Skip to main content

In tense Ferguson, trying to balance security, protesters' rights

By Greg Botelho, CNN
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 0149 GMT (0949 HKT)
  • Ferguson, Missouri, has seen large protests, some violence
  • Residents are angry over police shooting a teen, the police response afterward
  • Authorities say they respect rights to assemble, but also have a duty to maintain security

(CNN) -- On the one hand, there's the need to respect and protect people's constitutional right to congregate and express their opinions. On the other, there's the need to make sure all people and all property are safe and secure.

But, if and when these responsibilities' conflict, where do you draw the line?

That's a question authorities in Ferguson, Missouri, are having to answer this weekend. In fact, they've had to answer it every day and night since 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer.

The shooting stirred anger, indignation and emotional, expansive, racially-charged protests. At times, these protests have been followed by looting -- as happened overnight Friday -- and confrontations with police.

Gov. declares state of emergency, curfew
Store manager: People are scared
Protesters march in Ferguson, Missouri, on Thursday, August 21. The St. Louis suburb has been in turmoil since a white police officer, Darren Wilson, fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, on August 9. Some protesters and law enforcement officers have clashed in the streets, leading to injuries and arrests. Protesters march in Ferguson, Missouri, on Thursday, August 21. The St. Louis suburb has been in turmoil since a white police officer, Darren Wilson, fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, on August 9. Some protesters and law enforcement officers have clashed in the streets, leading to injuries and arrests.
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Photos: Emotions run high in Ferguson Photos: Emotions run high in Ferguson

"If there was an easy way to separate those who hurt from those who helped, we would. But it's hard," Gov. Jay Nixon said. "And sometimes, especially at night, we can't."

Acknowledging "the balance is important" between maintaining security and protecting the First Amendment right to free speech and peaceable assembly, Nixon on Saturday decided that -- for five hours daily, at least -- security will take precedence. He's instituted a curfew for Ferguson to last between midnight and 5 a.m.

Governor imposes curfew in Ferguson

"This is not to silence the people of Ferguson or this region or others, but to contain those who are drowning out the voice of the people with their actions," Nixon said. "We will not allow a handful of looters to endanger the rest of this community."

His decision stirred instant indignation among many gathered at the community meeting where he announced it. Some screamed out that authorities' priority should be to provide justice to Brown's family, not to clamp down on those calling for it.

Carissa McGraw is one of those protesters who don't think the curfew makes sense, accusing authorities of being focused more on intimidating people than addressing their core concerns and calls for justice. The order might further fuel residents' animosity by giving the implication that police don't trust them to be on the streets.

Beyond that, McGraw simply thinks having a curfew won't work -- and, in fact, might make things worse for community-police relations if it leads to confrontations.

"They're not going to do this," McGraw said of people abiding by the curfew. "You have people who -- at this point -- do not care what authorities say right now."

Rebuilding trust seen as key

The shooting of Brown spurred animosity among Ferguson residents toward their police force. The fact that Brown was black while the man who shot him, officer Darren Wilson, is white added fuel to the tension.

The police response in the days afterward didn't help, with some criticizing it as too militarized and heavy-handed. Nor did Ferguson police Chief Thomas Jackson's decision to release video and documents calling Brown the "primary suspect" in the robbery of a box of cigars from a convenience store, only to add hours later that this robbery wasn't related to why Wilson confronted the teenager.

Multiple officials -- from U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who has been overseeing the security in Ferguson since Thursday -- have spoken about the need to rebuild trust in the community for law enforcement.

But as community members' shouting down of Johnson and the governor at a meeting Saturday illustrated, it hasn't happened yet. Far from it.

The situation did appear to calm significantly Thursday, when Johnson literally and figuratively embraced the protesters rather than confront them. Then came Friday night and early Saturday morning, violence that McGraw said she believes was "instigated by the police officers themselves (who) were in their militant stance against the people.

"At that point, the people were like, 'Wow, we're supposed to have our freedom. We're supposed to be able to do this. And you're still being very aggressive.' "

Ex-FBI official: 'No choice' but to have curfew

We must first have and maintain peace
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon

There are also those who think police weren't aggressive enough as men looted stores around Ferguson overnight Friday. While some activists criticized authorities for using armored vehicles and tear gas in one instance, on the other side store owners ripped police for not stepping in and arresting those responsible.

Not being as aggressive could invite more criminal acts in Ferguson, claims Tom Fuentes, a former FBI assistant director and CNN law enforcement analyst.

"If I was a police officer on the street once again in that situation, I'd be scared that the message went out to all the hooligans in the greater St. Louis area, if you need a new TV set or you need something, come to town because we're not going to stop you when you start looting stores," Fuentes said.

"That's a horrible message to send."

In Fuentes' opinion, authorities had "no choice" but to institute and enforce a curfew. A full week in, the situation has not gotten much better -- as the unrest overnight Friday shows.

As Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell said, "There is no excuse for looting to be going on six days later in a community in the United States."

If people go after more stores, what are police supposed to do? If they throw rocks or Molotov cocktails at police, what's wrong with having them wear riot gear and armored equipment? And, the bottom line, how long can this go on before authorities step in and clear the streets?

If the protesters aim to get their message out and, in so doing, get justice for Michael Brown, then "we must first have and maintain peace," Nixon said. And having a curfew should help in that regard, he argued.

"The eyes of the world are watching," the governor added. "This is a test of (whether) a community -- this community, any community -- can break the cycle of fear, distrust and violence and replace them with peace, strength and ultimately justice."

Cincinnati chief: Some residents must 'stand up'

Will Ferguson pass that test? Will residents and the police come to see other as being part of the same solution, rather than seeing each other as the problem?

A big part on how that relationship turns out might depend on what happens with officer Wilson, including whether he's charged and/or convicted in Brown's shooting.

But beyond that, the most important thing all parties must do is talk, Blackwell said. Really talk.

"Their needs to be words of healing," the Cincinnati police chief said of what police and other officials must express. "There needs to be a strategic dialogue that is aimed at resolution and reconciliation."

It's not all on police, though. The people of Ferguson -- especially the leaders among them -- also have a responsibility to speak up, act out and take care of their community, according to Blackwell. That means working with police as partners, not as adversaries, for the common good.

"There needs to be some people that stand up," Blackwell told CNN. "... The people in Ferguson that stand for justice and stand for peace need to be in the trenches with law enforcement, right now."

What's next as authorities probe Ferguson shooting?

Part of complete coverage on
Follow our complete coverage of the protests and aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
What happened when Michael Brown met Officer Darren Wilson? A timeline from both perspectives.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Police Chief Thomas Jackson issued a video apology to the parents of Michael Brown and peaceful protesters.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 0111 GMT (0911 HKT)
Two men, shocked at what they saw, describe an unarmed teenager with his hands up in the air as he's gunned down by a police officer.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
As tensions in Ferguson, Missouri, have bubbled, one official after another has taken the lead, grappling to figure out how to stop it from coming to a boil.
August 23, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
The QuikTrip that's now in shambles, its iconic red awning a nest of twisted metal, was once a favorite stop for residents here.
August 23, 2014 -- Updated 0024 GMT (0824 HKT)
At least 212 people have been arrested over nearly two weeks of clashes with police in. A lot has been said about the fact that just a handful of them were actually from Ferguson.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The fate of Darren Wilson -- the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who killed Michael Brown -- is heading to a jury.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1648 GMT (0048 HKT)
Questions are being asked about the man who at the moment is responsible for pursuing any prosecution and whether he can be impartial.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 0144 GMT (0944 HKT)
Mike Knox, owner of Freestyle Barber & Beauty in Ferguson, Missouri, said police have pulled him over twice for what he calls "DWB" -- driving while black.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1019 GMT (1819 HKT)
As protests continue to rage over the killing of Michael Brown, conflicting accounts and police reticence have made it difficult to ascertain what exactly happened.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
If adults are having trouble talking openly about race and class, it's easy to see why some parents are either afraid, uncomfortable or unwilling to bring the topics up with their children.
A Flipboard magazine of CNN's coverage of the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1403 GMT (2203 HKT)
I am a mother who watched her mother bury her only son.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
See photos of the protests currently unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri.
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
"He was funny, silly. He would make you laugh. He'd bring people back together," his father, Michael Brown Sr., told reporters.