In the wake of Governor Jay Nixon's Monday afternoon declaration of a state of emergency in Missouri, activists and civil rights groups are speaking out against a move they say threatens the civil rights of protesters on the ground in Ferguson.
Nixon's announcement, which came ahead of the grand jury's decision in the police shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, is "both premature in its application and presumptuous in [its] intention to the hundreds of peaceful demonstrators who have embraced their Constitutional right to protest," said NAACP president William Brooks.
Anthony Gray, one of the lawyers for Brown's family, told CNN that Nixon was "preparing for war and not necessarily for peace."
"Sometimes you can push people into behaving a certain way just by preparing for just that kind of a reaction," Gray said.
"Governor Nixon’s decision to declare a state of emergency without evidence of violence or danger only threatens to stir up tensions and denigrate the peaceful efforts of countless non-violent activists," Brooks said.
Hands Up United organizer Tory Russell noted on Twitter that Nixon does not have the authority to declare a preemptive state of emergency, as Missouri law mandates that a disaster of "major proportions" must have actually taken place before such a declaration can be made. Russell quoted a state General Assembly statute that reads, "The existence of an emergency may be proclaimed by the governor or by resolution of the legislature, if the governor in his proclamation, or the legislature in its resolution, finds that a natural or man-made disaster of major proportions has actually occurred within this state[.]"
Lou Downey, an organizer with Stop Mass Incarceration Network (SMIN), told Common Dreams that Nixon's "state of emergency—mobilizing the National Guard and authorizing violent suppression of protest—is outrageous, illegitimate, and breaking his own laws."
"Nixon offers the public lies about 'protecting free speech' and steps to peaceful change, combined with the reality of unleashing National Guards, rubber bullets and toxic gas on protesters," Downey continued. "Be clear, when Nixon says violence won't be tolerated, he doesn't mean violence by authorities against people."
Nixon's declaration on Monday seems to contradict statements he made after lifting a previous state of emergency he ordered during the first round of protests in August.
"We've seen here a situation in which that militarization caused exactly the opposite reaction, in my view, as to what it normally should," he told MSNBC at the time. "Instead of bringing safety, it brought less safety in this situation because people felt diminished and felt controlled in their own community. I think this is a very clear example of how the proper force strength is important, and I do think we've seen a significant trend towards militarization which, if not used correctly with these forces, can have troublesome reactions."
But on Monday, during a call with reporters, Nixon evaded questions about his authority in police actions and the manner in which law enforcement responds to protests.
One journalist asked, "Given that you’ve declared a state of emergency and you’ve put the [Missouri state] highway patrol on the unified command, does the buck ultimately stop with you when it comes to how any protests are policed?"
Nixon responded, "Well I mean we’re, I, you know, it, it, you know, our goal here is to, is to, you know, keep the peace and allow folks’ voices to, to be heard. And in that balance, I’m attempting, you know, I am using the resources we have to marshall to be predictable, for both those pillars. I don’t, you know, I’m more … I, I, just will have to say I don’t spend a tremendous amount of time personalizing this vis-a-vis me."
He continued, "I’m trying to make sure that, that we move forward in a predictable, peaceful manner that plans for all contingencies that might occur, so that people of a disparate group of opinions and actions can be heard, while at the same time, the property and persons, person, persons of people in the St Louis region are protected. So I, it … I, I, prefer not to be a commentator on it. I’m making decisions as, in a, you know, to make sure that we’re all prepared for all contingencies, and I think this is another step, positive, you know, positive, predictable step towards preparing for any contingencies."
The preemptive response comes as protesters continue to train in nonviolent civil disobedience and establish safe zones, often in churches, that will provide shelter and medical supplies to activists on the ground and serve as communication hubs for organizers.
The declared state of emergency, according to SMIN's Downey, means protesters "need to recognize how determined those in power are to push forward the vicious program of police terror and criminalization of whole generations of Black and Brown youth."
"We need to recognize how fearful authorities are of people defiantly standing up to this, exposing the terrible injustice concentrated in Mike Brown’s murder, and exposing this before the eyes of the whole world, and inspiring those who’ve been beaten down and waking up those who have looked the other way," he added.