FERGUSON, Missouri — Long gone are the searing hot days of August, when protesters angrily took to the streets over the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer. The sting of tear gas has dissipated, replaced by the bone-numbing chill of a rare November freeze. After 12 weeks, the grand jury hearing the case of Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown Jr. on a hot, summer afternoon appears on the verge of a decision.
To indict or not to indict, that’s the question that has a city and an entire region swept up in a swirl of tension and anxiety.On Thursday morning, the man many believe is the last witness to go before the grand jury marched into the Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton and offered testimony before the 12 St. Louis County residents charged with determining Wilson’s fate.
Hours after Dr. Michael Baden, a renowned forensic pathologist who performed an autopsy of Brown at the behest of the slain teen’s family, a group of Brown’s supporters gathered in a second-floor office space on W. Florissant Avenue, what was ground-zero in some of the most fiery confrontations between protesters and police in the wake of Brown’s death.
“No matter what the decision is we’re going to continue holding up a mirror to America,” said Brittany Ferrell, a nursing student and activist with Millennial Activists United, a group formed in response to Brown’s death.
Ferrell stood with a handful of other protesters mulling a post-indictment or non-indictment future. Of the more than half-dozen young people gathered in the Ferguson offices of Hands Up United, a coalition that has advocated for justice for Brown – but also an end to what the group believes are myriad abuses by police and other institutions heaped on blacks – none believed an indictment would be issued.
“I don’t even know what if feels like to be an American,” said Alexis Templeton, another member of Millennial Activist United. Templeton said the early and heavy-handed response by police to protesters, the many official leaks to media among other things has amplified that feeling.
The rumor mill has been actively churning out vague details about when the grand jury would or could announce it’s decision. Late on Thursday afternoon, not long after Baden left the justice center, organizers and activists were swept into a rush. An email and text chain claimed that Brown’s family was given notice that an announcement would be imminent.
It was unclear where the rumor had originated, but it seemed solid enough to spread, one organizer confessed to msnbc. But one of the Brown family’s lawyers, Anthony Gray, told msnbc in a text message the rumor wasn’t true. When asked about the family being given notice, he replied with a simple, “No.”
That’s the current environment in Ferguson. After nearly 100 days of protests, hurt, and uncertainty, everyone seems on edge waiting for word on the grand jury’s decision.
“This will be a defining moment of the history of the state of Missouri,” Benjamin Crump, another Brown family attorney said on Thursday. Crump, who also served as an attorney for the family of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen shot and killed in 2012 by a former neighborhood watch volunteer in an Orlando, Fla., suburb, then urged dignity and peace, no matter what the grand jury’s decision. Crump described the Brown family’s fight for justice a long and arduous one.
Officer Wilson shot and killed Brown, 18, on Aug. 9, after what police say was a struggle over Wilson’s weapon. Police have said Wilson told them he feared for his life, according to a New York Times report citing anonymous government officials briefed on the case. A number of witnesses to the shooting refute the police narrative, claiming instead that Wilson fired on Brown as the teen attempted to flee the officer, delivering the fatal gunshots as Brown turned to surrender with his hands up.
Baden’s testimony comes just over 12 weeks since the grand jury first convened to hear evidence in Brown’s case following the teen’s death. County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s office has said officials do not expect a final decision from the grand jury on whether to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson until mid- to late-November.
But with Baden’s testimony nearing the end of McCulloch’s projected timeline, the attorneys said they believed the grand jury process was approaching its final stages.
“We gain a sense that we’re reaching the end of the road as it relates to witnesses,” attorney Anthony Gray said.
People throughout the St. Louis metropolitan region are hunkering down in anticipation of the possibility of renewed protests once the grand jury reaches its decision on Wilson’s fate. “Regardless of the decision of the grand jury, this will be a defining moment of the history of the state of Missouri,” attorney Benjamin Crump said.
Brown’s death triggered a series of protests in August marked by escalating tensions between demonstrators and law enforcement officials.
Attorney General Eric Holder spoke with local, state and federal elected officials over a conference call Wednesday for the latest in planning for the local response if fresh rounds of protests break out.
The attorney general responded to a question from NBC News on Thursday about Ferguson. “Certainly we want to make sure that people who have First Amendment Rights have the ability to protest as they deem appropriate, while at the same time making sure that we protect people in law enforcement and that we minimize the chances that any legitimate protest devolves into violence,” Holder said.
City, state and local law enforcement officers plan to operate as a unified command, with the Missouri National Guard on standby for aid, Gov. Jay Nixon announced this week. A thousand officers have received specialized training to prepare for potential unrest, while authorities have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on new weapons.
In a press conference unveiling details of law enforcement preparations ahead of the grand jury decision, Nixon condemned violence by protesters who looted and set fire to local businesses in August, and warned against any future criminal activity.
But on Thursday, the attorneys for the Brown family said the aggressive action over the summer went both ways, with police firing rubber bullets and rounds of teargas into once peaceful crowds.
“Law enforcement should have been equally condemned by the governor for this conduct at the same time he was admonishing the demonstrators,” Gray said. “A strong message of zero tolerance should have been conveyed to all.”
Half a world away, Brown’s parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr., are wrapping up an appearance in Geneva, Switzerland, before the United Nations Committee Against Torture to call for peace and accountability from police not only in their son’s case, but across the U.S.
“We are praying for an indictment. To me, that would mean that they did do their investigation fairly and it was unbiased,” McSpadden said Wednesday of police.
PHOTO ESSAY: How the crisis in Ferguson unfolded, in photographs
As the Brown family returns to their home in the suburbs of St. Louis, protest groups are orchestrating plans of their own to maintain support for the slain teen once the grand jury makes its decision.
Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, who has emerged as a leader in the movement, said groups are holding training sessions for protesters in what they call “militant non-violent civil disobedience” against a potential aggressive response by the police.
“This is not about a few bad apples,” Sekou said, “but a rotten system.”