Governor Nixon: "Violence Will Not Be Tolerated"
It has been more than three months since unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, but tensions between the mostly black residents and the mostly white police force have yet to deescalate. And now, with the grand jury decision looming, fears of violence in Ferguson have surged once again. Governor Jay Nixon said in a press conference on Tuesday, "Violence will not be tolerated," but very necessity to make such a statement underscores the very real threat of social unrest that boils just under a precarious surface.
The grand jury has held hearings since August 20, eleven days following Brown's death, and in the months since, there has been growing concern among community members that the ultimate decision will not result in a guilty verdict for Officer Wilson. Various, conflicting reports have circulated about the situation surrounding Brown's killing, with some witnesses saying that the teenager was standing with his hands up, while others claim that Brown reached for Wilson's gun following a struggle, and was shot as a matter of self defense. In the last few weeks, a number of leaked reports suggest that some witnesses corroborated the police's story, which would absolve Wilson of any criminal responsibility.
The Department of Justice has criticized this lack of discretion, calling the reports "irresponsible and highly troubling." But Ferguson residents are perhaps more troubled by what many fear will be a violent replay of the protests that took place in the weeks following Brown's death, during which police brutality and civil disobedience took center stage and captured national attention in a small town of only 21,000 people.
In hopes to ensure that no such violence emerges once again, over 1,000 police officers have received over 5,000 hours in training, which allegedly concerns techniques to deal with "potential unrest" and "crowd control." While Governor Nixon insisted that the law enforcement's main focus would be to protect the constitutional rights of any would-be demonstrators, the sheer amount of money, time and manpower devoted to the police force in the last few months seems to only deepen feelings of resentment and fear towards officials.
Since August, the St. Louis County Police Department has spent nearly $200,000 on equipment meant to prepare police officers for protests and demonstrations. As reported by the Guardian, $77,500 was dedicated to the purchase of 235 riot gear helmets, 135 shields, 25 batons and 60 sets of shin guards, and other “uniform items,” and another $2,300 bought 2,000 pairs of plastic handcuffs like the ones used to restrain demonstrators in August.
But more frightening is the $43,000 that has been spent on various weaponry and ammunition. According to the Guardian, $25,000 has been spent on "650 teargas grenades, smoke-and-gas grenades, smoke canisters and “hornets nest” CS sting grenades, which shoot out dozens of rubber bullets and a powdered chemical agent upon detonation."
The remaining $18,000 was used to buy "1,500 'beanbag rounds' and 6,000 pepper balls," which resemble paintballs that contain a chemical irritant which is released upon striking a target. These pepper balls are known to be "ten times hotter than standard pepper rounds."
This heavy-handed response, which was criticized profusely and continuously throughout the August protests, shows no signs of nuance as police prepare for the grand jury decision, and this has certainly set many Ferguson residents on edge. Gun sales have skyrocketed in the last few weeks, and the motivation for these purchases seem to vary with their buyers. Some seem to want protection from the police, while others are more concerned about their fellow residents.
Steven King, the owner of Metro Shooting Supplies, told CNN that his customers purchased 100 guns over the weekend, a more than threefold increase from the normal 30 weapons he sells on a normal weekend. His customers varied along racial and ethnic backgrounds, and King noted, "A lot of black people coming in saying they are afraid of the hooliganism." At a neighboring gun store, sales have also increased by a wide margin, as residents across the surrounding areas feel compelled to protect themselves in anticipation of what is expected to be a contentious decision.
With the surge in guns amongst civilian hands, Sergeant Brian Schellman, a spokesman for the St. Louis county police department, justified the department's mass purchases, saying, "...it is our responsibility to have proper equipment to keep our police officers and all citizens safe should violence break out anywhere at any time."
Governor Nixon echoed these sentiments at his press conference, noting, "Our dual pillars here are safety and speech. The vast majority of people who want to speak want to do so in a peaceful fashion." But community organizers who have managed to keep violence at bay and demonstrations peaceful over the past few months feel that these measures are excessive. Taurean Russell, cofounder of handsupunited.org, said in a statement, "Governor Nixon’s choice to act unilaterally in this police plan is a slap in the face to every protestor who has worked tirelessly over the past 90-plus days to reach peaceful solutions."
It is still unclear as to when the grand jury's decision will be announced, but St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch has promised to release full transcripts and audio recordings of the hearings if Wilson is not indicted. Until then, both the police department and residents of Ferguson, Missouri remain "prepared but engaged" to confront whatever may come next in the Michael Brown case.
Images: Getty Images (6)