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Missouri governor activates National Guard, declares state of emergency

A Missouri National Guard soldier watches the entrance to a mall parking lot that has turned into a police and military command center in Ferguson, Mo., in Aug. 2014. Protests over the shooting of a black teen by a white police officer have escalated into riots in the St. Louis suburb and the Missouri governor recently made the controversial decision to call up National Guard troops to assist law enforcement.

HEATH DRUZIN/STARS AND STRIPES

By MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE | Los Angeles Times (TNS) | Published: November 17, 2014

(Tribune News Service) — Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon activated the state’s National Guard on Monday and declared a state of emergency in anticipation of a grand jury decision on whether to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.

“These additional resources will support law enforcement’s efforts to maintain peace and protect those exercising their right to free speech,” Nixon said, noting the guard will “free up law enforcement officers to remain focused on community policing and protecting constitutional rights.”

Under the executive order, St. Louis County police will be responsible for securing Ferguson protest areas.

The St. Louis County prosecutor has said he expects the grand jury’s decision later this month. The Justice Department is also investigating Brown’s death and the Ferguson Police Department, but has not announced when its inquiries will end.

“All people in the St. Louis region deserve to feel safe in their communities and to make their voices heard without fear of violence or intimidation,” Nixon said in a Monday statement.

Local police chiefs praised the decision to call in the guard, whom Nixon also activated during protests following Brown’s death Aug. 9.

“Having the support of the National Guard available will enable local officers to continue to respond promptly to calls for service,” St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Sam Dotson said in a statement Monday.

Police agencies across the St. Louis area have been arming themselves and training for the potential of a violent backlash in the streets following the grand jury decision.

“We have taken tremendous strides over the past three months, as our officers have undergone thousands of hours of additional training and reached out to build strong relationships across the community,” St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said Monday.

Some local officials said they were grateful to see the National Guard called up.

“It’s necessary,” said Patrick Green, mayor of Normandy, a St. Louis suburb just south of Ferguson. “You have to do the prudent thing. You can’t call them at the last minute.”

Green, president of the state’s African-American mayors’ group, said local police are trying to protect protesters, not squelch their free speech.

“It’s about safety. There are people who will mingle themselves in with the peaceful protesters who don’t have a peaceful intention,” Green said, “The community has to be prepared for that.”

Some residents and business owners are preparing for the grand jury decision by arming themselves. Adam Weinstein, owner of County Guns, which serves the Ferguson area, said he made more sales during the past three months than he did last year. Other local gun dealers said they have benefited from a similar spike. Classes for first-time gun owners and those seeking concealed handgun licenses are packed, some booked through January.

Many of Weinstein’s customers said they were buying guns because they were afraid of what might happen when the grand jury announces its decision, and they wanted to protect their families.

“We’re expecting things to get really bad,” he said.

Weinstein moved his gun shop from West Florrisant Avenue in Ferguson, the epicenter of the protests, to nearby Bridgeton last summer after he had to hole up inside and defend it from looters in the wake of the Brown shooting.

He said racial tensions in the area have become palpable.

“It’s about to boil over. Unfortunately, this is going to be the catalyst. It’s been a long time coming. That’s why most of us are in fear — it’s been building for a while,” Weinstein said.

He wasn’t sure what he would do after the findings were released.

“I’ve heard people are going to hole up at their businesses like we did, armed to the teeth. I’ve heard people are going to leave town and hide. I’ve heard people are going to hide at home,” Weinstein said.

He worried how other Ferguson-area businesses will fare after the grand jury decision if the area becomes mired in more clashes during holiday shopping season.

“The economic impact is going to be huge,” he said.

Some protest organizers disagreed.

“Law enforcement has been hyping everything — buying all this equipment, assuming there’s going to be all this violence, but most of the past 90 days have been nonviolent. Most of the time there has been an escalation of violence, that has come from police overreaction,” said Michael McPhearson, interim executive director of Veterans for Peace, one of the groups organizing protests.

“Instead of trying to de-escalate people’s fears, they have made it worse. They act as if we’re a foreign force and we’re coming in with weapons and they’ve seen us training somewhere with tactics to destroy the city. And that’s just totally absurd,” McPhearson said, “The idea that there’s some sort of secret training going on to fight the police doesn’t make any sense. It’s just fear.”

McPhearson said his group has been setting up “safe spaces” for protesters to retreat to near “hot zones” where they expect people to gather — West Florissant Avenue; across from the police station and in the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis, site of another fatal police shooting last month of 18-year-old Vonderrit Myers.

The “safe spaces” in churches and other buildings “will be places for people to eat, rest, wash their eyes out if there’s tear gas,” he said, with “counseling there for people to calm down and get themselves together.”

Weapons will not be allowed in the “safe spaces,” including guns, he said. And while protesters have a right to bear arms, McPhearson said, “We’re asking people if you participate with us, you’ve got to be nonviolent” and not bring guns or other weapons.

“It’s not condoned,” he said.

©2014 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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