After a grand jury failed to indict Officer Darren Wilson, in November 2014, it seemed pretty clear that the police were hanging back, and the National Guard was kept back, as mobs rampaged through Ferguson, Missouri.
But until now, that conclusion was based on observation, not on specific knowledge of the authorities’ intentions. This week, however, local business owners, some financially ruined by their losses in the rioting, are indignant about new revelations from a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which quotes emails outlining Governor Jay Nixon’s policy for the National Guard deployment.
The Post-Dispatch report focuses on the use of the National Guard. But the article refers also to leadership concerns about the image of law enforcement, after the earlier mob activity in August, when there was widespread criticism of the militarization of the police force.
And the real story is indicated by a very brief passage right at the end:
In planning for the grand jury announcement, the command staff met with a coalition of protesters, [Major Bret Johnson, field operations director of the highway patrol] said. They built a plan to keep police out of riot gear. The protesters contended those tactics had incited violence in August, he said.
More on that meeting with the “coalition of protesters” in a minute.
The decision to just let stuff happen
Here’s what the Post-Dispatch story says about the lower profile Nixon and the local authorities wanted for the police and National Guard:
For months, critics have questioned why the Missouri National Guard did not respond more quickly as buildings burned along Ferguson’s main business corridors.
But even had guardsmen arrived sooner that night in November, interviews and newly released documents show they would not have had the authority to stop the violence.
The Guard was never meant to engage with protesters, Adjutant Gen. Stephen Danner said on Tuesday. Troops were to stand guard over sites critical to the region, sometimes as invisibly as possible, documents show.
Guardsmen were not authorized to shoot to protect property in Ferguson, make arrests, or even stop people from committing most crimes.
In the face of anger from Ferguson residents, the authorities are defending their decision not to protect Ferguson from attacks and destruction.
Nixon and others continue to defend that policy, saying they ordered restraint by police to avoid escalation and bloodshed. …
“Optics of various sorts are important as we head towards this mission,” wrote one National Guard officer in an email to other officials, which the Post-Dispatch recently obtained. “We are deliberately constraining mobilization timelines to the last couple days to minimize public backlash … We have coordinated for lower profile, less confrontational likely mission sets … (to) minimize public militarization perception.”
The authorities adopted the attitude that the only way to deal with the backlash after the grand jury report was to allow the attacks in Ferguson, because to not allow them would be to court “civilian deaths.”
“[W]e made that decision to choose life over property,” Johnson said. If the Guard had tried to stop the arson and looting on Nov. 24, “the only way to stop that, with the amount of people there, would have been with deadly force. We would have used citizen soldiers against our citizens of the state of Missouri.”
But that’s a flawed premise. If the police and the Guard had been there in force, instead of exhibiting the lower profile discussed in the emails quoted in the Post-Dispatch, the mobs would certainly have been angry about being thwarted – but they would have been far less likely to try to attack anyone, and thus cause shooting to start. (Which, by the way, it did anyway. See the open thread linked in the first paragraph above.)
This policy decision by Nixon and the law enforcement leaders shows poor judgment and an inability to withstand political pressure. The choice they faced was not between preventing property destruction and risking civilian deaths. The choice was between maintaining order and not maintaining order. They chose not to maintain order.
They had no defensible reason for that choice. There is no justification, ever, for rampaging through your city burning and looting people’s businesses. Period. Doing that is not a moral act of any kind. Under no circumstances is there a justification for allowing it to happen.
The pressure from the Obama administration and radical thugs
But the authorities in Missouri were under pressure to let it happen. I wrote it up for LU at the time. The pressure came from two sources, which were acting in concert. Those sources were networks of radicals, which descended on the St. Louis metro to organize protests, and the Obama administration’s Justice Department. It was a collaboration between those radicals and the Justice Department that put together the meetings with the “coalition of protesters,” referred to by Major Bret Johnson of the highway patrol. We knew about those meetings at the time.
Now we know that the meetings produced policy changes. It was because of those meetings that Governor Nixon and his law enforcement leaders decided not to maintain order, but to keep a lower profile and allow massive property destruction. Go back and read the passages quoted above. Now, compare them with the list of demands presented by the “coalition of protesters” in November, especially the ones excerpted in my November blog post:
7) Police will wear only the attire minimally required for their safety. Specialized riot gear will be avoided except as a last resort. …
14) Strategically, police commanders will allow protests to take and occupy larger and more disruptive spaces than would normally be tolerated, and will allow occupation of those spaces for longer periods of time than would normally be tolerated. …
15) Police will be instructed to be tolerant of more minor lawbreaking (such as thrown water bottles) when escalating the use of force.
Nixon and the law enforcement leaders caved. There’s no other way to read this. There can be no doubt that Eric Holder and the community organizers in the U.S. Justice Department were complicit in urging them to let violent, destructive riots occur, rather than deploying the force necessary to intimidate the mob and deter the riots.
Feeding this latter point is another interesting tidbit from the Post-Dispatch:
The Guard had warned, in a presentation sent to Nixon’s office in October, that it needed to mobilize and “stage” National Guard early to “mitigate potential POTUS insurrection act authority use” — to prevent President Barack Obama from sending troops to Missouri.
I assume that the Guard, per se, was not engaged in political commentary about this prospect. Rather, its senior officers knew – because it’s the Guard, and they’re plugged in to what’s percolating at the national level – that Obama was likely to do this. We can assume Jay Nixon had already discussed the possibility extensively with his lieutenants inside the state, and the Guard was speaking in the email to a familiar topic. Whoever wrote the email was probably responding, by making that point, to a concern Nixon and law enforcement were known to have.
That said, the Guard presentation was made in October. Clearly, the planning atmosphere in Missouri had been brought in line with the wishes of the “coalition of protesters” by mid-November. The community organizers in the Justice Department did their work well: the radicals were allowed to rampage through Ferguson, and small business owners suffered millions in property losses.