Ferguson Protesters, Citizens and Police Prepare for the Worst

They stood in a crowded meeting room, arms locked at the elbows, as the tap, tap, tap of police batons grew louder.
by | November 17, 2014 AT 10:30 AM

By Jennifer S. Mann

They stood in a crowded meeting room, arms locked at the elbows, as the tap, tap, tap of police batons grew louder.

The Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, of the First Baptist Church of Boston, stood in the middle of the tightly woven circle.

"How do you feel?" he asked, as makeshift batons beat even more urgently.

His trainees responded in chorus: "Nervous!" "Anxious!" "Threatened!" "I feel like you're provoking me!"

Three months and nearly 350 arrests since they first took to the streets protesting the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson police officer, activists here and across the nation are girding for round two.

If the grand jury deliberating charges against Officer Darren Wilson does not indict him, protesters will flood the streets -- that's a promise. What nobody can predict is whether that type of mass gathering will erupt into arson, looting, tear gas and rubber bullets like last time.

Those who have been protesting on the streets since the beginning insist they share one goal of police and officials: They don't want violence either.

But they also want their voices to be heard, both now and for the long term. And in the bundle of nerves that is Ferguson, that requires planning and training.

The training with Sekou on Wednesday was one of many sessions the grass-roots network called the Don't Shoot Coalition has planned this month, with a grand jury announcement expected at any moment.

They are talking everything from bail money to medics to coping with agitators. And they are honing their message.

They emphasize nonviolent resistance and in the same breath use terms like "war at home" and "rebellion." Some announce they are prepared to be jailed, or even die, for the cause. They look to civil rights teachings of the 1960s for guidance.

"The purpose of these actions is not to de-escalate people's anger and frustration, but to channel it and raise tensions that are just below the surface when it comes to police issues and race issues," explained Michael McPhearson, co-chairman of the Don't Shoot Coalition and executive director of Veterans For Peace.

"People are going to be angry, and they might want to turn their expression into a violent action," he said. "Hopefully, we can turn that into positive energy by modeling militant direct action."

At his training, Sekou gave activists a tool for keeping calm during a tense police encounter. He told them to chant "love" with each rap of the baton.

They tried it, and Sekou asked whether they felt a difference.

"I feel empowered," offered one person from the corner of the room.

Rachel Sommer, of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, said her group has counted 346 arrests of protesters so far through the jail support the group provides. Those are just the ones they know of.

Of the 83 women and 201 men they have detailed information on, 44 are facing felony charges -- mostly for assault or burglary charges related to looting. Five of those arrested are still in custody, Sommer said.

Unlawful assembly or failure to disperse constitute the majority of arrests, Sommer said. More than a third, she estimated, were from the first few weeks of protesting in Ferguson.

If there is no indictment, Sommer said, "I expect there will be a lot more arrests.

"If it's anything like things were handled the first week of Ferguson," she added, "I expect police misconduct."

A PEN American Center report from last month lamented the arrests of 21 people who were providing coverage of the protests, some through social media and some who were journalists.

The report quoted one as saying, "When the wholly peaceful protest was going on, all of a sudden they'd pull out armored trucks and riot gear, and the tone would sort of shift. People in the crowd would get angry, 'Why are you doing this, we're not doing anything wrong, this is our community. There might be, but wasn't always, a plastic bottle thrown (by protesters). Once that happened, it was guns drawn, gas, and not giving a (expletive) about the press."

The ACLU of Missouri has been in federal court repeatedly challenging arrest tactics it argues are less about safety and more about quelling free speech. Last week, the organization sent a letter to Gov. Jay Nixon and others reminding that "speech, especially speech during times of unrest and public crisis can -- at times -- be loud, raucous, and even occasionally frightening," but it is guaranteed under the First Amendment.

Of the arrests MORE has tracked, at least 40 people were held longer than 24 hours on more minor offenses because of existing bench warrants, the group said. Sommer said that is further evidence of the need to reform the municipal courts, something the group started advocating before Ferguson took the issue to the national stage.

Sommer said ever-increasing bail amounts have also been a concern. A $500 bail used to be standard for protest-related offenses; now, a more common amount is $1,000.

Last week, Nixon promised that "pillars of safety and speech" will mark how law enforcement responds to any unrest. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley also emphasized the right of demonstrators to voice their opinions.

But they reiterated violence won't be tolerated.

McPhearson's coalition has suggested "rules of engagement" for how authorities respond to protests, emphasizing tolerance and clear communication. He said officials have discussed the list with them, but there's been no resolution.

"Whether or not they'll actually respect people's right to assemble, I guess that just depends on their interpretation of what that is," he said.

MORE is working with about 30 lawyers to help arrange bail for those who are arrested and to provide other legal assistance. A 24-hour hotline will field requests.

"We have to assume the worst in order to be able to help everyone," Sommer said.

There will also be plenty of eyes on events.

The ACLU has launched a smartphone app that allows people to record and report their interactions with police.

A group called the Canfield Watchmen, part of a national Copwatch network, has distributed more than 200 cameras to people for the same purpose, and has been holding "know your rights" training.

David Whitt, a member of the group and resident of Canfield Drive, where Brown was killed, said he is not reassured by officials' promises because nobody is talking about what many saw as a heavy-handed response of police last time.

"We had officers pointing guns in unarmed people's faces," he said. "You can't do that, man. That's illegal."

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