By Laura Sullivan
For weeks, Ferguson police and local leaders met with community groups and activists to work out a plan for the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision whether to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.
But any results of that effort quickly vanished following Monday night’s announcement as buildings burned and stores were looted.
Many activists who had attended the community meetings with local officials in preparation blamed both police and the county attorney’s office for fueling the unrest. They question the decision to announce the grand jury’s findings at night and without much warning.
“I put what happened last night directly at their feet,” said Montague Simmons, a leader of the Don’t Shoot Coalition, which represents 50 organizations involved in the protests.
“We knew what would happen if they released this at night,” Simmons says. “If they had given us notice, we could have been prepared and worked with our people.”
Simmons says his group planned and encouraged only nonviolent protests. But on the streets, there was too much confusion followed by rage. He says that with enough of a heads-up, the group could have planned peaceful protests and encouraged any outliers to join them.
But Simmons says police officials wouldn’t work with the group. He says they didn’t agree to any of the requests at the meetings, such as appearing less threatening during protests by leaving military tactical gear in the police station.
“They haven’t been willing to be engaged with us,” Simmons says. “There’s no rational explanation I can offer unless this is what they wanted to happen. They treated us like a threat, not a partner. This relationship is out of balance.”
The release of the grand jury decision appeared chaotic even to outsiders, as the timing shifted over several days and rumors circulated throughout the community. Previously, there were promises to Brown’s family to notify them of the decision before the announcement. That promise did not appear to have been kept.
Police staff answering the phones at the Ferguson Police Department said they were not accepting media calls or questions. Calls to the office of St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch were not returned.
“The lack of responsiveness and accountability that we have seen [since the release] is the same lack of responsiveness and accountability we’ve seen all along,” Simmons says.
Conflict experts say the anger and distrust will only continue unless the police engage with the activists, working with members of their own community. Those encouraging violence on Twitter appear to be from outside the area.
Michael Shank, a professor at George Mason University’s School for Conflict, Analysis and Resolution says Ferguson police erred early on by refusing not to use tactical, military-style weapons and gear when negotiating with protesters.
Shank, who has been following the unrest closely with colleagues and others on the ground, says releasing in the dark and after work defies explanation.
“They could have helped de-escalate this,” Shank says, adding that “8 p.m. in the evening is a great time to protest.”
Regardless of the timing, he says, things might have gone better had protesters and community leaders had been more involved.
“Saying to the community, we see you as an adversary, we see you as already guilty so we’re going to pre-empt this with the National Guard,” Shank says. “That was a poor play in terms of building trust in the community.”