SHAFAQNA – Police and protest organizers laid the groundwork on Friday for steps to avert street violence once a St. Louis-area grand jury decides whether to indict a white police officer on criminal charges for fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager.
President Barack Obama added his voice to the chorus of politicians, civic leaders and activists appealing for calm in Ferguson, Missouri, ahead of the impending grand jury decision and demonstrations expected to follow.
“I think first and foremost, keep protests peaceful,” Obama said during an ABC News interview taped for Sunday’s “This Week” program.
“This is a country that allows everybody to express their views, allows them to peacefully assemble to protest actions that they think are unjust,” he said. “But using any event as an excuse for violence is contrary to rule of law, contrary to who we are.”
In the latest sign that a decision was imminent, prosecutors on Friday informed media organizations that plans for a news conference to announce the outcome were being made, though the date, time and location remained undetermined.
A 12-member St. Louis County grand jury has been weighing evidence for months on the disputed circumstances of the Aug. 9 slaying of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, a predominantly black suburb of 21,000 people. The panel met behind closed doors again on Friday.
Lawyers for Brown’s family say the teen was trying to surrender when he was gunned down, and a companion who was with him has said Brown had his hands raised in the air. Wilson’s supporters insist the officer shot Brown in self-defense.
The killing instantly became a flashpoint for U.S. racial tensions, touching off weeks of sometimes violent demonstrations in Ferguson calling for the arrest of Wilson. He has instead been placed on administrative leave and gone into seclusion.
At a news briefing by area politicians and law enforcement on preparations for renewed protests anticipated whether or not Wilson is indicted, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said he did not know when a decision would be revealed, “but we expect it will be coming very shortly.”
The nearby Jennings School District said it would close on Monday and Tuesday due to the possibility of unrest in neighboring Ferguson. Students were already scheduled to be off the rest of the week for the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday.
The Ferguson-Florrisant school district was planning for the time being to keep its schools open on Monday and Tuesday.
Local activists held a news conference at a church in Ferguson on Friday to announce the deployment of more than 50 volunteers, dubbed “Disciples of Justice,” who will be assigned to mill about protesters to help diffuse tensions on the street.
“We want the community to know we’ve got an extra set of eyes and ears in the midst of the demonstrations,” said Anthony Gray, an attorney for Brown’s family.
Hundreds of civil rights lawyers from across America were descending on Ferguson to monitor the possible protests and ABC News reported that the FBI has sent 100 agents to the St. Louis area. FBI officials were not immediately available for comment.
Mayor Slay of St. Louis said police were under orders to exercise restraint to avoid stoking violence.
“We have instructed our police officers to protect the protesters’ constitutional rights,” he said. “We have directed them to use more active tactics only when necessary to keep people safe or to protect property.”
Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has declared a state of emergency and called in National Guard troops to back up local police. Groups from across the country have said they would take to the streets again in large numbers if charges are not brought.
Police in riot gear arrested three people late Thursday night and early Friday morning in protests that led to scuffles, police said, adding one demonstrator was doused with pepper spray for resisting arrest.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department was providing new guidance to law-enforcement authorities about how to maintain public safety while still safeguarding the free-speech rights of protesters.
“The Justice Department encourages law enforcement officials, in every jurisdiction, to work with the communities they serve to minimize needless confrontation,” Holder said in a video address released by the Justice department.