Nov. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Activists in St. Louis and other U.S. cities are arranging logistics for mass demonstrations as a grand jury considers indicting a white police officer in the shooting of an unarmed black teenager.
The panel may act any day in the case of Officer Darren Wilson, who in August killed 18-year-old Michael Brown of Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb. The death sparked weeks of unrest that attracted news coverage globally.
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has activated the National Guard in anticipation of violence if the grand jury declines to indict Wilson, and the FBI is warning law enforcement in the U.S. to prepare for protests and attacks. Riots, looting and arson followed the acquittal of police in the beating of motorist Rodney King in southern California in 1992.
Without an indictment, protesters will take to the streets in “hot spots” to show displeasure and call on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate, said Elizabeth Vega, 47, a St. Louis artist who has been demonstrating since Brown was shot.
“We’re organizing, and we are organized,” Vega said. “You can count on peaceful, but very vigorous and determined civil disobedience.”
Demonstrators want better oversight of law enforcement, including outside investigations of shootings, body cameras on officers and better statistics on incidents, Vega said.
If there’s an indictment, demonstrations will follow “because people are happy,” said Michael McPhearson of St. Louis, 50, executive director of Veterans for Peace, a part of the Don’t Shoot Coalition. “If there’s not, people will express frustration and anger.”
Organizers are establishing “safe spaces” where protesters may rest or obtain supplies near places such as the Ferguson Police Department and prosecutor Robert McCulloch’s office in Clayton, McPhearson said.
President Barack Obama and Nixon, a fellow Democrat, discussed the response to a decision on Nov. 7, and the president “has also been in touch with civil-rights leaders” during past weeks to urge calm, spokesman Josh Earnest said at a briefing today.
Some residents are seeking peace through strength.
Steven King, owner of Metro Shooting Supplies in Bridgeton, Missouri, said he’s seen daily sales increase as much as five- fold this month. The store is selling about 35 to 50 guns a day ranging from $350 to $2,000, compared with normal sales of 10 to 15 daily, King said.
“They’re in fear of the unknown,” King said. “They don’t know where the riots or the protesting is going to break out.”
The streets were quiet this morning in Ferguson and Clayton, where the grand jury has been meeting, as temperatures dropped to 26 degrees Fahrenheit (-3.3 Celsius). This afternoon, Nixon swore in 16 members of a commission that will make recommendations by September 2015 “for how to make progress on the issues raised by events in Ferguson,” according to a news release.
“The choices we make in troubled times are the true expression of our humanity,” Nixon said in a news conference. “Let us heal the divisions exposed by the death of Michael Brown.”
Still, activists criticized Nixon’s decision yesterday to activate the National Guard and declare an emergency with a “unified command” of police agencies.
“That’s not de-escalating people’s emotions,” McPhearson said.
New York civil-rights activist Al Sharpton also has criticized Nixon and has said he plans to be with the Brown family when the grand-jury decision is announced.
“We must have nonviolent protests but police accountability,” Sharpton said in a statement last week.
Jesse Jackson, the Chicago-based civil rights activist, said in a telephone interview that he urges protesters to be “nonviolent, disciplined and persistent.”
The Rainbow PUSH Coalition, which he founded, has members present in Ferguson, he said.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation is warning U.S. law- enforcement agencies that the grand jury’s decision “will likely be exploited by some individuals to justify threats and attacks,” according to an ABC News account of an intelligence bulletin. “This also poses a threat to those civilians engaged in lawful or otherwise constitutionally protected activities.”
Vega said there are “40-plus cities that are going to be in solidarity with us,” and law-enforcement agencies across the nation are making ready.
Officials in Columbus, Ohio, anticipate demonstrations, and police are prepared, said Dan Williamson, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Coleman. Chicago police “will always protect residents’ right to free speech and peaceful assembly,” Martin Maloney, a spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. San Francisco police have officers on standby.
Detroit police have contacted organizers of planned protests and expect no problems, said spokesman Sergeant Michael Woody.
“They have assured us and we have assured them there is no adversarial positioning here,” Woody said. “They have the right to protest, and we’re going to allow them to express their constitutional rights.”
Closer to the scene of the killing, people must pay attention to how the debate will play out in the streets.
Berkeley, Missouri, a city of about 9,000 that borders Ferguson, told residents last week to have bottled water, prescriptions and full gas tanks.
“Please make sure your home and family are prepared for a period of disruption, just as you would in the event of a storm,” the city’s letter said.