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Return of the Ferguson War Zone? Missouri Enacts State of Emergency Ahead of Mike Brown Grand Jury

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Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has declared a state of emergency in advance of the grand jury’s pending decision in the Michael Brown shooting case. On Monday, Nixon issued an executive order to activate the state’s National Guard in response to what he called “the possibility of expanded unrest.” Nixon cited the protests in Ferguson and the St. Louis area since Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was killed by police officer Darren Wilson on August 9. The grand jury has been meeting for nearly three months, and protests are expected to escalate if they choose not to indict. But while state officials say they fear violence, protesters say they fear a return to the militarized crackdown that turned their community into a war zone. As the grand jury nears a decision and all sides prepare for the unknown under a state of emergency, we are joined by two guests: Jeff Smith, a New School professor and former Missouri state senator whose new book is “Ferguson in Black and White,” and Montague Simmons, chair of the St. Louis-based Organization for Black Struggle and a key organizer in the movement that has emerged since Brown’s killing.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We begin in Missouri, where Governor Jay Nixon has declared a state of emergency. This comes in advance of the grand jury’s decision in the Michael Brown case, which we expect any day. On Monday, Nixon issued an executive order to activate the National Guard in response to what he called, quote, “the possibility of expanded unrest.” Nixon cited the protests in Ferguson and the St. Louis area since Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was killed by officer Darren Wilson on August 9th. The grand jury has been meeting for nearly three months, and protests are expected to escalate if they choose not to indict. On Monday, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said the state of emergency is necessary to prevent violence.

MAYOR FRANCIS SLAY: We are going to be prepared, from a law enforcement standpoint, to make sure that people and properties are safe, as well as the protesters, demonstrators, who have an opportunity to express their First Amendment rights and to protest in a peaceful way. And at the same time, you know, we want to make sure that we’re going to have the resources necessary in the event there is any kind of violence or anything of that nature.

AARON MATÉ: But while state officials say they fear violence, protesters say they fear a return to the crackdown that turned their community into a war zone. The deployment of the National Guard in August came amidst a militarized police response that included armored vehicles, assault rifles and other Army-grade equipment. In anticipation of new unrest, more than 1,000 officers have recently undergone some 5,000 hours in training on crowd control. The St. Louis County Police Department has also stocked up on over $172,000 worth of riot gear, including tear gas, grenades, pepper balls and plastic handcuffs.

AMY GOODMAN: But the threat of a police response—and the increasingly cold weather—has not stopped protesters from hitting the streets. On Sunday, a few hundred activists blocked a major intersection in St. Louis to call for Officer Wilson’s arrest.

PROTESTER 1: For the injustices that we have suffered due to the oppressors over many years, hundreds of years, enough is enough. It ends here. It ends with us here in Ferguson.

PROTESTER 2: The point won’t be made until that cop is indicted. The point won’t be made 'til justice is served, until we can stop the number of black men laying in the street. That's when our point will be made.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, as the grand jury nears a decision and all sides prepare for the unknown under a state of emergency, we’re joined by two guests. Here in New York, Jeff Smith is with us, assistant professor of urban policy at The New School, a former Missouri state senator from St. Louis. His new book comes out this week as a Kindle Single, titled Ferguson in Black and White.

And joining us from St. Louis is Montague Simmons, chair of the St. Louis-based Organization for Black Struggle, a key organizer in the movement that’s emerged since Michael Brown’s killing. The Organization for Black Struggle is one of around 50 groups in the Don’t Shoot Coalition, which has just proposed new “Rules of Engagement” for St. Louis police.

Well, Montague, why don’t we start there? What are those “Rules of Engagement” you have proposed?

MONTAGUE SIMMONS: They start just with basically treating the protesters as a human. We’re asking that they actually confront us fairly, that they actually communicate with us, that they respect our actual rights for civil disobedience, which means that while we engage them in nonviolent direct action, we expect, in many cases, to be arrested, but when they’re actually just standing on a sidewalk and not actually breaking the law, unprovoked arrest, unprovoked harassment, unprovoked intensification of those engagements is unwarranted. There’s actually a list of 19 different rules of engagement that we’ve actually proposed for them. And so far, they’ve actually been amenable to most of them. We’re actually just pressing for a level of accountability. And more so than from the police, we’re actually looking for it from elected officials.

AARON MATÉ: Well, Montague, the response you got Monday was the state of emergency from Governor Jay Nixon. And let’s go to a clip of him. On Monday, he held a news—a conference call with reporters to discuss his action. Matt Sledge of The Huffington Post asked Governor Nixon if he’s now responsible for how police respond should protests erupt after the grand jury’s decision. Well, Nixon struggled with his answer.

MATT SLEDGE: Given that you’ve declared the state of emergency and you put the Highway Patrol on the unified command, does the buck ultimately stop with you when it comes to how any protests are policed?

GOV. JAY NIXON: Where, you know, it—you know, our goal here is to—is to, you know, keep the peace and allow folks’ voices to be heard. And in that balance, I’m attempting—you know, I am using the resources we have to marshal to be predictable for both those pillars. I don’t—you know, I’m more—I just will have to say I don’t spent a tremendous amount of time personalizing this.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Governor Jay Nixon. He went on to say, “I’d prefer not to be a commentator on it.” Montague, your response to Governor Nixon’s answer there, not wanting to take responsibility for the response, the police response, and this overall state of emergency that he has just imposed?

MONTAGUE SIMMONS: It’s disturbing, but it’s consistent both for his behavior in the governor’s office and for all elected officials. When this first started off and he initially declared a state of emergency, he had the power then to change the way that justice could play out by appointing an independent special prosecutor. When we were about to call him to do that, in a press conference the same morning in response to our letter, he shut down the state of emergency. So, everyplace we turn, as far as elected officials, as far as pieces of the system, when they should actually be holding officers in departments accountable for their behavior, not just during the protests, but before this, in terms of the profiling, ongoing harassment, everybody has remained silent. Everyone wants to duck responsibility and point toward someone else. So, as I said, again, while it’s very disturbing, I can’t say I’m surprised, because it’s consistent with what we’ve seen so far.

AMY GOODMAN: So, last week, Missouri Governor Nixon said he’s prepared to redeploy the National Guard after this grand jury reaches its decision. Nixon said Guard members will be on standby should protests erupt.

GOV. JAY NIXON: Officers from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, St. Louis County Police and St. Louis City Police will operate as a unified command to protect the public. The National Guard has been and will continue to be part of our contingency planning. The Guard will be available when we determine it is necessary to support local law enforcement. Quite simply, we must and will be fully prepared.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is the Nixonian response to the possible—whichever way the indictment comes down. I wanted to bring Jeff Smith into this conversation. Now you’re a professor here in New York at The New School, but you were a Missouri state senator. Can you give us a little background on who Governor Nixon is?

JEFF SMITH: I can, Amy. Good morning. Thanks for having me. Governor Nixon grew up in a town in Jefferson County. That’s an exurban area. It’s about an hour—about 45 minutes to an hour south of St. Louis city. It was a county that a lot of white people fled to in the '50s, ’60s and ’70s, when African Americans started moving from North St. Louis to South St. Louis. So, it's sort of seen as sort of the prototypical white flight county in St. Louis. He was a conservative Democratic state senator in the '80s, in the mid-1980s, pro-gun, strongly pro-life. And then, when he ran for attorney general in 1992, he actually ran as a candidate who opposed the school desegregation program that allowed for voluntary busing of students from St. Louis city to St. Louis County, black students to mostly white schools. So he has a history of being a very conservative Democrat, a strong law-and-order guy. Sixteen years as attorney general—they used to call him the “eternal general” instead of attorney general—and during that time, Missouri executed more people than just about any other state outside of Texas. So, he's always been a strong law-and-order guy. That’s been his posture. What we’ve seen over the last few months, I think, has been consistent with that.

AARON MATÉ: You’re a former Missouri state senator. What kind of political reform do you think is needed there in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death?

JEFF SMITH: I think there’s a lot of reforms needed. The first thing that’s needed is a rule or some new statute that reduces the percentage of municipal revenue that can be brought in from traffic stops. Right now, a lot of the municipalities in North St. Louis County are bringing in as much as 30, 40, even 50 percent of their annual budget just from stopping people and getting fines from that. And that’s ridiculous. So, we need—

AMY GOODMAN: But Ferguson, the Times showed this chart that they are off the charts in the entire country on this.

JEFF SMITH: They are absolutely a huge outlier in that, and they’re also a huge outlier in the number of warrants that they have outstanding. You know, in a lot of these North County municipalities, such as Ferguson, there are more warrants outstanding than there are residents living in these towns. Again, ridiculous. So, the first thing we need to do is reduce the percentage of revenue that can be garnered from traffic stops. Second, we’ve got to make sure that these police forces look like the people they’re policing. Right now—people have seen the statistics—just 6 percent of the police force in Ferguson is black, and nearly 70 percent of the population. So, you’ve got this huge disconnect between the power structure and the people enforcing the laws from the residents who actually live there, and that’s a recipe for disaster.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the militarization of the police. Last week, I talked to a retired three-star U.S. general who helped command the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. I asked General Daniel Bolger his thoughts about the militarization of the police, particularly front and center now with Ferguson.

LT. GEN. DANIEL BOLGER: As an American citizen and a soldier, it’s very disturbing. Tradition of our country is that we want police to do police work. And if you dress somebody like a soldier and you equip somebody like a soldier, they might begin to act with the population like a soldier. Most law enforcement experts will tell you that the way to work in a community is that the police officer has to be on patrol on foot and known in the community. And people have different relations with the police, but certainly a man or woman on foot in a police uniform, you know who that person is. And they know who the people around them are. You put that person in an armored vehicle, you dress them up in helmets and goggles and give them heavy weapons, they begin to treat the population as if they’re the enemy, because that’s what soldiers do.

AMY GOODMAN: That is General Daniel Bolger. And, Montague Simmons, I wanted to get your response to his critique of using police as soldiers. I mean, he has commanded many in his lifetime, and he says this is a key error in Ferguson.

MONTAGUE SIMMONS: For a long time, we talked about policing in St. Louis. We talked about it as a situation where folks feel like they’re under occupation. So, yeah, I think his analysis is dead on. Like, of the 5,000 hours of training that they did this past week, how many hours of that were really focused on community engagement, on identifying or recognizing people in the community? While they’re actually charged with—

AMY GOODMAN: What about that? Actually, this is a—this is a key, key point, when you talk about these 5,000 hours—

MONTAGUE SIMMONS: Mm-hmm, exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: —where they were training. How much effort—


AMY GOODMAN: —has been made by the mayor of Ferguson, by the governor, by the police, to reach out to community and to community leaders right now in this very critical, tense time?

MONTAGUE SIMMONS: Very, very little. We’ve been working hard to make certain, especially as we build toward the actual verdict, that we are engaged, and we’ve done several levels of outreach with very minimal response. I mean, often they respond more quickly through the media than they do to us directly. It’s an unfortunate truth, but this has kind of been the way it’s been even prior to August 9th. It’s like when there’s been police brutality or someone has been executed, it’s taken massive amounts of time and effort just to get legitimate response. Part of what we’re fighting for is a different kind of engagement in policing that interweaves civilian accountability through at least all five areas, from recruitment, hiring, to training, to their accountability mechanisms and their ability to advance. There have to be some levels of actual community engagement and a higher level of accountability that may involve the Department of Justice.

AARON MATÉ: Montague, as we await this grand jury decision, protests have continued, and obviously you’ve been preparing for more. Can you walk us through, for those of us who aren’t there, how you organize, what these meetings look like?

MONTAGUE SIMMONS: There have been a couple of different types of meetings, because, like you know, this weekend, we just passed a hundred days. Remember, this is a community that’s still in mourning. This is a community that’s lost a child. For many folks, they haven’t had a chance to verbally express what they’ve experienced or what the death means to them or what their ongoing experience has been with police. The mass meetings give them a space to both express that, but to also engage in some form of understanding what could happen when the verdict comes down and where they can actually go for safety, what this could look like.

But the other side of that is, since this has begun, we’ve trained hundreds of people in nonviolent direct action. So, the conversations have been both about the tradition itself of what civil disobedience looks like, what it means, and really disrupting myths of saying that nonviolence and civil disobedience are not resistance, because that’s exactly what they are. For many folks, they’ve been politicized by this moment, and they really need ways to actually channel this rage. And the idea of actually being able to engage in ongoing protest is something that’s become very not only attractive, but it’s needed in this moment.

This moment, unfortunately, did not begin and it won’t end with this verdict and what happened just with Michael Brown. Michael Brown was, in this case, a spark, but we know, not only from our own experience here in St. Louis, but nationally, that Michael Brown and Ferguson is everywhere. From New York and Eric Garner to John Crawford in Ohio, this is a national phenomenon. And I think you’re going to see protests not just here in St. Louis, but throughout the country.

AMY GOODMAN: The parents of Michael Brown spoke Friday after they returned to the United States from meeting with the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva about their son’s death and community relations with police. This is Michael Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., followed by his mother, Lesley McSpadden.

MICHAEL BROWN SR.: I think the world—I think the world understands my pain. There’s a lot of people that went through the same situation, that voices haven’t been heard. I’ll speak for everyone that may have been through police brutality, and to help just everyone that can’t speak, that doesn’t have a voice.

LESLEY McSPADDEN: This is not a year or two years, this is hundreds of years this has been going on. I hate that it happened to my son, but it must stop with my son.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. in Geneva, as they spoke before the U.N. Council Against Torture. Jeff Smith, you went to high school with Lesley McSpadden, with Mike’s mom?

JEFF SMITH: I did, and her older brother, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, can you talk about that community, the community that you both came out of?

JEFF SMITH: Well, we came out of a community called Olivette, which is one of the few relatively integrated communities in St. Louis County. And Ferguson, actually, over the last decade or so, has been a relatively integrated community. It’s been unique in that it’s one rare area where a lot of whites tried to stay and sort of take a stand against the white flight that had characterized most of North St. Louis County. But unfortunately, it didn’t work very well. The population of Ferguson went from about 75 percent white in 1990 to about 70 percent black in 2010. And that flight helps account for this huge disconnect between the power structure and the actual residents, because the political representation just hasn’t caught up with the rapid demographic changes.

AARON MATÉ: So how does that change now?

JEFF SMITH: How will that change now?


JEFF SMITH: Well, it remains to be seen. There’s a few reforms, I think, that could help. Number one would be changing the municipal elections from the springtime to the fall, when turnout is much broader. Number two, you’re going to have to get everybody in these communities registered. You’ve got, again, this demographic change means that a lot of the older people in this community are white, the younger people are black. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re white, black, green or purple in this country, older people are much more likely to turn out to vote than young people. So, that’s another structural issue they’re dealing with.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it was very interesting—it just came out in the past few weeks—the issue of this no-fly zone. Local authorities in Ferguson have privately conceded they sought a no-fly zone to limit media coverage of the protests that erupted after the killing of Mike Brown. The federal government granted the request to bar all flights around Ferguson, including news helicopters, on safety grounds. But in new audio recordings obtained by the Associated Press, a federal official says, quote, “They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out.” So, now we learn this about the no-fly zone, and I want to put this question to Montague. But we also have other video that have come out that have selectively been released, you know, stories about Mike Brown and then Darren Wilson, this video that has come out of him leaving the police station and going to the hospital. Newly released footage also shows Darren Wilson threatening and arresting a resident for filming him last year. The video posted to YouTube shows Wilson after he arrives at a home to serve a summons. The resident asks his name, and Wilson threatens to, quote, “lock [his] ass up.” Listen carefully.

MIKE ARMAN: What’s your name, sir?

DARREN WILSON: If you wanna take a picture of me one more time, I’m gonna lock your ass up.

MIKE ARMAN: Sir, I’m not taking a picture. I’m recording this incident, sir. Do I not have the right to record?”

DARREN WILSON: No, you don’t. Come on. Come on.

MIKE ARMAN: Sir, you just allowed me—you just—

AMY GOODMAN: The resident, Mike Arman, was then arrested. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, meanwhile, has released audio of police radio calls from the day Michael Brown was shot. It shows the fatal shooting took place in less than 90 seconds. And the paper released that surveillance I was talking about of Wilson leaving the police station for the hospital two hours after the shooting, then returning a few hours later. Montague, he doesn’t seem to be holding his face, to be injured in the way that the police have said. Your response to all of these different revelations in this lead-up to the decision by the grand jury?

MONTAGUE SIMMONS: Unsurprised. As even Ms. McSpadden said before, this is part of a continuum that’s happened for generations. At one point, it was characterized as lynching. I don’t think it’s very different now. But part of what happens is, one, you see authority figures begin to paint the victim with criminal behavior, with malevolence, with them becoming a threat. And then, the other side is they paint whoever the officer or whoever actually did the killing as defending themselves. We’ve heard report after report of not just Darren Wilson, but the way police have engaged residents and people just visiting the area for years. It’s not a surprise.

We’ve witnessed reporters be arrested and harassed just like protesters on the street. And the harassment was directed at their ability to begin to report what’s actually happening in the community. I’d say it’s—if we hadn’t actually lived in it, outside I’d be shocked and amazed, but the idea that folks who live here don’t want to expose the reality of life and what it means to be in relationship between the black community and police officials is not surprising.

And again, it’s not unique to Ferguson. You can go a mile one direction, you’re in Dellwood, same experience; a mile the other direction, you’re in Florissant, you may deal with the same thing. Or further out, to Velda City, St. Louis city, Pine Lawn, there are departments that are notorious for doing that and worse. And we’ve caught them on camera. You’ve actually had news stations do reports on people trying to file complaints and see them being violently run out of the station for doing that. This is endemic to this area, this part of the culture. It’s just that at this point all eyes are here, and people are watching, and no one wants that to be seen.

AARON MATÉ: Montague, in August, St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch responded to calls for him to step down from the Michael Brown case. McCulloch said the decision has to come from Missouri Governor Jay Nixon. He made his comments during an interview on KTRS radio.

BOB McCULLOCH: We’re going to proceed, you know, as I’ve laid out to people, until I’m told, if I’m told, by the governor that I can’t. And the most devastating thing that can happen is if a week from now, a month from now, he decides that he’s taking me off this case. You know, then everybody’s starting over. So, stand up. You know, man up. Stand up and say, “I have this authority. I am not removing McCulloch/I am removing McCulloch,” and let’s get on with this. This family deserves nothing less than that.

AARON MATÉ: That’s Bob McCulloch telling Governor Jay Nixon to man up. Jeff Smith, can you talk to us about who McCulloch is and also comment on the nature of this grand jury? Very unusual to be meeting for this long, for three months, and hearing evidence in a way that makes it seem like it’s a trial.

JEFF SMITH: It is very rare. You’d almost think that they’re deciding guilt or innocence, as opposed to simply deciding whether there’s probable cause to indict. So, I agree it’s very unusual.

Who is Bob McCulloch? you asked. Well, he’s an interesting guy. He has a father who was shot and killed in the line of duty by a black man several decades ago. A lot of people in the black community believe that that colors his opinion. And if you look at his history, I think there’s some evidence that would suggest they’re right. There was a case, I believe in 2001, where undercover cops shot and killed two drug suspects. One of them, there was no evidence that he was involved in anything. And I believe there were 21 shots that killed this man. The undercover cop said that the suspected drug dealers were driving a car at them and threatening them, but the forensic evidence didn’t bear that out, and even other police on the scene said that wasn’t true. And yet, McCulloch did not prosecute that case. That’s really the root of a lot of the distrust that a lot of people in the black community have for him.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Montague, preparations for both sides, for if there is an indictment against Darren Wilson, as well as if there isn’t, do you think there is that possibility?

MONTAGUE SIMMONS: Most of us at this point—and you referred to the way the grand jury is played out—don’t hold a lot of faith that there would be an indictment. Even if there would, I think our preparations have to be the same. We’re in a long-term struggle for systemic change and transformation. We need something very different than the type of policing that we have right now. And what we’ve seen is that there’s no place inside the system to turn for justice, not even from our elected officials, that the only way that we’ve actually been able to receive response, let alone the opportunity for change, is nonviolent direct action. So, in any case, we’re going to keep training. We’re going to keep folks in the streets. We’re going to keep pushing ’til we actually see something very different.

AMY GOODMAN: Montague Simmons, I want to thank you for being with us—Organization for Black Struggle is his organization—speaking to us from St. Louis.


AMY GOODMAN: And Jeff Smith with us here, he’s in New York now, assistant professor of urban policy at The New School, but he’s a former Missouri state senator from St. Louis. And his new book is out this week as a Kindle Single; it is called Ferguson in Black and White.

When we come back, it was 50 years ago today that the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, called Dr. Martin Luther King, the leading civil rights activist in this country, a liar. Today we’re going to bring you a Yale professor who found, to say the least, some incriminating information about the FBI in a standard search she did of J. Edgar Hoover’s files in his office. Stay with us.

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