We don’t know how the grand jury will decide in the case of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, this summer. But we do know what Missouri state authorities expect—chaos. “Regardless of the outcomes of the federal and state criminal investigations, there is the possibility of expanded unrest,” said Gov. Jay Nixon in an executive order declaring a state of emergency in Missouri. “The state of Missouri will be prepared to appropriately respond to any reaction to these announcements.” To that end, Nixon is empowered under the order to mobilize and deploy the National Guard. Other officials have followed his lead. In Ferguson itself, for example, Mayor James Knowles has asked residents to “prepare for the worst.”
It's likely that, when Nixon says “unrest,” he’s referring to the night after Brown’s death, when a group of protesters burned down a QuikTrip convenience store and damaged nearby businesses, stealing goods and using the chaos to their advantage.
But while many Ferguson residents were disturbed by the damage done during the earliest protests, there’s anger over the choice to declare a state of emergency, and rightfully so. Remember, the initial Ferguson protests—which began the afternoon Brown was killed—weren’t violent. Instead, at first dozens, then hundreds of people gathered to peacefully protest the shooting and demand answers for why Brown’s body was allowed to lie in the sun for four hours before police took action. If there was unrest that day, it was less because of the protesters and more because of police.
As soon as residents met to protest Brown’s death that day, police brought scores of reinforcements. The Ferguson Police Department called in more than 100 officers from other jurisdictions, with some officers wielding dogs and shotguns. Given the circumstances—an angry community that wanted answers over the death of a teenager—it was an overreaction that engendered mistrust and worsened the situation.
We didn’t see violence until the next night, when tension boiled over and riots broke out near where Brown was killed. But they were contained, and when protesting resumed the next day, rioting had ceased. Indeed, the community cracked down, with protesters protecting stores from potential looters.
But these peaceful protests meant nothing for the police response, which was as disproportionate as it was in the beginning. For almost a week—despite no further violence from Ferguson residents—officers met protesters with tear gas, armored vehicles, sound cannons, and assault weapons. They closed off neighborhoods, blocked streets, and harassed journalists. They escalated the situation, refusing every chance to defuse tensions and retreating from the aggressive approach only when it was clear the world was watching.
This isn’t to say that violent protesters didn’t matter, or that property damage wasn’t important. But over the two weeks of the initial Ferguson protests, the vast majority of violence toward people—the violence that counts—came from police and law enforcement. Remove them from the equation—or at least, tone down their response—and you have a calmer Ferguson. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which police could have been forthright with residents after Brown’s shooting, defusing the protests before they could even begin.
Put simply, the unrest in Ferguson was as much the fault of the police as it was the protesters’. But by declaring a “state of emergency” aimed at residents of Ferguson and the broader St. Louis County, Gov. Nixon obscures this fact and smears the community, pretending that it’s solely responsible for anything that happens in the wake of a grand jury announcement and all but giving license to law enforcement to reprise its draconian response.
What we need from Nixon is a measured, sensitive response that grasps the dynamics of the initial protests and can see the mistakes of the first response. But what we’re likely to get—if residents respond to the grand jury with more demonstrations—is a return of the “unrest” of this summer, where the police are out of control, and authorities refuse to stop them.