FERGUSON, MISSOURI – It was a riot everyone saw coming. For three months police and protesters had drilled separately to prepare for the worst if the grand jury decided not to indict white policeman Darren Wilson for the shooting death of black teenager Michael Brown.
The governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, and police chiefs met repeatedly with the leaders of some protest groups that had emerged in the town of Ferguson in the aftermath of the Aug. 9 shooting. Both sides preached peace; both said they wanted to avoid violence.
Away from the meetings, Missouri police were quietly drawing up a plan of action with the FBI, National Guard and other law enforcement agencies in the event that there was an explosion of violence. Protest groups held their own meetings to train protesters on civil disobedience techniques, stock up on gas masks and plan what to do if they were arrested.
Despite weeks of efforts to tamp down outrage, meetings between police and community leaders, and calls for peace from President Barack Obama, violence erupted within minutes of Monday’s announcement that Wilson had not been indicted. It quickly spiraled out of control as buildings and vehicles were set ablaze.
Police and protesters accused each other Tuesday of igniting the violence, but in the cold light of day it became clear that even with the greatest of preparations, unrest may have been inevitable.
The protest leaders with whom police had negotiated may have had little control over the disparate groups of angry residents and protesters who came from outside the town.
“There are no leaders. That’s what people need to understand,” said Tiffany Shawn, 32, a teacher who lives in nearby University City and was outside the Ferguson police station on Monday night when word came of no indictment.
“There’s no Martin Luther King. This is not your grandma’s protest. This is different. We are all leaders,” she said.
There was also a yawning gulf of mistrust between elected officials and angry residents that was never bridged in the meetings. Some of the meetings may even have exacerbated tensions because of a perception that the officials were not negotiating in good faith.
“The police say they wanted to know all the locations that we are going to gather at, so they could plan around them,” protester Alexis Templeman said. “We didn’t give them that.”
There was also a racial divide. Many of the elected officials involved in the talks were white. Nearly all of the residents were black.
An alliance of protest groups had proposed a 19-point list of suggested “rules of engagement” in discussions with police and local officials aimed at avoiding violence, but there appears to have been no agreement on three key demands: the use of tear gas and crowd control equipment such as armored vehicles, and 48 hours’ notice of the grand jury’s decision.
Police fired volleys of tear gas and deployed armored vehicles to clear the streets of protesters late on Monday. University City teacher Shawn said the vehicles had boxed in protesters as they tried to escape the tear gas, inflaming already angry residents, many of whom were among those arrested.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said at least 12 buildings and two police patrol cars were torched, and dozens of shots fired in a spasm of violence that he said eclipsed the unrest that followed Brown’s shooting in August. Reporters pressed him at a news conference to explain what had gone wrong, given the weeks of preparations.
“I didn’t foresee an evening like this,” he said. “Unless you bring in 10,000 police,” it was not possible to prevent random arson attacks that could be carried out within seconds.
“We have a good plan. We are going to move forward with the same plan,” he said. Missouri Gov. Nixon announced that he had asked for National Guard reinforcements to be sent in.
Protesters and several clergymen working in the community assailed officials for waiting until nightfall to make the announcement and for failing to give prior notice. They said this fueled the violence. Officials offered no explanation.
“The decision at 8 o’clock at night . . . when the only people in the street are in complete despair. There could have been another choice there,” said Mervyn Marcano, spokesman for Ferguson Action, a coalition of protest groups.
The Rev. Michael McBride, a member of the PICO National Network, a nationwide group of more than 3,000 religious congregations, said the late announcement had “set the stage for a spillover of outrage.”
“They only gave us a few hours’ notice and no information. The police leadership set up the situation that exploded last night,” he said.
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