Jefferson City, Mo. —As businesses were burned and looted in Ferguson, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon was inundated with messages from the public criticizing him for not using the National Guard to prevent the civil unrest that followed a grand jury’s decision in the Michael Brown case.
Documents provided to The Associated Press under an open records request show Nixon received hundreds of online messages from people in the St. Louis area and across the country expressing bewilderment, frustration and outrage that guardsmen were not preemptively deployed to the most troubled locations.
A Missouri legislative committee is to begin holding hearings Wednesday aimed at determining why not. The bipartisan panel is to first hear testimony from local officials as a prelude to calling upon members of Nixon’s administration in the coming weeks.
A Nixon spokesman said Tuesday that the Guard was intended to provide a “support role,” so that hundreds of law enforcement officers could be devoted to policing the area. The governor has said previously that he was pleased there were no deaths in the riots but was “somewhat surprised by the amount of violence” that occurred the night of Nov. 24, when a prosecutor announced that grand jurors had decided not to charge Ferguson officer Darren Wilson, who is white, for killing the unarmed 18-year-old Brown, who was black.
Nixon had declared a state of emergency a week ahead of the grand jury announcement and had said the Guard would help local authorities “protect life and property.” That drew a mixed reaction from St. Louis area residents, with some sending Nixon thankful messages and others expressing concern that the military’s presence would inflame an already tense situation.
When the grand jury decision was announced, more than 700 guardsmen were stationed preemptively throughout the St. Louis region and nearly 500 law officers were in Ferguson. But no guardsmen were positioned outside businesses along a prominent Ferguson road where looting and arson had occurred after Brown’s Aug. 9 shooting.
“A lot of state resources were put into that and then apparently not really used – or used in a manner that’s not being fully explained,” said Sen. Kurt Schaefer, chairman of the Joint Committee on Government Accountability, which is holding the hearings.
Moments after the grand jury announcement, some protesters began looting and setting fires to businesses and vehicles in Ferguson and the nearby suburb of Dellwood. The National Guard was not on the scene as television networks carried live coverage of the destruction.
“Ferguson businesses are being looted and burned. Where are the National Guard?” Ferguson resident Sharon Heidemann wrote late on Nov. 24 in one of first such messages sent to Nixon through the public “contact” section of his website.
Over the next 24 hours, Nixon’s office received about 500 messages critical of his response. He got barely a dozen messages supporting his actions.
“Shame on you for letting Ferguson burn,” Ferguson resident Michael Pierce wrote shortly after midnight on Nov. 25.
One local National Guard soldier wrote to Nixon’s office saying he was voluntarily and single-handedly protecting a Ferguson shopping center against looters. “I’m doing this on my own free will. SO WHERE ARE THE TROOPS,” wrote soldier Andre Akins.
Maj. Gen. Stephen Danner said that although the Guard had trained for handling civil unrest, Nixon’s orders were for the troops to provide a supporting role to St. Louis County police who were leading the state and local effort to secure Ferguson. Guard members were eventually sent to Ferguson’s troubled spots early on Nov. 25, but the most serious damage had been done by then.
“The Guard was not there to actively engage in law enforcement activities, but to provide eyes and ears and boots on the ground for law enforcement, to call them when needed,” Danner told the Missouri Senate Appropriations Committee last week.
The Missouri National Guard spent about $6.6 million on payroll, meals and supplies while deployed in the St. Louis area from Nov. 17 to Dec. 16. Millions more dollars were spent by the state patrol and local police.
St. Louis County recently announced that it was spending $500,000 to demolish 18 buildings – housing about 30 businesses – that were burned in Ferguson and Dellwood.
Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III said he had asked St. Louis County police to bring in the National Guard when the grand jury decision was announced. In an email previously obtained by the AP, the county police chief told an assistant that the Guard would not be placed at the Ferguson Police Department “per the governor.”
Knowles said he’s frustrated, like many of his residents, that the Guard wasn’t deployed sooner. He plans to testify at the legislative hearings.
“The people deserve an answer as to what was done, and why,” Knowles said.