It doesn’t look good for those hoping for criminal charges in the August killing of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. Pessimism has started to set in after a series of leaks that supported the story of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who has remained out of public view through the months-long grand jury process. With an official decision expected soon, possibly in a matter of days, the city of Ferguson is bracing for impact, both by hosting discussions with protest groups and stocking up on new riot gear.
“I think you have to prepare for the worst, but I think we all hope the best out of people,” said Ferguson Mayor James Knowles this week. Behind the scenes, local groups have been working preemptively to keep the peace, anticipating the outrage and disappointment if Wilson gets off without at trial.
For weeks, protesters and police have been in discussions in an effort to choreograph a response if there is not an indictment. Both sides are working to establish “rules of engagement,” with protesters insisting on peaceful demonstrations without police interference and police pledging to respect demonstrators’ right to assemble while underscoring that violence won’t be tolerated.
Almost nightly in recent weeks, meetings have been held in church basements and community buildings to try to address a single question: How do we prevent our city from burning?
“If Officer Wilson is not indicted, we will do our part to try to de-escalate violence without de-escalating action,” said Michael T. McPhearson of the group Veterans for Peace told the Post. “We are providing a number of supports to promote a peaceful response, but nothing will make a difference unless the police do their part by giving protesters adequate space. That’s the key to peaceful outcomes.”
CNN reports that the group the Don’t Shoot Coalition has released a document with 19 proposed “Rules of Engagement,” including “1) The first priority shall be preservation of human life” and “3) Police will give protesters 48 hours advance notice before grand jury decision is announced.”
While that last demand may not be met, the police are making their own preparations, including additional training — “We have had all officers who will be involved in the Ferguson detail attend or will attend a four-hour training that deals with civil disturbance training, as well as a review of the First, Fourth and 14th amendments and the rights of the press” — and more cynical moves toward additional militarization, as we saw over the summer:
The department has spent $37,741 on riot gear and more for pepper balls, smoke grenades, “sock rounds” and 2,000 sets of plastic handcuffs. An additional $50,000 has been set aside to repair police vehicles that may get damaged.
According to a report last month, “A breakdown of the department’s spending since August on equipment intended for the policing of crowds and civil disobedience, which totals $172,669, was obtained by the Guardian from the county force.”
And yet, “If we never have to use tear gas again, we’re fine with it,” a spokesperson for the St. Louis County Police Department told The Wall Street Journal. “We will never use it against peaceful protesters.”
“Commanders in our department have been meeting almost daily,” he added. “We don’t really know what to expect, but as a police department it’s our job to prepare ourselves. We can’t be caught off guard one way or another.” The protesters, of course, feel the same way.