Ferguson on Knife’s Edge as Governor Declares State of Emergency

November 18, 2014 Updated: November 18, 2014

FERGUSON, Mo.—The mood in this small suburb of St. Louis was somber and tense on Monday as snow flurries and freezing temperatures kept the streets mostly bare ahead of a highly anticipated grand jury decision in the case of police officer Darren Wilson.

Wilson, who shot an unarmed 18-year-old man in August, could be indicted for murder by the 12-member grand jury. Officials have refused to give a specific date for the decision, and said only that it will be announced in mid- or late November.

As the day wore on and no decision came, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon made an announcement of his own: He declared a state of emergency and summoned the reserve National Guard.

Though Nixon refused to give any operational details about where and how many National Guard troops would be positioned around St. Louis, he did vigorously defend the need for what some saw as an unusually strong move. He has only twice before summoned the National Guard, both times in the case of major storms.

“We have a responsibility to plan for an eventuality that may arise,” said Nixon during a conference call with reporters on Monday evening. He added that it represented a “predictable, natural step” in the government’s preparations for possible public reaction to the grand jury decision.

Last week, the governor outlined the state’s intention to protect the public while ensuring free speech. His tone on Monday was slightly less confident, as he fumbled over direct questions from reporters about exact troop numbers and their positions, saying only that “we hope that peace will prevail.”

Nixon did say that National Guard troops’ role will be to support the St. Louis County Police Department and the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, which will function under one unified command led by the county. That will include being posted at locations such as firehouses, command centers, and other unspecified locations.

The county police will have control over Ferguson in case there are instances of civil unrest.

“People need to feel safe,” said Nixon. “To achieve those goals, we need to be prepared and we need to be proactive.”

On Ferguson’s West Florissant Avenue, where much of the protests, rioting, and looting took place over the summer, businesses were tightly boarded up against a potential repeat of that chaos. Many residents seemed to readily spot reporters, shooing them away from the boarded-up stores.

Just across town in this tiny St. Louis suburb of about 20,000 people, on South Florissant Avenue near the local police station, fewer shops had boarded up their windows. Yet the mood of nervous anticipation was palpable.

At the “I Love Ferguson” gift shop that uses proceeds to help fund businesses that are recovering from looting or damage during the summer’s protests, Dorothy Kaiser was bracing herself. Lifelong Ferguson resident Kaiser, 80, said she is expecting that things could take a turn for the worse.

“When a storm is brewing, you can feel the barometer pressure building,” she said. “That’s what we’ve been living under.”

Sandy Sunsevere, 55, who runs the small shop as a volunteer, is also concerned about activists and protesters who said they are treated with less respect because of their race. For Sunsevere, who has been a Ferguson resident 27 years, the sentiment doesn’t quite ring true.

“There’s a certain element of people who choose to be divided,” she said, adding that in the end she’s hopeful that a more peaceful response will prevail.

“There’s a lot more love in the world than negativity.”