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Ferguson's businesses prepare for the worst

Local stores are boarding up windows and bracing for violence if Darren Wilson isn't charged. "It's going to be on the level of Rodney King," says one employee.
Plywood covers the glass front of a strip mall along West Florissant Street on Nov. 14, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.
Plywood covers the glass front of a strip mall along West Florissant Street on Nov. 14, 2014 in Ferguson, Mo.

FERGUSON, Mo. -- Businesses here are preparing for the worst, now that Gov. Jay Nixon has declared a state of emergency and protesters are planning action ahead of a looming grand jury decision in the case of the police shooting death of Michael Brown.

Despite the frigid temperatures, some workers are expecting violence even worse than the looting and isolated rioting last summer if prosecutors don’t indict Darren Wilson, the local police officer who shot and killed the unarmed teen in August. Store employees have described an atmosphere of increased tension and stress as they wait for the impending announcement and what it could bring.

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“I’m thinking it’s going to be on the level of Rodney King,” said Antoine Harrison, who works at a T-Mobile store on West Florissant Avenue. He was referring to the violent 1992 riots sparked by a jury’s acquittal of a group of Los Angeles police officers caught on camera viciously beating an unarmed black man.

“You’re going to have more looting, probably some buildings burning down, probably some people vandalizing buildings and wrecking people’s homes," Harrison said. 

Harrison said he is afraid of a “race war,” adding, “It’s going to be more than just justice for Mike Brown.”

Those fears are why the store where Harrison works, and most of the others on the Florissant strip, have been pre-emptively boarded up, despite remaining open, creating an eerie, almost siege-like work environment.

Among those is the Sprint store a few doors down, which has been broken into several times since August. Employee Shanda Jackson said the store plans to install metal gates inside its windows, in case looters somehow get through the boarded windows. “People just don’t know what to think,” she said.

Seretha Billups, who works at the Feel Beauty Supply store, said her employer’s insurance company insisted on boarding the windows. Like Harrison, she expects an explosion of rage if there’s no indictment. “These people are very serious about what’s going on, and they’re very hurt as well. So they’re really trying to go out and send a message," she said.

Billups said isolated but ongoing incidents of violence and crime in the area since Brown was killed had already put the community on edge. “You’re waking up, what’s going to happen today, what’s going to happen tomorrow?” she said.  “It’s just very, very stressful. And it’s going to make things worse when the (decision) comes out.”

St. Louis County prosecutors have said an announcement on whether Wilson will face charges in connection with Brown’s shooting is likely to be announced soon. Gov. Nixon announced Monday that he was pre-emptively declaring a state of emergency and activating the National Guard in order to prepare for any violence. Other local and state law enforcement agencies are also making elaborate plans for how to respond.

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"I have a responsibility to plan for any contingencies that might arise," Nixon told reporters Monday night. "I hope there's no violence."

Police and witnesses say Brown and Wilson engaged in a physical struggle through the window of the officer’s SUV shortly before the teen’s death on Aug. 9. Law enforcement officials say Brown attempted to take Wilson’s gun when the police officer fired the first shot. A half-dozen eyewitnesses have said they saw Brown flee the vehicle as Wilson open fire with the fatal shots as the teen stopped, turned and raised his arms in surrender. But a government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told NBC News’ Pete Williams Wilson had said he feared for his safety when the teen turned and charged back toward him after running from the vehicle.

Harrison, the T-Mobile employee, said he’s frustrated the grand jury process has dragged out long enough to be approaching Thanksgiving and Black Friday, perhaps the store’s busiest day of the year. 

“If Black Friday comes around and they come out with the verdict, and the verdict is what everybody thinks it’s going to be, it’s going to affect the business,” said Harrison, referring to the decision on whether to charge Wilson. “People are not going to feel safe to even shop in this environment. I’m just tired of it.”

After August’s looting, some business owners said they took an economic hit, with some people afraid to go out and shop amid reports of violence. Harrison said after the initial wave of looting, he took a more positive attitude, hoping that the events could serve as a catalyst for change. Three months later, that’s changed. Now he's afraid that if violence causes a drop in business—and his paycheck—his family will suffer.

“I’ve never been more pissed off in my life, knowing that I have a daughter, and when the verdict comes out, it’s going to basically mess up everything we have going on,” he said.

One of the few stores along West Florissant Avenue that remains unboarded is Charles Davis’s Ferguson Burger Bar. Davis and his wife opened the small restaurant the day before Brown was killed, and it has become a gathering point for protesters and journalists. So far, the store has avoided any damage, which Davis said he attributes to “the fact that people respect me like I respect them,” as well as his faith in God.

RELATED: Missouri declares state of emergency

Davis's wife is a friend of Lesley McSpadden, Brown's mother, and the couple have been organizing fundraisers and food drives for the community's needy. A stack of voter registration forms sits on the restaurants counter. He said he wants to see Wilson indicted, but that things won’t go back to normal whatever happens.

“If he’s not indicted, it’s not going to be resolved,” Davis said. “And if he’s indicted, it’s still not going to be resolved, because you still have a hearing you have to go through. So it’s a no-win situation.”