The governor of Missouri on Tuesday announced the formation of a commission to study the "underlying social and economic conditions" that resulted in riots after an unarmed black teenager was shot dead by a white police officer in the city of Ferguson last August.
The incident sparked a debate over racial profiling and police brutality in the St. Louis suburb and in America. Protesters, the majority of them peaceful, have been camping outside Ferguson's police department since August, demanding action. A grand jury is deliberating whether to indict Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown.
The Ferguson commission of nine blacks and seven whites will conduct hearings, gather evidence and develop policy recommendations. While it has been given until September 15 to issue a report, Gov. Jay Nixon has encouraged members to suggest steps along the way to bridge the "deep splits" in the community. The commission, however, will not have the mandate to investigate any specific police shooting.
Phil Gassoway, a Ferguson resident and one of the protesters outside the police department, called Nixon's announcement a "joke" and accused him of pretending to help. If the governor really wanted to help, he would have announced a board with powers over the police, said Gassoway.
Some protest groups have demanded a citizens review board with subpoena- and decision-making powers to review police practices and investigate specific incidents involving police violence in the future.
'A good start'
Another Ferguson resident, Cassandra Butler, an African-American political scientist who attended the announcement, thought it was "a good start," but said the real test would be in the implementation of any recommendations.
At a news conference following the announcement about the commission, the governor faced tough questions from some members of the public over his decision to declare a state of emergency and activate the National Guard a day earlier.
"If somebody's breaking a window, are they going to get shot down on the street?" one agitated questioner asked. Another wanted to know why the governor was "preparing for war" when the protests had been peaceful for the last three months.
"I'm preparing for peace," Nixon said. He expressed concern about some people who may be coming to "instigate or cause harm" to people or property, pointing out that protests immediately after Brown's death had turned violent. He promised that authorities would apply "principles of community policing."
Nixon is not the only person worried about potential violence if the grand jury decides against indicting Wilson. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has said the announcement in the racially charged case "will likely be exploited by some individuals to justify threats and attacks against law enforcement and critical infrastructure." The agency issued the warning a few days ago in a bulletin obtained by news agencies.
Akbar Muhammad of the Justice for Michael Brown Leadership Coalition, who is also a member of the Nation of Islam, attended Nixon's news conference. He accused authorities of "creating a hysteria" in the community.
"People are keeping their children out of schools, stocking up on supplies, and then they call in the National Guard," Muhammad said.
Other protesters have indicated that the activation of the National Guard should be taken as a threat, saying that in the last few months it's been the police who have unnecessarily engaged them physically.
"The police are not properly trained, and when the protesters yell and scream at them, they cannot take it," Gassoway said of the Ferguson police. He described a situation in which police started "grabbing" some protesters, "throwing them to the ground" and "locking them up."
Despite cold weather, the protesters outside the police station have at least one person there most of the time. They say that once the grand jury announces its decision, more will come out to converge there. If there is an indictment, they say they will stay there until Wilson "goes to jail." If the jury does not indict, they will demand a new prosecutor.