Missouri’s governor on Tuesday named 16 members to a panel charged with making recommendations to fix social and economic inequalities in Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb hit by protests since a white policeman fatally shot an unarmed black teen in August.
Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, took the action as the region braced for a decision by a local grand jury on whether to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Protests are expected, particularly if Wilson does not face criminal charges.
Nixon’s Ferguson Commission has until September 2015 to make recommendations after reviewing the social and economic conditions that contributed to the unrest triggered by Brown’s Aug. 9 death.
“It is indeed progress that people in this group were chosen not in spite of dedicated service in law enforcement but because of it,” said the Rev. Starsky Wilson, a black clergyman who is one of the panel’s two co-chairmen. “Others of us are at the table not in spite of our actions in the patriotic protests but because of them.”
Nixon, who is white, called the commission members tough, smart and empowered.
“They are united by the shared passion to promote understanding, to hasten healing, to ensure equal opportunities in education and employment and to safeguard the civil rights of all our citizens,” Nixon told a group of local residents, politicians and media.
Zaki Baruti, a leader of the Ferguson protest movement, said he approved of the commissioners chosen by Nixon, a body that included local clergy, a youth activist and law enforcement officials as well as business people.
“The commission in and of itself has fair representation,” Baruti said. “It just needs the powers that be to begin to deal with the clearly defined issues. You have a disproportionate number of white officers working in the community, you have an overabundance of unemployment, you’ve got poor schooling.”
Nixon on Monday declared a state of emergency in Missouri and called up National Guard troops to play a backup role to police in response to any protests that develop after the grand jury’s decision, which officials said was likely this month.
Troops were not visible on the streets of Ferguson on Tuesday. But businesses continued to board up their windows ahead of possible protests. Among those boarded up was a store selling “I Love Ferguson” merchandise intended to raise money for businesses damaged during rioting.
More than one out of five residents of Ferguson, a predominantly black city of about 21,000 people, live below the official U.S. poverty level.
Police in Ferguson were criticized for taking a military posture in response to August demonstrations in the aftermath of the shooting. Police deployed officers in riot gear and used tear gas and rubber bullets against crowds that torched two businesses and at times threw rocks and gasoline bombs at officers.
Police in St. Louis County have since taken conflict de-escalation training. Activist leaders have also been training potential protesters in nonviolent techniques in recent days. County police will take the lead in handling any protests or civic disorder, supplanting the Ferguson Police Department, Nixon said.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said his city’s police force would respond to demonstrations in its normal uniforms unless conditions become violent.
There are conflicting accounts of what happened on Aug. 9, with some witnesses saying Brown had his hands up in surrender when he was shot and others describing a scuffle between Brown and Wilson.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Additional reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis; Editing by Will Dunham and Peter Cooney)