By Daryl Hannah
Even if President Obama hadn’t just announced Loretta Lynch as his nominee to replace Eric Holder as attorney general, eyes would still be focused on the Department of Justice this week as the country waits to learn whether a grand jury will indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.
Last August, Officer Wilson shot and killed Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, after the two had a scuffle that began at Wilson’s police car and ended several minutes later and feet away with Brown lying face down with fatal gunshot wounds. On Aug. 20, a grand jury was convened to determine how Brown died. The Ferguson police say Brown struggled with Wilson inside his police car, then reached for Wilson’s weapon. Brown’s family and some witnesses say Wilson killed Brown as he raised his hands in surrender.
In the three months since, Brown’s family and the Don’t Shoot Coalition, a coalition of more than 50 organizations including union workers, clergy, antiwar activists and Black empowerment groups, have led a series of protests in Ferguson to demand tougher scrutiny on police violence and brutality. Racial tensions have also remained high in Ferguson, especially after the complete breakdown in Ferguson’s diversity management. Those deep feelings are forecasted to escalate after the grand jury’s looming decision, which could come as early as Nov. 15.
“We want people to pray that the system will work, but the family doesn’t have much confidence at all,” Ben Crump, the lawyer representing Brown’s family, told The New York Times. Nor, he added, are they confident that the local police will deal properly even with peaceful protesters.
But regardless of what the grand jury decides, Mr. Crump said the Browns plan to urge peace from the demonstrators and would continue pressing the federal government and states to pass “Michael Brown laws”—laws that would require officers to wear video cameras.
“The real change they want is for people to use their frustration and turn it into legislation,” Crump said. “If you get the Mike Brown law passed, nobody will have to deal with something like this and the insult to injury afterward.”
Last Friday, President Obama spoke with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to get an update on the situation in Ferguson. So far, school leaders are reviewing emergency contingency plans and urging officials to announce the grand-jury finding outside of school hours—preferably on a Sunday—so that children returning home are not caught in a melee. The leaders of at least three police departments—the Missouri State Highway Patrol, the St. Louis County Police Department and the St. Louis Police Department—are coordinating efforts for unified preparation.
“We’re focused on the preservation of life and property,” Jon Belmar, Chief of the county police, said in an interview. His department spent $37,741 in October on helmets, shields, batons and shin guards.
According to The New York Times, the St. Louis Police Department has spent $325,000 on new equipment, including riot gear; sent 350 officers to training sessions on how to manage civil disobedience; and met with police chiefs from other communities around the nation that have dealt with unrest. Still under consideration are canceled days off for officers and 12-hour shifts.
Demonstrators have criticized the use of tear gas, riot equipment and armored vehicles by county and local police in the early days of the protests. The heavy initial response led Governor Nixon to summon the National Guard and temporarily put the Missouri Highway Patrol in charge of Ferguson crowd control.
Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson told CBS News he has been meeting with students, gang members and ministers about what might happen following the grand-jury decision.
“There’s a lot of fear. A lot of people are afraid of what could happen,” Johnson explained. “In the end, this is gonna be the community we have to live in.”
At Metro Shooting Range in nearby Bridgeton, Mo., Manager John Stephenson says gun sales are up 40 to 50 percent with the bulk of new sales being home-defense shotguns. Several other people have signed up for gun-range training.
“Every time that door opens, we’re seeing new faces every day,” Stephenson told CNN. The new customers tell him they’re concerned about what is going to happen in and around Ferguson when the grand-jury decision is announced.
At a recent meeting with anxious business owners and other worried community members, Mayor James Knowles III suggested that people steer clear of the area in the evening if protests break out. “By 8, 9 o’clock, nothing good is going to happen out on the streets,” Knowles said. “When the gremlins come out, you’re just going to get caught in the crossfire.” Residents also were warned to empty their trash often, so it would not be set aflame during protests.
According to the St. Louis CBS affiliate, activists asked last Wednesday for advance notice before prosecutors announce whether Wilson will face charges in the shooting death of Brown, saying they can help prevent widespread violence if they have 48 hours to prepare for protests.
Ed Magee, a spokesman for St. Louis County Attorney Bob McCulloch, who is overseeing the grand-jury investigation, met with McPhearson and attorney Denise Lieberman earlier Wednesday and said the coalition’s request for 48 hours’ notice of a grand jury decision is “being considered.”