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Missouri governor defends his actions regarding National Guard in Ferguson

ST. LOUIS — Since the night last November when rioting re-erupted in and around Ferguson, local leaders and business owners have complained that the Missouri National Guard and other police entities did nothing to stop the looting and burning that ensued.

Now, with new information indicating that lack of action was ordered from the top — and not just to preserve lives, but also to address the growing public image problem of militarized police — that local anger has flared anew.

“It’s disgusting. I’m beside myself,” said Kurt Barks, owner of Complete Auto Body & Repair on West Florissant Avenue in Dellwood. “I sat in a meeting the Thursday before this happened and was promised there would be National Guard on my property. I was even told, ‘Don’t board it up.’ ”

His business later sustained about $40,000 worth of damage to an automobile showroom, including a vehicle that was flipped over. “I’m sorry, but we pay our taxes, and 75 percent of our business is gone.”

Brian Fletcher, a former Ferguson mayor who is now running for city council, reiterated his call for Gov. Jay Nixon to resign over the events of that night.

“He promised he would protect the property and the people,” said Fletcher. “The people that listened to him were looted, and in many cases their businesses were destroyed, for having faith in the governor. It’s a real disgrace.”

For his part, Nixon forcefully defended Wednesday the choice to protect life rather than property.

“It was clearly not the best path forward to get into a gun fight on the street,” said Nixon. “ … In the hierarchy of responsibilities, saving lives was first, behind it was saving property. [That] was the right way to come at that.”

The Post-Dispatch reported Wednesday that National Guard troops deployed to the Ferguson area Nov. 24, after a grand jury failed to issue an indictment in the killing of Michael Brown, weren’t authorized to shoot to protect property, make arrests or stop people from committing most crimes.

Nixon and others continue to defend that policy, saying they ordered restraint by police to avoid escalation and bloodshed.

But documents obtained by the newspaper indicate there were also concerns about a growing national debate over police militarization, and that officials were intent on keeping the guard units out of the public spotlight for that reason.

“Optics of various sorts are important as we head towards this mission,” wrote one National Guard officer in an email to other officials, which the Post-Dispatch recently obtained. “We are deliberately constraining mobilization timelines to the last couple days to minimize public backlash … We have coordinated for lower profile, less confrontational likely mission sets … (to) minimize public militarization perception.”

The email concludes by noting that there is “much more than military planning and operational necessity driving the train.”

Part of the problem is that while officials were struggling to downplay the use of militarized police in front of the television cameras, they were telling local officials that those police would be there to protect their businesses.

Nixon himself made that vow multiple times prior to the November riots. “Violence will not be tolerated,” Nixon said in one typical statement, on Nov. 11. “The residents and businesses of this region will be protected.”

Nixon would later claim — and he reiterated Wednesday — that the level of violence surprised everyone, even though the world was watching as the grand jury decision came down that would spark it. Nixon maintains that officials were quickly faced with the choice of protecting property at the risk of escalation, or letting the property go and focusing on preventing loss of life.

“Those buildings and businesses will be rebuilt … but to say that that night we should have had a larger and broader gun fight? That would not have solved any problems,” Nixon told reporters Wednesday after an event at Roosevelt High School in St. Louis.

That rationale is of little comfort to business owners in the area, who believed that, after the destruction of the first round of riots in August, they had a promise from political and police officials that their businesses would be protected this time.

“The meetings we had with … police leaders, those meetings said the National Guard would be there and our businesses would be protected,” said Phil Hurlbut, owner of Dellwood Motor Mart on West Florissant, which was looting in both the August and November rounds of looting and sustained some $70,000 in damage and losses. “So yes, we are surprised.”

Through a spokesman, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar declined to comment.

Brown, 18, was killed Aug. 9 during an altercation with Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson. The shooting, and the subsequent decision by a St. Louis County grand jury not to indict Wilson, prompted protests, destruction and looting in the St. Louis region and around the country.

Jessica Bock, Christine Byers and David Hunn of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

©2015 St. Louis Post-Dispatch