JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — As a candidate for Missouri governor, Eric Greitens asserted that there could have been peace “by the second night” if a governor with a calm and commanding presence had intervened in the violent protests in Ferguson after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.
The former Navy SEAL officer declared that he would have been both caring and firm by listening to people’s concerns and imposing a dusk-to-dawn curfew.
Now, Greitens’ promises are being put to the test during a new round of protests over the acquittal last week of a white former St. Louis police officer who fatally shot a black drug suspect. Though daytime protests have been peaceful, the first three nights were marred by broken windows, physical clashes with police and scores of arrests.
Peace did not come quite as quickly as Greitens envisioned. And although he has not imposed a curfew, the Republican governor has been in St. Louis with a strong law-and-order message, even posting a social media video of a handcuffed man being carried face down by four officers as an apparent deterrent to other potential vandals.
“People who are peacefully protesting are going to be protected,” Greitens said in a phone interview Tuesday from St. Louis, repeating what has become a refrain. “But if you riot, we’re going to cuff you. If you assault a law enforcement officer, we’re going to arrest you. If you engage in violence and vandalism, you’re going to know that we have absolutely no tolerance for it.”
Protest leaders agree that Greitens has been consistent and clear — something lacking during the former administration of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who could not seek re-election because of term limits. When Nixon was governor, police tactics against Ferguson protesters swung between tear-gas crackdowns with armored vehicles and stand-back commands as businesses were burned and looted.
Yet some say Greitens’ approach has done little to address tensions between law officers and residents who believe that racial minorities have long been the targets of overly aggressive policing.
“The law-and-order rhetoric, I think, just exacerbates things because it insinuates that the problem here is violence on the part of protesters rather than violence on the part of police,” said John N. Robinson III, an assistant sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis who participated in recent protests outside the city police department and jail.
Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, was shot in August 2014 after physically struggling with white officer Darren Wilson. Nixon was roundly criticized during the resulting clashes between police and protesters. He initially tried to keep up his regular schedule of public appearances at schools and the state fair before finally devoting his full attention to Ferguson. When a grand jury later decided not to charge Wilson, Nixon opted not to use the National Guard to protect businesses and vehicles from damage.
In a July 2016 Republican debate, Greitens declared that he would have handled things differently.
“The great tragedy of Ferguson is if we’d had a leader who’d shown up with any kind of command presence and courage and calm and clarity, we could have had peace by the second night,” Greitens said during the debate, adding that he had personally talked with demonstrators on the streets.
While saying that he would have imposed a more aggressive curfew than Nixon, Greitens also pledged that he would “build relationships between our police officers and our communities.” And he said that he would have gone to a local church with the mayor and police chief and community leaders, “so that you have a place to go so that you can be heard.”
Greitens said Tuesday that he has been trying to build relationships in the black community, pointing to meetings with some clergy that occurred even before he took office in January. He also met at a St. Louis church with local religious leaders and law officers on Sept. 11 — four days before a judge acquitted Jason Stockley in the 2011 shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith after a high-speed chase.
Part of the goal was to discuss how to maintain peace during the anticipated protests. But the conversation at times became heated, according to both Greitens and other participants.
The governor traveled to St. Louis last Thursday, hosting a news conference with Smith’s fiancé to plead for peaceful demonstrations. He remained in the city through Monday morning while working from a state office building and visiting an emergency operations center. When businesses were vandalized at night, Greitens was on the street there the next day. He talked with businesses owners, residents and law officers. But he has not directly engaged with protesters on the street.
Some black community leaders say Greitens has done little to address concerns that the criminal justice system has failed them or to try to build up their communities.
“He is a strict law-and-order governor,” said the Rev. Darryl Gray, chairman of the social justice commission for the Missionary Baptist State Convention. “He has been more concerned with policing black communities than protecting black communities.”
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