JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon was flying out of St. Louis around noon on Aug. 9, about the same time as a white policeman was fatally shooting an unarmed black 18-year-old a couple of miles from where Nixon had just delivered a college commencement speech.
By the next night, rioting and looting had erupted in Ferguson, where Michael Brown was killed. Since then, questions have been raised about whether the governor should have responded faster to an increasingly chaotic and racially tense situation that focused the eyes of the nation on the St. Louis suburb.
Copies of Nixon’s daily schedule provided upon the request of The Associated Press show that the governor continued to go about his routine business for several days after the shooting, splitting his attention between the unrest in Ferguson and items such as announcing grants to preschools and visiting the State Fair.
Not until the fifth day after Brown’s shooting, after continued clashes between police and protesters, did Nixon clear his schedule and devote his time fully to managing the crisis in Ferguson.
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Nixon has declined to second-guess his actions. But he told the AP that Brown’s death didn’t initially appear to be the sort of situation that a governor should inject himself into.
It “began with a shooting in a street, and, unfortunately, in our state and our country, that happens a lot,” Nixon said. “So your initial read on that sort of stuff is that’s something that’s best handled – and should be best handled – at the most local of levels.”
Racial tension was immediately evident after Brown’s shooting. A mostly white police force stood guard around Brown’s body in the street that Saturday as hundreds of angry onlookers gathered in the predominantly black community. Some chanted: “Kill the police.”
On Monday, Nixon talked by phone with St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and later released a statement asking the U.S. Justice Department to investigate Brown’s shooting.
But Nixon, a Democrat, kept on with his regular schedule. He met with staff about a planned trade trip to Canada, still intending to be gone from Aug. 17-22. He spoke to a group of conservation and wildlife leaders, and attended meetings at the Capitol about gubernatorial appointments and the budget.
In Ferguson, meanwhile, Brown’s family was holding a news conference pleading for peace. Monday night, police in riot gear used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters.
On Tuesday, the Rev. Al Sharpton arrived in St. Louis for a news conference with Brown’s family. Nixon flew to the opposite corner of Missouri, announcing grants to improve two rural preschools.
The governor traveled to St. Louis on Tuesday evening to meet with local police and attend a community forum in Ferguson’s neighboring city of Florissant. Then he flew back to the capital. That night, protests continued.
On Wednesday, Nixon was particularly busy.
He met with Democratic House members in Jefferson City. He flew to Joplin to tour a new high school, rebuilt after a deadly 2011 tornado for which Nixon received rave reviews about his disaster management. Then, he went to the State Fair in Sedalia, where he met backstage with the band Florida Georgia Line.
In Ferguson, police were again firing tear gas at protesters, some of whom lobbed Molotov cocktails back. Two journalists were among those arrested.
That night appeared to be the turning point for Nixon. His schedule shows that he spent the next 10 days focused almost entirely on Ferguson. He declared a state of emergency Thursday and announced that he was putting the State Highway Patrol in charge of security. His official Twitter account posted a photo of Nixon that afternoon, paying his respects at a memorial near where Brown had been shot.
“When it began burgeoning up, and we saw the level of potential problems that began to arise there – not just in folks protesting, but in the aggressiveness and what not – then I acted,” Nixon told the AP.
Some thought it came too late.
“He should have acted much sooner,” said political science professor Ken Warren of Saint Louis University. “To me, it became apparent sooner than Nixon realized that it was more than just a normal shooting –that this was a big national and even international issue.”
One of Nixon’s most outspoken critics has been local state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, a Democrat who was among the protesters tear gassed by police. She has cursed Nixon on Twitter and held up a poster-board cutout of his face during protests, asserting he was missing in action.
“He wasn’t prepared,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “You have to get down to the level of the people who are hurting, and the governor never did that.”
Nixon had activated the National Guard about a dozen times before Ferguson, typically for natural disasters.
He sent the Guard to Ferguson to protect the police command center in the midst of a human-made disaster that Nixon said was rooted in decades of racial tensions.
“In that sense, it’s a much different thing to manage,” Nixon said.