How strange this Ferguson situation is, everybody watching the pressure cooker to see if it will blow.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon took some flack Monday for pre-emptively declaring a state of emergency and activating the state National Guard, which he said will be available to support the operations of local and state police if needed, but won’t play a direct law enforcement role.
Some community leaders in the Ferguson area said Nixon’s actions signal his lack of trust in protesters to act responsibly. But the governor is far from alone in that regard.
Reporters representing media outlets around the world aren’t camped out in the St. Louis area because they anticipate a quiet vigil if a grand jury declines to recommend that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson face charges for the shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown.
Property owners aren’t boarding up their buildings because they’re expecting everybody to go home.
Grand jury decision day, whenever that is, will be a defining moment in the U.S. history of protest. People want to see if they can use civil disobedience to bring about change, specifically in the way that white people in positions of authority, like police officers, regard and treat people of color.
That’s a high-risk proposition. Will police tolerate trespassing and forms of lawbreaking that don’t veer into violence? Will they show up in riot gear and with military artillery? Will protesters know where to draw the line? Can they control the people who may show up more intent upon wreaking havoc than making a point?
The stakes being what they are, you want to have confidence in the people in charge. Toward that end, Nixon did himself no favors Monday when he answered reporters’ questions during a conference call with the media.
The Democratic governor started out coherently enough. He talked about the “dual goals” of the local and state response, which will be to keep public safety and protect constitutional rights. He was clear that the St. Louis County police will be in charge of the city of Ferguson, not the Ferguson police force that has been at the center of the storm.
Things deteriorated once Nixon started taking questions.
He came off especially poorly when a journalist asked “does the buck stop with you?”
The correct answer would have been, “Of course. Next question.”
But Nixon seemed flummoxed. Here is his answer, as transcribed and reported by some media organizations:
“We’re, um, you know, it uh, it uh, you know, our goal here is to, is to, you know, keep the peace and allow folks’ voices to, uh, uh, to be heard. Um, and in that balance, I’m attempting, you know I am, using the resources we have to marshal to be predictable, uh, for both those pillars. I, I don’t, I’m more, (pause) I, I have to say I don’t spend a tremendous amount of time personalizing this vis-a-vis me. I’m trying to make sure that, uh, um, that, that we move forward in a predictable, peaceful manner that plans for all contingencies that might occur so that people of a disparate group of opinions and actions can, can be heard while at the same time the property and, and persons, personal, persons of people in the St. Louis region are protected. So, that, I mean, uh, I’d, I’d prefer not to be a commentator on it. I’m, I’m, uh, making decisions, as, in a, uh, you know, to make sure that we’re prepared for all contingencies, and I think this is another step, positive, you know, positive, predictable step, towards preparing for any contingency.”
To some extent, this is the way Nixon talks. He frequently wanders all over while answering questions, using fragmented sentences and saying “uh” much too much. If he ever took a course in public speaking, it wasn’t effective.
Maybe Nixon’s problem Monday was nerves. Or maybe his inclination to waffle whenever possible flared up at the worst possible time. But he certainly did not inspire confidence.
By Tuesday, Nixon had gotten it right. Asked basically the same question after he named members of his newly created “Ferguson Commission,” the governor replied, “the buck always stops with me.”
It does. And Nixon needs to be projecting a more in-charge appearance.
To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.