeared to be hoping that McCulloch would do so, without wanting to take responsibility for removing him.
On a conference call with church leaders Monday afternoon in advance of the grand jury announcement, Nixon referred awkwardly to his underwhelming public persona, and acknowledged that he has not received rave reviews.
“Knowing that there are people of faith behind me that are both tolerant of my uh, sometimes, uh not being able to say the right word like right here or whatever, but praying for me really helps,” the governor said, adding: “I’d just note that of all the critics I have out there, very very few of them are coming up with concrete plans for what to do.”
Ferguson officials have received similar criticism — when they have been involved in events at all. It took several days after Brown’s death for Ferguson police to release clear information on the encounter between Wilson and the unarmed teen. When police announced that Brown had taken cigars from a nearby store not long before he was shot, many residents accused them of trying to assassinate Brown’s character after his death. Police then gave conflicting accounts as to whether Wilson was aware that the cigars had been taken at time of the encounter between the two men.
More recently, Police Chief Thomas Jackson suggested that Wilson would be returned to active duty if he’s not indicted. Amid outrage from Brown’s supporters, Jackson then backtracked.
The city’s mayor, James Knowles, also has failed to inspire confidence in many residents. In an August interview, he said part of the problem was that many people in Ferguson rent their homes and move frequently. Those comments angered some black residents, who are more likely than whites to rent.
Even the local schools have at times caused headaches for residents. After the Jennings School District closed schools for this week with only a few days warning, some parents — including one who works at McDonald’s — had to take their kids with them on the job.