'Not Enemy Combatants': Organizers Seek Safe Protests Ahead of Ferguson Grand Jury Announcement
Coalition requests two days' notice ahead of announcement, de-militarized police response
A coalition of approximately 50 local organizations in Ferguson, Missouri on Thursday asked city officials to give them two days' advance notice of the grand jury's announcement of their decision in the Michael Brown case, allowing organizers time to prepare for a public reaction.
The jury has been considering whether Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson should face charges for the August 9 shooting death of 18-year-old Brown, who was unarmed. Ed Magee, a spokesperson for the prosecutor's office, said the request was "being considered."
The Don't Shoot Coalition, which includes anti-war activists, black empowerment organizations, clergy, and other local workers and representatives, also proposed rules of engagement for police that include a de-militarized response to the protests. The proposal asks that officers leave behind their armored tanks, rubber bullets, and tear gas, and only put on riot gear as a last resort.
"If Officer Wilson is not indicted, we will do our part to try to de-escalate violence without de-escalating action," said coalition co-chair Michael T. McPhearson, executive director of Veterans For Peace.
"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," McPhearson said. "That’s the key to peaceful outcomes."
Police should "allow for free assembly and expression, treating protesters as citizens and not 'enemy combatants,'" the proposal states. "Excessive force and other forms of police misconduct will not be tolerated.... Intimidation and harassment of protesters will not be tolerated."
"Every attempt should be made to communicate with protesters to reach 'common sense' agreements based on these protocols, both ahead of time and at the scene of protests," the proposal states. "Media and Legal Observers shall not be considered participants in protests and shall be allowed to do their jobs freely."
Equally as important as the rules of engagement, the coalition says, are the physical boundaries of the protest. "If we see violence, make no mistake, the responsibility for it lies with law enforcement."
— Damon Davis, Don't Shoot Coalition
To that end, organizers are asking that police respect established "sanctuary safe spaces" and regard them as off-limits—a request which has gone unfulfilled in the past. Over the summer, officers more than once raided churches and other public areas that acted as communication bases or offered shelter and medical treatment to protesters.
Organizers noted that protests remained peaceful in instances when police used a hands-off approach. "For nearly three months protest leaders have maintained the peace, with the only real incidents of conflict resulting solely from police engagement," said Montague Simmons, chair of the Organization for Black Struggle.
Simmons told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the Clayton and the Ferguson police stations were likely to be "natural gathering areas" after the decision was announced.
"Every injury, every bullet that flies, every drop of tear gas," will be on the hands of elected officials if they refuse to negotiate with protesters and enforce the rules of engagement, Simmons said.
The case, plagued by leaks to the media and investigations of misconduct, is being overseen by controversial St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch, who has never indicted a police officer in his 23 years in office. McCulloch, who previously stated that the announcement would be made in mid November, said on Tuesday that it could be postponed for several more weeks.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said earlier this week that officers did not intend to interfere with peaceful protests, but said militarized tactics—including the use of tear gas—were not off the table. The police department also told the Post-Dispatch that command leaders had met with the Don't Shoot Coalition to identify "common goals."
"Since the day they left Michael Brown’s body in the street for more than four hours, the government has failed to answer the cries of the public time and again," said Don't Shoot member Damon Davis. "If we see violence, make no mistake, the responsibility for it lies with law enforcement."